Only a small number of companies experienced a negative “say on pay” vote this past proxy season, but many of the companies that did found themselves hit with a shareholder lawsuit in the wake of the negative vote. Cincinnati Bell is one of the companies that with both a negative vote and subsequent shareholder lawsuit. Now, in a September 20, 2011 opinion (here) that expressly references and even relies on the negative vote, Southern District of Ohio Judge Timothy S. Black denied the defendants’ ‘motion to dismiss the shareholder suit, finding that whether the defendants would be entitled to rely on the business judgment rule is a question for trial, and also finding hat the shareholders’ pre-lawsuit demand was excused.
Under Section 951 of the Dodd-Frank Act, reporting companies must seek a non-binding shareholder vote in the form of a resolution to approve the company’s executive compensation plan at least every three years. Cincinnati Bell’s 2011 proxy included a resolution seeking shareholder approval of its 2010 executive compensation plan. On May 3, 2011, 66 percent of the company’s voting shareholders voted against the resolution.
This commentary originally appeared on The D&O Diary.
Thereafter, a shareholder plaintiff filed a derivative lawsuit alleging that the company’s board breached its fiduciary duty of loyalty when it approved large pay raises and bonuses to its top three executives in a year that, according to the plaintiff, the company performed poorly. The plaintiff’s complaint specifically referenced the negative say of pay vote.
The defendant board members moved to dismiss, arguing that their actions with respect to executive compensation were protected by the business judgment rule, and arguing further that the plaintiff had failed to make the requisite pre-lawsuit demand that the board consider the claims that he asserted in his lawsuit.
In his September 20 opinion, Judge Black found that that the plaintiff had adequately alleged that the Cincinnati Bell board was not entitled to rely on the business judgment rule, and that while the defendants may attempt to rely on the business judgment rule at trial, they were entitled to rely on the rule as a basis for dismissal.
In making this ruling, Judge Black noted that the plaintiff’s factual allegations “raise a plausible claim that the multi-million dollar bonuses approved by the directors at a time of the company’s declining financial performance violated Cincinnati Bell’s pay-for-performance compensation policy and were not in the best interests of Cincinnati Bell’s shareholders and therefore constituted an abuse of discretion and/or bad faith.”
Judge Black also rejected the defendants’ argument that the plaintiff’s lawsuit must be dismissed due to the plaintiff’s failure to make a pre-lawsuit demand on the company’s board. In reaching the conclusion that the demand was excused as futile, Judge Black said that:
Given that the director defendants devised the challenged compensation, and suffered a negative shareholder vote on the compensation, plaintiff has demonstrated sufficient fact to show that there is reason to doubt these same directors could exercise their independent judgment over whether to bring suit against themselves.
In reaching both of these conclusions, Judge Black specifically referenced and even relied on the fact of the negative say on pay vote. In reaching the conclusion that the defendants were not entitled to rely on the business judgment rule at the dismissal motion stage, and in concluding in particular that the plaintiff had adequately alleged that the board’s actions were “not in the best interests of Cincinnati Bell’s shareholders,” Judge Black specifically cited the plaintiff’s allegation that the negative say on pay vote “provides direct and probative evidence that the 2010 executive compensation was not in the best interests of the Cincinnati Bell shareholders.” As noted in the preceding paragraph, Judge Black also specifically referenced the negative say on pay vote in concluding that demand was excused as futile.
As I have noted before, it is hardly surprising that there is shareholder litigation over executive compensation. Executive pay is a hot button issue that generates a great deal of interest and emotion. Indeed, in a footnote, Judge Black expressly cited a media commentary that “excessive executive compensation is the No. 1 problem in corporate governance.” This perspective clearly influenced Judge Black’s consideration of the dismissal motion.
But though the litigation itself may not be surprising, it is somewhat surprising that Judge Black in effect conceded the shareholder’s entitlement to rely on the negative say on pay vote. The Dodd-Frank Act is quite clear that the required vote is not binding on the company or its board. Moreover, Section 951(c) of the act expressly states, among other things that the shareholder vote “may not be construed” to “create or imply any change to the fiduciary duties of such issuer or board of directors” or to “create or imply any additional fiduciary duties for such issuer or board of directors.”
Judge Black acknowledged these statutory limitations on the vote’s significance. He even acknowledged the concerns of Dodd-Frank critics that the say on pay requirement will lead to “extensive, frivolous litigation.” He nevertheless quoted with approval from other sources that “a negative say on pay vote give the court evidence that there’s been a breach of duty. It doesn’t mean there’s been a breach of duty, but it can support a finding of breach.”
On the one hand, all that has happened here is that the complaint has survived a dismissal motion. That is far from a finding that the defendants have actually violated any duties. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that the defendants will context these claims all the way through trial. Most corporate and securities cases settle and their will be pressure on the defendants here to settle as well.
There is something very ironic about the fact that on the one hand the say on pay vote is nonbinding but was also expressly built to leave existing legal standard unchanged, and on the other hand the outcome of the say on pay vote can be used as a basis for denying a motion to dismiss an excessive compensation lawsuit – which in turn will create pressures for the corporate defendants to settle.
It is true that for companies whose executive compensation practices receive a positive shareholder vote, the say on pay requirement will not encourage litigation. But nevertheless, those who question whether the say on pay requirement will encourage litigation need to take a look at this case. The company’s negative say on pay vote was followed by litigation, and the outcome of the say on pay vote was used as a basis for denying the motion to dismiss. The vote created the context for the claim and also provided the plaintiffs a tool with which to maintain the claim.
As UCLA Law Professor Stephen Bainbridge said in an April 26, 2011 post on his blog (here), he knew these kinds of problems were coming when Congress incorporated the advisory say on pay provision in the Dodd-Frank legislation, having warned that the process “would be abused and turned from a supposed non-binding voting exercise into a club to beat directors with.”
The saving grace, perhaps, is that the vast majority of companies did not have a negative say on pay. However, for the companies that did, and who thereafter got caught up in shareholder litigation, these cases will be costly to defend and could be costly to resolve. These costs are a concern not only to the companies themselves but to their D&O insurers, who may wind up having to foot the bill at least for the defense expenses. All of this because of a non-binding vote that wasn’t supposed to change the legal standards in any way….
Alison Frankel notes in her post on Thomson Reuters News & Insight (here) that Judge Black’s ruling in the Cincinnati Bell case is contrary to the ruling of the Georgia state court in the Beazer Homes say on pay case.
Many thanks to Dan Gilman of SCN Strategies for providing me with a copy of Judge Black’s decision.
Kevin M. LaCroix is an attorney and executive vice president, OakBridge Insurance Services, Beachwood, Ohio. OakBridge is an insurance intermediary focused exclusively on management liability issues.