As reported in Risk & Governance Blog (1/13/10), theCorporateCounsel.net Blog (1/13/10), GlobalProxyWatch (1/15/10), and by Gary Lutin via e-mail (1/15/10), Houston-based Apache has sued shareowner activist John Chevedden, contending that he failed to meet the proof-of-ownership requirements in SEC Rule 14a-8(b) required to submit a resolution. See Apache v Chevedden.
Chevedden provided documentation of his ownership but Apache contends he didn’t submit enough information to trace the shares through to a record holder. Apache bypassed the normal route of first requesting a no-action letter from the SEC, choosing instead to go directly to court and to recover costs from Chevedden. To me, that looks like a slapp suit, designed to intimidate Chevedden and other activists with mounting legal costs and simple exhaustion.
Apache has a long history of rejecting the rights of shareowners to influence management decisions. In 2007, “G. Stephen Farris, CEO of energy company Apache, argued that shareholder proposals should be banned outright, or absent that, resubmission thresholds should be raised to 33, 40, and 45 percent.”
However, even the hard-line U.S. Chamber of Commerce questioned the legality of an all-inclusive bylaw: “Under federal case law, a corporate bylaw (to opt out of allowing shareowner resolutions) … cannot act as ‘a block or strainer to prevent’ shareholder proposals from inclusion in a company’s proxy materials.” (Non-Binding Proposals Defended, RMG, Risk & Governance, 10/12/07)
Here’s what others had to say:
As reported by Risk Metrics Group– “It’s fairly unusual for a company to sue its own investors, and it’s even more unusual to sue an investor before an SEC staff ruling,” noted Cornish Hitchcock, a Washington-based attorney who represents labor funds in no-action matters.
The RMG article says the lawsuit appears to be an attempt by Apache to get around the SEC’s no-action ruling in October 2008 that rejected a similar challenge where SEC staff said that a written statement from an “introducing broker-dealer constitutes a written statement from the ‘record’ holder of securities,” as required under the federal proxy rules.
Federal judges aren’t bound by SEC staff opinions, and may have a different opinion on what constitutes proof-of-ownership. The RMG article goes on to recount the successful activism of Chevedden and his network of retail investors in recent years on various issues. (Disclosure: I am one of those network members.) Those victories have angered corporate officials, especially when we submit more than one proposal on different topics at the same company. However, the SEC has held the group is not in violation since the filings are by different holders, with Chevedden acting essentially as our agent.
Broc Romanek, at theCorporateCounsel.net Blog, appears to share the opinion of issuers with regard to Chevedden assisting other shareowners with their proposals, “Many corporate secretaries will be cheering to hear that Chevedden was recently sued over his efforts to submit a proposal (although this situation doesn’t involve alter egos).”
Romanek goes on to quote an anonymous member of CorporateCouncil.net: “I am glad they are taking Chevedden to court. More companies should make sure his shenanigans have some real consequences. If he started getting his butt hauled into court all across the country, then his proposals would cost more than the price of a stamp.”
That attitude simply reinforces my initial opinion that this is nothing more than a slapp suit. Escalate the cost dramatically and shareowners will be too intimated to file resolutions. Chevedden’s resolution to require simple majority votes isn’t even binding on the board if passed by shareowners. My opinion is that owners of a corporation shouldn’t be dragged into court for making a suggestion to be voted on by other owners.
GlobalProxyWatch pointed out one irony: “Apache’s in-house governance domo is none other than Sarah Teslik, ex investor champion-in-chief at the Council of Institutional Investors. If Apache succeeds, expect similar tactics from other firms seeking to block resolutions like Chevedden’s.”
Gary Lutin’s e-mail notes, “Mr. Chevedden provided records that he did in fact own shares, but the financial service firms that confirmed his position did not appear in the records of registered ownership. Leaving aside the comical aspects of this case, the court filing shows clearly that our current system of defining ownership is dysfunctional.”
“Whether you think this effort to block a shareholder proposal is proper or not, I assume you will agree that there is something wrong with rules that allow this argument to be made. What seems like a simple matter of defining ‘ownership’ of stock has become a real challenge, especially in the context of recently evolved securities lending and derivatives practices, and needs to resolved before anyone can sensibly consider what kind of ‘plumbing’ hardware to order.”
I think Lutin’s comments are spot on. With street name registration, how can Apache know if Chevedden is really a shareowner? (although, appears obvious in this case that he is) How can anyone expect Chevedden to submit more in the way of proof? He’s already submitted a letter from his broker and, as I recall, another entity up the chain.
As we point out in our draft petition to the SEC, we retail shareowners aren’t really shareowners at all. We simply trade in “security entitlements.” The further we stray from direct registration, the more complicated it becomes to enforce the rights of ownership.We moved to the convoluted system we have now because it was the easiest way to get through a paperwork emergency that was bankrupting dozens of brokers. Direct registration wasn’t feasible because we didn’t have adequate computer power. Those days are over. Isn’t it time to move on to direct registration where companies know who there owners are and shareowners can more easily communicate with each other?