The drama of a retail investor fending off a sweeping lawsuit by a $33 billion corporation took a dramatic turn today, as the United States Proxy Exchange (USPX) intervened, filing an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in Federal District Court in Houston.
John Chevedden, a retail investor and champion of shareowner rights, is known for filing insightful shareowner proposals, which frequently win majority votes at shareowner meetings. Over his career, he has filed more than a thousand. Corporations, viewing his populist form of corporate governance as an irritant, have tried to shut him down before. None, however, has done so as aggressively as Apache Corp, which filed suit against Chevedden earlier this year.
The lawsuit is in response to a shareowner proposal Chevedden filed to be voted on at this year’s Apache Corp. annual meeting. Apache is seeking a decision in federal court that they may ignore the proposal, and they are asking the court to force Chevedden to cover their legal expenses. (Apache’s Brief on the Merits)
Largely frivolous, the suit centers on a poorly written SEC rule about how to document share ownership for the purpose of submitting a proposal. Chevedden followed standard procedure accepted by shareholders and corporations over many years. He forwarded to Apache a letter from his broker confirming he had held at least $2,000 of Apache stock for a year. Apache did not accept that. Technically, SEC Rule 14a-8 says that a beneficial shareowner can prove ownership by submitting “to the company a written statement from the ‘record’ holder of your securities (usually a broker or bank) verifying that, at the time you submitted your proposal, you continuously held the securities for at least one year.”
Apache’s lawyers have advanced the position—contrary to standard practice followed with shareowner proposals for years—that a letter from a shareowner’s broker is not acceptable evidence of share ownership. They define the term “record holder” so narrowly that it would be largely impossible for proponents of shareowner resolutions—even large institutional investors—to ever actually “prove” they own shares. This leads quickly into murky questions of what it actually means to “own” shares and how one might go about proving such ownership.
The questions aren’t academic. An adverse ruling in the case could shut down most shareowners’ ability to file proposals. With Chevedden representing himself against a high-priced Houston law firm, an adverse ruling was highly likely.
That outcome became more remote today with the filing of the USPX amicus curiae brief. The brief is a tour de force, exploring all aspects of the at-issue SEC rule—its history, practical implications, accepted interpretation and treatment in recent SEC staff legal bulletins and no-action letters.
James McRitchie, who publishes the CorpGov.net blog, helped write the brief. Glyn A. Holton, executive director of the USPX, was the lead author. McRitchie commented today
Wow! I’m so proud to be a signatory to this brief … I feel almost like it is part of the Declaration of Independence or something. A $33 billion company… able to hire the most expensive attorneys in the world and our side with no legal counsel …
The clock is ticking. Apache Corp has to send their proxy materials to be printed soon, and the lawsuit must determine if Chevedden’s proposal will be included. Apache’s lawyers will be scrambling this weekend to prepare a response to the USPX brief by Monday. Trying to continue with a frivolous lawsuit in the face of a compelling brief from the USPX, it is not clear what they can accomplish. This may turn into one of those rare events where a small retail investor turns the tables on a large corporation and their expensive lawyers … and actually wins. We will find out in a few days. For further information, please contact USPX Executive Director Glyn A. Holton at 617.945.2484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
OK, so maybe the quote from me was a little over the top, but I really do feel that corporations, run largely by management – not by regular employees or shareowners, have too much control… especially after Citizens United. Let’s hope the judge has enough sense to recognize this case as a SLAPP suit aimed at intimidating shareowners. I’m not ready to roll over and play dead!
In contrast to Apache, whose CEO, G. Steven Farris, argued to the SEC that non-binding resolutions should be banned outright, when AmerisourceBergen received a 2010 proposal from Ken Steiner on the same topic as the one Chevedden proposed at Apache (eliminating all supermajority vote requirements), they put the proposal on the ballot as a binding company proposal and it was approved by shareowners on March 4, 2010. (AmerisourceBergen Re-Elects Three Board Members and Reaffirms Fiscal 2010 Expectations at Annual Meeting of Stockholders, Press Release, 3/4/10)