(The following post originally appeared on ONSecurities, a top Minnesota legal blog founded by Martin Rosenbaum to address securities, governance and compensation issues facing public companies.)
Section 951 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (848-page PDF) requires that any public company, at its first shareholders meeting on or after January 21, 2011, hold two shareholder votes:
- a shareholder advisory (non-binding) vote on the executive compensation disclosed in the proxy statement (Say-on-Pay), which must be held no less frequently than once every three years, and
- a separate resolution “to determine whether Say-on-Pay votes will occur every 1, 2 or 3 years”.
The latter resolution has been called the Say-on-Pay frequency vote, or “Say When on Pay”. The Say When on Pay vote must be held no less frequently than once every 6 years. The SEC may adopt rules to exempt certain companies (including smaller companies) from these requirements.
The mechanics of implementing of the Say-on-Pay requirement are pretty clear. The shareholders get a yes-or-no advisory vote on all executive compensation disclosed in the proxy statement, which includes the compensation discussion and analysis section and the compensation tables.
The Say When on Pay vote raises a lot more mechanical issues and has created fierce debate among corporate lawyers. For example:
- The language of the statute requires that all three choices (i.e., one, two or three years) be presented to shareholders. Can a vote with three choices (as opposed to a vote for or against a resolution) be accomplished consistent with state corporate law and the bylaws of particular companies?
- If all three choices are presented, no one choice may get a majority. Can the bylaws specify a plurality vote, just as director elections are decided?
- Rule 14a-4(b) under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 requires that a public company proxy card allow shareholders to specify approval, disapproval or an abstention with respect to each matter being voted on, other than elections to office. Does this rule prohibit a single vote on all three choices and if so, will the SEC amend the rule to allow for such a vote?
- Can a company consistent with the Act adopt a “default” frequency for Say-on-Pay in its bylaws (e.g., every three years) and provide that this frequency can only be overridden by a majority vote for one of the other alternatives?
The SEC may clarify the situation, but public companies should start reviewing their bylaws and state corporate law and think about how to deal with the Say When on Pay vote. As the SEC weighs in or there are further developments, I will report them here. Companies should also consider what frequency they are going to recommend for Say-on-Pay votes – annual, biennial or triennial. This issue needs to be considered carefully, as I will discuss in a future post.