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Revitalizing SEC Rule 14a-8's Ordinary Business Exemption: Preventing Shareholder Micromanagement by Proposal

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Who decides what products a company should sell, what prices it should charge, and so on? Is it the board of directors, the top management team, or the shareholders? In large corporations, of course, the answer is the top management team operating under the supervision of the board. As for the shareholders, they traditionally have had no role in these sort of operational decisions. In recent years, however, shareholders have increasingly used SEC Exchange Act Rule 14a-8 (the so-called shareholder proposal rule), to not just manage but even micromanage corporate decisions.

The rule permits a qualifying shareholder of a public corporation registered with the SEC to force the company to include a resolution and supporting statement in the company’s proxy materials for its annual meeting. In theory, Rule 14a-8 contains limits on shareholder micro-management. The rule permits management to exclude proposals on a number of both technical and substantive bases, of which the exclusion in Rule 14a-8(i)(7) of proposals relating to ordinary business operations is the most pertinent for present purposes. Rule 14a-8(i)(7) is intended to permit exclusion of a proposal that “seeks to ‘micro-manage’ the company by probing too deeply into matters of a complex nature upon which shareholders, as a group, would not be in a position to make an informed judgment.”

Unfortunately, court decisions have largely eviscerated the ordinary business operations exclusion. Corporate decisions involving “matters which have significant policy, economic or other implications inherent in them” may not be excluded as ordinary business matters, for example, which creates a gap through which countless proposals have made it onto corporate proxy statements.

This article proposes an alternative standard that is grounded in relevant state corporate law principles, while also being easier to administer than the existing judicial tests. Under it, courts first look to the state law definition of ordinary business matters. The court then determines whether the matter is one of substance rather than procedure. Only proposals passing muster under both standards should be deemed proper.

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