New Developments in Executive Compensation Litigation: Delaware Chancery Court Ruling Raises Questions About the Weight Courts Will Give to Informal NYSE Interpretations

Sullivan & Cromwell LLP - June 25, 2013
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Louisiana Municipal Police Employees Retirement System v. Bergstein concerns a $120 million equity grant to the Chief Executive Officer of Simon Property Group, Inc. (“SPG”) and a related amendment to SPG’s stock incentive plan that was required to make the grant. The shareholder plaintiff alleges that the board of directors’ amendment of the plan was a breach of fiduciary duty because the plan mandated shareholder approval of amendments where required by law, regulation or applicable stock exchange rules. The defendants moved to dismiss, noting that SPG had received email confirmation from New York Stock Exchange staff that shareholder approval of the amendment was not required under NYSE rules. Ruling from the bench, Chancellor Leo E. Strine, Jr. denied SPG’s motion to dismiss, citing concerns that a staff email did not serve as a definitive interpretation of NYSE rules – particularly where, in Chancellor Stine’s view, the email to the NYSE did not adequately describe the broader circumstances.

The process SPG used is the customary one by which listed companies receive interpretations from the NYSE staff on governance matters, and Chancellor Strine’s ruling is at an early stage of the case. However, until there is more definitive guidance as to the weight that courts will give NYSE staff interpretations, listed companies should bear in mind the Chancery Court’s ruling when evaluating the weight that a court will give an NYSE email interpretation on a governance matter, particularly when evaluating whether a proposed change to an equity compensation plan would require shareholder approval.