On May 25, 2011, In the latest example of shareholders suing a company’s board following a negative “say on pay” vote, two union pension funds filed a shareholders’ derivative action claiming that Umpqua Holdings Corporation’s board violated its duties to investor by approving the2010 compensation plan despite the negative shareholder vote.. The lawsuit follows the April 19 annual meeting of the bank holding company, in which about 62% of shareholders voted “no” in the advisory shareholder vote on the company’s 2010 executive compensation plan. The claims asserted in the lawsuit rely directly on the negative note.
As I discussed in a recent post (here), Section 951 of the Dodd-Frank Act expressly requires all but the smallest publicly traded companies to hold an advisory shareholder vote on executive compensation. This requirement has already started to have an impact on executive compensation practices, as many companies are adjusting certain compensation practices to avoid a negative vote. However, while the vast majority of companies have received shareholder support for their compensation practices, there are still some companieswhose shareholders have voted “no” on the shareholder resolution regarding executive compensation. (At last count, according to The CorporateCounsel.net, there were over thirty companies whose “say on pay” resolutions had received a negative vote from a majority of their shareholders).
Umpqua’s “Say on Pay” Vote
As reflected in the company’s April 22, 2011 filing on Form 8-K, Umpqua is among those companies receiving a negative say on pay vote. The 8-K reflects that about 62% of shareholders voted against the company’s executive compensation shareholder resolution.
The 8-K explains that the negative vote followed a recommendation from Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) that Umpqua’s shareholders vote against the resolution. The 8-K states that ISS found a “disconnect” between the company’s 2010 executive compensation and the company’s pay-for-performance standards. The 8-K states that the company takes the vote “seriously” and that it is committed to pay-for-performance principles. Nevertheless, the company takes exception to the ISS’s “formulaic” approach which, the company contends, inappropriately viewed 2010 compensation only by comparison to 2009 compensation, when the company’s executive compensation declined 29%. The company contended that the 2010 compensation plan is reasonable in light of prior compensation and in light of the company’s overall performance, particularly relative to its peers.
On May 25, 2011, two union pension funds filed a shareholder derivative lawsuit in the District of Oregon against the company, as nominal defendant; against the company’s individual board members; against four company executives; and against the company’s compensation consultant, PricewaterhouseCoopers. The complaint alleges that the Board’s “decisions to increase CEO and top executive pay in 2010, despite the Company’s severely impaired financial results, were disloyal, irrational, and unreasonable, and not the product of a valid exercise of business judgment.”
The complaint further asserts that the board’s approval of the 2010 pay hikes “violated its own pay-for-performance policy and, as intended, favored the interests of Umpqua’s CEO and top executives at the expense of the corporation and its shareholders.”
The complaint attempts to use the negative say on pay vote to try to avert the defendants’ reliance on the business judgment rule. The complaint states that the “adverse shareholder vote on the 2010 executive compensation is evidence which rebutted” the usual business judgment presumption. The complaint further states with reference to the negative shareholder vote that the company’s shareholders “concluded, in their independent business judgment, that the Umpqua Boar’s 2010 CEO and top executive pay hikes were not in the best interest of Umpqua and its shareholders.”
The complaint asserts a claim against the directors for breach of the duty of loyalty; against the compensation consultant for aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duties and breach of contract; and against the four executive officers for unjust enrichment. The complaint seeks an award to Umpqua for damages; a declaration that the shareholder vote “rebutted the presumption of business judgment”; disgorgement of the allegedly excess compensation and implementation and administration of internal controls and systems to prevent excess executive compensation.
At this point, it seems clear that plaintiffs’ bar intends to try to utilize a negative “say on pay” vote, in at least some instances, to try to bootstrap claims for allegedly excess executive compensation. At one level, this is hardly surprising, because the negative vote does create the possibility of the board appearing to be acting contrary to shareholders’ views. And executive pay unquestionably is a hot button issue right now.
But on the other hand, the vote required under the Dodd Frank is expressly and explicitly an “advisory” vote. Congress could have made the say on pay vote binding. The fact that Congress did not make it controlling but rather left the vote as advisory clearly allows for the possibility that the company and its board retained discretion and might elect to act contrary to the shareholder vote without acting improperly. Indeed, Section 951 (c) of the Dodd Frank Act expressly states that the say on pay requirement should not be interpreted to alter any existing fiduciary duties or to create any new fiduciary duties. Congress seemed to be going out of its way to try to avoid having the say on pay process to add compulsion or to the legal exposures of directors and officers.
Indeed, given the express statutory provisions to make the vote advisory and to try to prevent against having the vote add to directors’ legal exposures, it seems clear that Congress was hoping that the vote, and the threat of the vote, would cause companies voluntarily to adjust their compensation practices, — not out of fear of liability but out of a desire to maintain the affirmative support of shareholders. Indeed, that in fact seems to be happening, as many companies have adjusted their practices in order to try to avoid a negative shareholder vote.
Despite Dodd-Frank’s express provisions designed to eliminate the possibility that the say on pay vote should alter the legal responsibilities of directors and officers, the plaintiffs in this case are seeking to rely on the negative say on pay vote to argue that the defendants are not entitled to the usual protections of the business judgment rule. The plaintiffs do not explain why a purely advisory vote, which by its own enacting provisions is not intended to alter or create additional legal duties, should nevertheless deprive the board of the usual protections to which they are entitled.
The lawsuit has only just been filed and it remains to be seen how it will progress. But it will be interesting to see if the plaintiffs are successful in having the defendants’ rights to rely on the business judgment rule suppressed.
The company itself seems to think that the best defense is a good offense, as the company’s spokesperson is quoted in a May 27, 2011 Portland Business Journal article as saying with respect to the plaintiffs’ firm that brought the suit, “our understanding of this firm is they create fees by dragging the names of reputable companies through the mud.”
Our Solar System’s Family Album: A wide variety of probes and vessels have been cruising the planets, taking some amazing pictures in the process. The truly stunning highlights are compiled in a May 27, 2011 post (here), on the InFocus blog on the Atlantic Monthly’s website.