The advisory shareholder vote required under the Dodd Frank Act went through its first cycle in 2011, and by and large most companies’ shareholders approved the companies’ executive compensation plans. Only about 45 companies (less than 2%) received negative “say on pay” votes from a majority of investors. But that does not mean that the say on pay process was an empty exercise. Indeed, as we move forward in the second year of advisory votes, the impact of the say on pay process may now start to tell.


First, as detailed in a February 22, 2010 Wall Street Journal article entitled “ ‘Say on Pay’ Changes Ways” (here), many of the companies that sustained negative say on pay votes last year “are working hard to avoid an embarrassing repeat as annual meeting season begins again.” According to the Journal article, “the boards of many of the companies that failed the votes have consulted with investors and hired outside compensation advisers and proxy solicitors” and some “have made broader management changes that could help remedy performance issues at the heart of some shareholder concerns about pay.”


According to the Journal article, two of the companies that sustained negative say on pay votes last year – Beazer Homes USA and Jacobs Engineering – have already obtained positive say on pay votes this year with over 95% shareholder approval


The impact of the first say on pay cycle was not limited just to companies that sustained a negative vote last year. Institutional investors themselves have also been affected by the first cycle of votes. In a very interesting February 22, 2012 post on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation entitled “Lessons Learned: The Inaugural Year of Say-on-Pay” (here), Anne Sheehan, the Director of Corporate Governance at the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), comments that “the first year of Say-on-Pay was a learning opportunity as it helped us to refine our voting process for future years.” Her article makes it clear that not only did CalSTRS vote against many company’s pay packages last year, it may well do so again this year. In 2011, CalSTRS cast 23% percent negative say on pay votes.


In her post, Sheehan explains, with reference to CalSTRS, that “we believe that poorly structured pay packages harm shareholder value by unfairly enriching executives at the expense of owners – the shareholders.” She explained that CalSTRS “predominately voted against companies’ Say-on-Pay proposals because of disconnects between pay and performance.” In consideration of its 2012 votes, CalSTRS intends to focus on companies whose peer group comparisons lead to pay packages targeted to produce above the median, “particularly when companies targeted the 75th or 90th percentile.” CalSTRS is concerned about companies that are “over paying for on-par or below-average performance.”


Sheehan’s post and her description of the approach of CalSTRS heading into the second say-on-pay cycle makes it clear that there will be continued pressure on many companies regarding their compensation practices and disclosures, not just the relatively few companies that sustained negative votes in 2011.


The threats companies face as result of the say on pay process include not just investor scrutiny, but also even the possibility of shareholder litigation. As discussed in prior posts on this blog (refer for example here and here), some of the negative say on pay votes last year were followed by shareholder litigation regarding executive compensation issues.


To be sure, the number of these cases was relatively small, perhaps fewer than ten out of the roughly 45 companies that had negative say on pay votes. And many of these suits have been dismissed based on the application of the business judgment rule. In effect, courts have generally proceeded on the assumption that compensation is a matter within the board’s business judgment, although at least one court in a case involving Cincinnati Bell did decline to dismiss a say-on=p-pay lawsuit.


As discussed in a February 5, 2012 memo from Kenneth B. Davis, Jr. and Keith L. Johnson of the Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren law firm entitled “Say-on-Pay Lawsuits – Is This Time Different?” (here), “boards would be ill advised to take too much comfort in the belief that the business judgment rule will always be held to immunize compensation decisions from shareholder attack in the face of a substantial negative say-on-pay note.” In particular, the authors contend, “companies that fail to adequately explain and support their compensation awards will increasingly find themselves targeted for follow-up, through whatever means and remedies investors have available.”


The memo authors’ views in this regard to a large extent mirror the sentiments Sheehan expressed in her blog post. The authors state that “the early reports are that with the experience of the first season of say-on-pay behind them, many institutional investors are now prepared to take a more active role in identifying and opposing the compensation arrangements they find troublesome.” Among the motivations behind this focus on compensation is a perception that the say-on-pay focus may be “the best remaining avenue for challenging ineffective boards.” For that reason, many institutional investors intend to “ramp up focus” on the votes and in particular to “vote against boards that are unresponsive to shareholder concerns.”


As a result of all of this, the authors conclude that disgruntled investors unhappy with board responsiveness on compensation issues will continue to consider litigation as an option. In fact, the authors “expect the volume of this litigation will likely increase.” Companies “should continue to consider litigation risk among the many costs of failing to win substantial shareholder support for their executive compensation arrangements.”


The authors conclude that in order to reduce litigation risk and increase investor support, boards should “improve their disclosures around executive compensation, engage with and respond to legitimate shareholder concerns and attend to removing both conflicts of interest and behavioral biases from the board’s compensation oversight practices.”


How all of this will play out remains to be seen. At a minimum, it seems clear that even though the say on pay vote is merely advisory, it remains a matter of significance even as it enters its second year. Institutional investors clearly intend to try to use the vote as a means to try to address executive compensation issues. The continued focus has a number of significant implications for companies, including in particular the possibility of litigation risk for companies sustaining a negative say on pay vote.


Special thanks to Ken Davis for sending me a copy of his interesting article on Say-on-Pay litigation.