In February, the Department of Justice’s Fraud Section offered a new perspective on what the government expects in a compliance program in the form of a series of questions that companies should be prepared to answer about their program. Although some reported these questions provided limited, if any, new information, we see it differently. The guidance offers companies an unusually detailed roadmap for building or assessing their compliance program when it is explored in conjunction with past guidance.
This is the first in a series of posts where we will explore key topics for companies of all sizes from the questions posed within the recent guidance.
A commitment from high-level management is typically the first compliance component discussed in government guidance and Deferred Prosecution Agreements. Commonly referred to as “Tone at the Top,” this critical concept has previously been described in vague, generic ways. See, for example, this excerpt from Attachment C of DOJ’s recent DPA with Embraer S.A., which is identical to language in many other agreements:
“The Company will ensure that its directors and senior management provide strong, explicit, and visible support and commitment to its corporate policy against violations of the anti-corruption laws and its compliance code.”
Without fanfare or forewarning, the US Department of Justice released new anti-corruption compliance guidance on February 8, 2017. The eight page document provides rare insight into the government’s evaluation of corporate compliance programs. Companies designing compliance programs, conducting internal investigations, or facing a bribery or books and records-related government inquiry can now look to the appropriately titled “Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs” for a hint at the types of questions they should be prepared to answer.
As emphasized in the Department of Justice and Security and Exchange Commission’s November 2012 FCPA Resource guide, DOJ’s recent guidance again reinforces that a compliance program should be individualized to a company’s risk profile, and so should the government’s evaluation of the program. The guidance is clearly not a checklist that applies to all. It does, however, provide more detail about the way a company should evaluate its own program. Companies can leverage the information to design more robust compliance programs and better respond to potential violations. READ MORE
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the acting Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission has centralized authority to issue formal orders of investigation – a critical authority that triggers the ability of SEC staff attorneys to issue subpoenas. The move, which was not publicized by the SEC, would curb existing powers of the Commission’s enforcement staff.
Since 2009, the power to issue formal orders of investigation had been “sub-delegated” to about 20 senior attorneys within the SEC’s Enforcement Division. However, according to the Journal report, acting SEC Chairman Michael Piwowar ordered the authority to be centralized exclusively with the Director of Enforcement. READ MORE
On February 9, 2017, the Supreme Court of Delaware summarily affirmed the Court of Chancery’s decision in In re Volcano Corp. Stockholder Litigation which had dismissed plaintiffs’ complaint on defendants’ 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.
Plaintiffs, former stockholders of Volcano Corporation, had brought an action against defendants for breaches of fiduciary duty arising from the all-cash merger between Volcano and Philips Holding USA Inc. The parties had disputed what standard of review the Court of Chancery should apply: the Revlon test, as plaintiffs claimed, because Volcano’s stockholders received cash for their shares, or the irrebuttable business judgment rule, as defendants argued, because Volcano’s stockholders were “fully informed, uncoerced, and disinterested” when they approved the merger by tendering a majority of Volacano’s shares into a tender offer. As the Court of Chancery explained, if a business judgment rule is irrebuttable, plaintiffs could only challenge the transaction on the basis of waste. Thus, plaintiffs also argued in the alternative that if the business judgment rule did apply, it should only be a rebuttable presumption.
On January 12, 2017 the SEC announced its Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) priorities for the year, including areas of focus for Retail Investors, Senior Investors and Retirement Investments, Market-wide risks, FINRA oversight, and cybersecurity. These priorities reflect an extension of previous years’ commitments, in particular with regard to focus on the retirement industry and cybersecurity. The “Regulation Systems Compliance and Integrity” (Regulation SCI) adopted by the SEC in November 2014 will also be a continued focus.
Once again, protection of retail investors is of primary concern for the OCIE. Among the detailed areas of focus are examining risks related to electronic investment advice, “wrap fee” programs where investors are charged a single fee for bundled advisory and brokerage services, and “Never-before examined” Investment advisers, an initiative that was started in 2014 to engage with newly-registered advisers that had never-before been examined. Examination of Exchange-Traded funds (ETFs) and continuation of the ReTIRE initiative are two carryovers from 2016 priorities . The OCIE previously identified ETFs, which are sometimes seen as alternatives to mutual funds, for examination related to compliance with the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Investment Company Act of 1940. ReTIRE, launched in June 2015, places particular focus on those SEC-registered investment advisers and broker dealers who offer retirement-oriented investment services to retail investors, including examining whether there is a reasonable basis for the recommendations made. This year, the SEC will expand ReTIRE to include “assessing controls surrounding cross-transactions, particularly with respect to fixed income securities.”
The SEC recently proposed amendments to the proxy voting rules to require parties in a contested election to use universal proxy cards that would include the names of all board of director nominees. This proposed change would eliminate the two “competing slates” cards and allow shareholders to vote for their preferred combination of board candidates, as they could if they voted in person.
The new rules would apply to all non-exempt votes for contested elections other than those involving registered investment companies and business development companies, would require management and dissidents to provide each other with advance notice of the names of their nominees, and would set formatting requirements for the universal proxy cars. As with any newly proposed SEC rule, there will be a comment period of 60 days to solicit public opinion.
Interestingly, the Commission’s vote to adopt the newly proposed rules was a split decision, with Commissioner Piwowar issuing a strongly worded dissent. According to Commissioner Piwowar, the proposed universal proxy rules “would increase the likelihood of proxy fights at public companies,” and would allow special interest groups to “use their increased influence to advance their own special interests at the expense of shareholders.” He also noted that under the new rules, dissidents are only required to solicit holders of shares representing a majority of those entitled to vote, meaning that many retail investors will not receive either the dissident’s proxy statement or disclosures about the dissident’s nominees.
On June 6, 2016, the Supreme Court of Delaware affirmed a decision of the Chancery Court finding that corporate directors and officers involved in a sales transaction breached a contract with option holders to fairly value their options (see here for a thorough explanation of the Chancery Court decision, and in particular, the Court’s criticism of the retained financial advisers that provided a valuation analysis). The Supreme Court decision also included a disproportionately lengthy dissent condemning both the Chancery Court’s findings and its reliance on “social science studies” to reach them.
On May 31, 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court rejected shareholders’ allegations of corporate wrongdoing in a derivative suit against a national healthcare company, Bioscrip, holding that Plaintiff failed to adequately allege demand futility with respect to Bioscrip’s board of directors. For the first time, the Delaware Court found that Plaintiff was required to demonstrate demand futility with respect to the board of directors that was in place after shareholders filed their derivative complaint. Park Emps.’ & Ret. Bd. Emps.’ Annuity & Ben. Fund v. Smith, No. 11000-VCG (Ch. May 31, 2016).
On May 19, 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court preliminarily enjoined the directors of Cogentix Medical from reducing the size of the company’s board because, under the facts presented, there was a reasonable probability that the board reduction plan was implemented to defeat insurgent candidates in a contested director election. Pell v. Kill, C.A. No. 12251-VCL (Del. Ch. May 19, 2016). The decision is a reminder that board actions that affect the shareholder vote—particularly decisions that make it more difficult for stockholders to elect directors not supported by management—will be subject to enhanced judicial scrutiny by Delaware courts on the lookout with a “gimlet eye” for conduct having a preclusive or coercive effect on the stockholder vote.
On May 6, 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Delaware Chancery Court’s ruling that Zale Corporation’s sale to Signet Jewelers withstood scrutiny under the business judgment rule because the transaction was approved by a fully-informed, uncoerced vote of the disinterested stockholders, and that an aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty claim against Zale’s financial advisor failed as a matter of law where the plaintiff failed to establish that the Zale board had acted with gross negligence. In so holding, the Court reaffirmed its holding in Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015), that in cases in which Revlon would otherwise apply, approval of the transaction by a fully-informed, uncoerced majority of disinterested stockholders invokes the deferential business judgment rule standard of review. While the Court also affirmed the Chancery Court’s dismissal of the aiding and abetting claim against Zale’s financial advisor, it called the Chancery Court’s reasoning for the dismissal into doubt and sounded a cautionary note to gatekeepers that they are not insulated from liability merely because they are alleged to have aided and abetted a non-exculpated breach of fiduciary duty by their director clients.