The SEC published guidance to assist public companies, investment companies, shareholders, and other market participants affected by COVID-19 with their upcoming annual shareholder meetings. The guidance is designed to facilitate the ability of companies to hold these meetings, including through the use of technology, and engage with shareholders while complying with the federal securities laws.
Changing the Date, Time, or Location of an Annual Meeting
According to the guidance, the staff understands that some issuers are contemplating possible changes in the date, time, or location of their annual meetings due to the difficulties arising from COVID-19. In light of these difficulties, the staff will take the position that an issuer that has already mailed and filed its definitive proxy materials can notify shareholders of a change in the date, time, or location of its annual meeting without mailing additional soliciting materials or amending its proxy materials if it:
- issues a press release announcing such change;
- files the announcement as definitive additional soliciting material on EDGAR; and
- takes all reasonable steps necessary to inform other intermediaries in the proxy process (such as any proxy service provider) and other relevant market participants (such as the appropriate national securities exchanges) of such change.
The SEC expects issuers to take these actions promptly after making a decision to change the date, time, or location of the meeting and sufficiently in advance of the meeting so the market is alerted to the change in a timely manner. To the extent that issuers have not yet mailed and filed their definitive proxy materials, they should consider whether to include disclosures regarding the possibility that the date, time, or location of the annual meeting will change due to COVID-19. Such determination should be made based on each issuer’s particular facts and circumstances and the reasonable likelihood of such a change.
“Virtual” Shareholder Meetings
COVID-19 has generated increased interest in virtual shareholders’ meetings where permitted by state law. According to the SEC, to the extent an issuer plans to conduct a “virtual” or “hybrid” meeting, the staff expects the issuer to notify its shareholders, intermediaries in the proxy process, and other market participants of such plans in a timely manner and disclose clear directions as to the logistical details of the “virtual” or “hybrid” meeting, including how shareholders can remotely access, participate in, and vote at such meeting. For issuers that have not yet filed and delivered their definitive proxy materials, such disclosures should be in the definitive proxy statement and other soliciting materials. Issuers that have already filed and mailed their definitive proxy materials would not need to mail additional soliciting materials (including new proxy cards) solely for the purpose of switching to a “virtual” or “hybrid” meeting if they follow the steps described above for announcing a change in the meeting date, time, or location.
Presentation of Shareholder Proposals
Exchange Act Rule 14a-8(h) requires shareholder proponents, or their representatives, to appear and present their proposals at the annual meeting. In light of the possible difficulties for shareholder proponents to attend annual meetings in person to present their proposals, the staff encourages issuers, to the extent feasible under state law, to provide shareholder proponents or their representatives with the ability to present their proposals through alternative means, such as by phone, during the 2020 proxy season.
Furthermore, to the extent a shareholder proponent or representative is not able to attend the annual meeting and present the proposal due to the inability to travel or other hardships related to COVID-19, the staff would consider this to be “good cause” under Rule 14a-8(h) should issuers assert Rule 14a-8(h)(3) as a basis to exclude a proposal submitted by the shareholder proponent for any meetings held in the following two calendar years.