On March 27, 2012, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (of the JOBS Act as it is more popularly known). President Obama is expected to sign the Act shortly. The Act is intended to facilitate capital-raising by reducing regulatory burdens. The Act also introduces changes designed to ease the IPO process for certain smaller companies. Among many other things, the Act introduces changes that could impact the potential liability exposures of directors and officers of both public and private companies. A copy of the Act can be found here.
The Act’s Provisions
Emerging Growth Companies and the IPO Process: Many of the changes in the JOBS Act are geared toward “emerging growth companies” (EGCs), which are defined broadly in the Act as companies with annual gross revenues under $1 billion in the most recent fiscal year. EGCs are relieved of certain disclosure requirements in their IPO filings. EGCs are also allowed to file their IPO registration statement for SEC review on a confidential basis. The Act allows EGCs to “test the waters” for a prospective IPO by allowing the companies to meet with qualified institutional investors or institutional accredited investors notwithstanding the pending offering. In addition, the Act allows EGCs to discern the level of prospective investor interest in the offering by allowing analysts to publish research relating to an EGC notwithstanding the pending IPO.
Reduced Disclosure Requirements for Emerging Growth Companies: The Act also provides for reduced disclosure and reporting burdens for EGCs for a period of as long as five years after an IPO, as long as the company continues to meet the definitional requirements. In these provisions, the Act unwinds many of the requirements Congress only recently added through the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and in the Dodd-Frank Act.
For example, an EGC will not be subject to the requirements fo an auditor attestation report on internal controls as otherwise required under Section 404(b) of the Sarbanes Oxley Act. Similarly, an EGC would be exempt from the requirements under the Dodd-Frank Act to hold shareholder advisory votes on executive compensation and on golden parachutes. EGCs also are exempt from recently enacted requirements regarding executive compensation disclosures. For example, they exempt from the requirement to calculate pay versus performance ratios and the ratio of compensation of the CEO to the median compensation of all employees. The EGCs also are not required to comply with new or revised financial accountings standards until private companies are also required to comply with the revised standard.
Private Capital Fundraising, Revised Registration Thresholds: The Act also introduces a number of reforms relating to private capital-raising. For example, the JOBS Act also eliminates the prohibition on “general solicitation and general advertising” applicable to Rule 144A offerings, provided the securities are sold only to persons reasonably believed to be qualified institutional investors. The JOBS Act also raises the threshold number of investors that would trigger the Exchange Act registration requirements. Instead of the current threshold of 500 investors, the AC specifies that companies will only be required to register their securities only after they have over $10 million in assets and equity securities held either by 2,000 persons or by 500 persons who are not accredited investors.
Crowdfunding: The Act also introduces measure designed to allow companies to use “crowdfunding” to raise small amounts of capital through online platforms. The provisions create a new exemption from registration for private companies selling no more than $1 million of securities within any 12-month period and so long as the amount sold to any one investor does not exceed specified per investor annual income and net worth limitations. The crowdfunding provisions specify that the online portals participating in these types of offerings to register with the SEC. The Act also requires the issuing companies to provide certain specified information to the SEC, investors and to the portal. The Act expressly incorporates provisions imposing liability on crowdsourcing issuers for misrepresentations and omissions in the offerings, on terms similar to the existing provisions of Section 12 of the ’33 Act.
As if often the case when legislation introduces significant innovations, it will remain to be seen how all of these changes will ultimately play out. (I am assuming here that President Obama will sign the bill in due course.) This uncertainty is increased where, as here, many of the Act’s provisions (such as, for example, the crowdfunding provisions) are subject to significant additional rulemaking.
The provisions modifying the IPO process for EGSs unquestionably could encourage some smaller companies to “test the waters” and perhaps even to go public sooner. The reduced compliance and disclosure requirements for EGCs unquestionably could reduce the post-IPO costs for the qualifying companies.
The Act’s exemptions for the EGCs from many of the compliance and disclosure requirements that Congress only recently imposed on all public companies at least potentially could reduce the liability exposures for Emerging Growth Companies and for their directors and officers. For example, a company that does not have to conduct a say-on-pay vote is not going to get hit with a say on pay lawsuit. Similarly, the elimination of requirements for executive compensation disclosures eliminates the possibility that those companies could be subject to allegations that the compensation disclosures were misleading.
By the same token, the Act arguable introduces provisions that could increase the potential liabilities of some companies. For example, Section 302(c) of the Act expressly imposes liability on issuers and their directors and officers for material misrepresentations and omissions made to investors in connection with a crowdfunding offering. The crowdsourcing provisions are subject to rulemaking, but the rules must be provided within 270-days of the Act’s enactment. Among other things, the rulemaking will clarify the crowdsfunding issuer’s disclosure requirements.
It is worth noting that these crowdfunding provisions may blur the clarity of the division between private and public companies. The crowdfunding provisions seem to expressly contemplate that a private company would be able to engage in crowdfunding financing activities without assuming public company reporting obligations. Yet at the same time, that same private company will be required to make certain disclosure filings with the SEC in connection with the offering and could potentially incur liability under Section 302(c) of the JOBS Act.
These and many other changes introduced in the Act could require the D&O insurance industry to make changes in its underwriting and perhaps in policy forms to accommodate these changes. As was the case with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Dodd-Frank Act, the D&O insurance industry may face a long period where it must try to assess the impact of changes introduced by this broad, new legislation. Though many of the Act’s provisions seem likely to reduce the potential scope of liability for many companies (particularly the EGCs), the Act could also introduce other changes that might result in increased potential liability for other companies (particularly those resorting to crowdfunding financing).
As a final point, it is worth noting that President Obama has still not even signed the Act but questions about the Act are already being raised. For example, an April 2, 2012 Wall Street Journal article, noting the post-IPO accounting disclosures of discount coupon company Groupon, raised the concern that if the JOBS Act had been in place, Groupon would have been able to confidentially submit its IPO documents to the SEC, allowing its pre-IPO accounting concerns to remain below the radar. Undoubtedly, further questions will be asked as the JOBS Act goes into force and its provisions are implemented.
Several law firms have issued helpful memos on the Jobs Act. A March 29, 2012 memo from the Paul Weiss law firm can be found here. A March 2012 memo from the Jones Day law firm can be found here. Very special thanks to the several readers who sent me links or asked questions about the JOBS Act.
Supreme Court Issues Unanimous Opinion in Section 19(B) Statute of Limitations: Perhaps because the issues involved are technical, there was little notice paid to to the U.S. Supreme Court’s March 26, 2012 issuance of its unanimous opinion in the Credit Suisse Securities (USA) LLC v. Simmonds case. The Court’s opinion, which was written by Justice Antonin Scalia, can be found here.
As discussed here, the Supreme Court had taken up the case to address the question whether the two-year statute of limitation period applicable to claims for short-swing profits under Section 16(b) of the Securities Exchange Act are subject to tolling, and if so, what is required to resume the running of the statute.
The Court held that the failure of a person subject to Section 16 to file the specified disclosure statement does not indefinitely toll the two-year statute of limitations. The Court said that even if the statute were subject to equitable tolling for fraudulent concealment, the tolling ceases when the facts are or should have been discovered by the plaintiff, regardless of when the disclosure statement was filed. The Court said that the traditional principles of equitable tolling should apply and remanded the case to the district court to determine how those principles should be applied in this case. The Court split 4-4 on the question of whether the two-year statute functions as a statute of repose that is not subject to tolling.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on this technical issue regarding the application of the statute of limitations for short-swing profit claims does not have a widespread impact. However, the Court’s decision eliminates the possibility that the statute could be tolled indefinitely, as arguably might have been the impact of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in the case.
Point/Counterpoint on the "Dip" in Securities Class Action Settlements: In a prior post (here), I discussed the recent Cornerstone Research report detailing the "dip" in securities class action settlements in 2011. In an April 2, 2012 post on the New York Times Dealbook blog (here), two attorneys, Daniel Tyiukody of the Goodwin Proctor firm and Gerald Silk of the Bernstein Litowitz firm, provide their contrasting points of virew on the reported "dip." The bottom line is that the kinds of cases that have been filed in recent years have been taking longer to settle — and there are a lot of cases, particularly related to the credit crisis, in the pipeline. Silk also notes that there have been fewer restatements in recent years, and also that there have been more individual (non-class) securities that have been filed.