SEC Opens Floodgates for ESG Proposals

In another victory for ESG proponents with the Securities and Exchange Commission, on November 3, 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Corporation Finance issued Staff Legal Bulletin 14L which rescinds previously issued interpretive guidance related to a company’s ability to exclude ESG-related shareholder proposals from its proxy statement. Bulletin 14L effectively realigns the staff’s approach for determining whether a shareholder proposal relates to “ordinary business” which, under Rule 14a-8(i)(7) can serve as the basis for a company’s exclusion of a shareholder proposal.

The Bulletin explains that the staff will no longer focus on determining the nexus between a policy issue and the company, but will instead focus on the social policy significance of the issue that is the subject of the shareholder proposal. In making this determination, the staff will consider whether the proposal raises issues with a broad societal impact, such that they transcend the ordinary business of the company.

Under this realigned approach, proposals that the staff previously viewed as excludable because they did not appear to raise a policy issue of significance for the company may no longer be viewed as excludable under Rule 14a-8(i)(7). For example, proposals squarely raising human capital management issues with a broad societal impact would not be subject to exclusion solely because the proponent did not demonstrate that the human capital management issue was significant to the company.

Corp Fin will no longer expect the board analysis described in the rescinded Bulletins as part of demonstrating that the proposal is excludable under the ordinary business exclusion. Bulletin 14L adopts a similar approach to Rule 14a-8(i)(5)’s economic relevance exclusion, and the staff will also no longer require a board analysis for that exclusion.

KMK Law articles and blog posts are intended to bring attention to developments in the law and are not intended as legal advice for any particular client or any particular situation. The laws/regulations and interpretations thereof are evolving and subject to change. Although we will attempt to update articles/blog posts for material changes, the article/post may not reflect changes in laws/regulations or guidance issued after the date the article/post was published. Please consult with counsel of your choice regarding any specific questions you may have.

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