In an era where TikTok stars outearn scores of CEOs of top earning publicly traded companies, executive compensation is no less important to the investing public or to companies striving to attract and retain top talent. Indeed, just this year the CEO of Starbucks received a 39% pay increase. Such soaring executive compensation has not escaped the notice of the SEC.
Erica Jones is an associate in the firm’s Litigation Department, where her practice encompasses a range of business, regulatory, and corporate governance matters. She has worked extensively in defense of securities class actions, derivative suits, and white collar criminal matters involving investigations by the SEC, DOJ, and state attorneys’ offices. In addition, Erica has advised on antitrust matters involving allegations of price fixing, restraint of supply, monopolization, group boycott, bid rigging, and collusion across industries that include agriculture and health care. She is also a member of the litigation team representing the Financial Oversight and Management Board in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy proceedings.
Erica maintains an active, diverse pro bono practice, with a focus on immigration law, compassionate release and habeas corpus, and racial justice. She is an associate trustee with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and has been recognized by the District of Columbia Courts’ Capital Pro Bono Honor Roll. Erica was also one of a few women selected to be a Protégée for Proskauer’s Women Sponsorship Program, an initiative for high performing midlevel lawyers that champions emerging leaders.
Erica strives to stay on the cutting edge of developing areas of law through her membership in Proskauer’s COVID-19 Task Force, ESG Working Group, and Private Credit Litigation Group. Erica’s ability to advocate for her clients is further bolstered by her recent Master’s Degree in Accounting from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School with a concentration in Financial Reporting and Analysis.
Prior to joining Proskauer, Erica was an intern with the Department of Justice in the Constitutional and Specialized Tort Litigation Section. Outside of her career in the law, Erica has been featured on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance, teaching ballroom dance to students at Lighthouse for the Blind.
The acronym “ESG” is shorthand for environmental, social, and governance concerns. In recent years, companies have used “ESG” to refer to initiatives involving climate change, responding to racial injustice, and supporting workers’ rights. The “S” in ESG can be a bit nebulous, however, as “social” may refer to any number of issues affecting a corporation, its stakeholders, and the community at large. For example, children’s privacy has always been a hot button social issue, but it has only gained traction during the COVID-19 pandemic as children have transitioned to remote learning and socializing online more than ever before. And a derivative lawsuit suggests that companies may want to ensure they are responding to child privacy concerns as part of their regular ESG practices and policies.
While we are growing accustomed to pandemic-based shareholder actions relating to improper health and safety disclosures or misrepresentations relating to COVID-19 treatments and tests, this month brings a novel variant of the COVID-19 lawsuit. A Universal Health Services Inc. investor has filed a derivative suit against company officers and directors, claiming they took advantage of a pandemic-related drop in the company’s stock price to grant and receive certain stock options that were unfair to the company and its stockholders. The plaintiff investor claims that “company insiders took advantage of the temporary drop in the company’s stock price to grant and receive options to buy the company’s stock at rock bottom prices, thereby showering themselves in excessive compensation.” The complaint alleges that the drop in stock price was “not caused by any changes in the company’s fundamentals or business prospects,” but instead was entirely attributable to the effect of the pandemic on the markets writ large.
The SEC’s Climate and ESG Task Force has been criticized by Republican commissioners who believe enforcement in the area would be premature. But Kelly L. Gibson, acting deputy director of the enforcement and head of the agency-wide ESG Task Force, stated that the task force is necessary to recognize evolving investor priorities and that it will continue to operate. And new SEC Chairman Gary Gensler has echoed her sentiments, telling Congress that investors “measured in the trillions of dollars” seek to better understand climate risk issues.
While the SEC staff tends to be of the broad view that ESG warrants serious consideration, there are a breadth of different opinions regarding what ultimate disclosure requirements should look like. This discord came to a head during a virtual SEC panel last Friday.
The panelists included both SEC staff and industry leaders. One-by-one, the panelists provided their views on the SEC’s ESG subcommittee’s December recommendation of new standards for issuers to disclose “material ESG risks.” In particular, the ESG subcommittee recommended that material ESG risks be disclosed pursuant to “standard setters’ frameworks,” and “in a manner consistent with the presentation of other financial disclosures.”
In December, the SEC filed a complaint against Decision Diagnostics and its CEO, Keith Berman, for falsely claiming the company had developed a finger prick blood test that could instantaneously detect COVID-19. As stated in its complaint, the SEC temporarily suspended trading of Decision Diagnostics’ securities on April 23, 2020.…
On Monday, the SEC asked for public comments on a new, standardized ESG disclosure framework that would require issuers to disclose certain climate and other ESG-related risks. The comment request—which encapsulates public and private company disclosures—includes 15 questions with the goal of providing a “consistent, comparable, and reliable” framework to allow investors to use ESG considerations in their decision-making.
On February 18, 2021, the Institute of International Finance (“IFF”) hosted the U.S. Climate Finance Summit, at which both John Coates, Acting Director of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance, and Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard made statements in favor of companies providing fulsome ESG disclosures. These pronouncements underscore the Summit’s larger goal of supporting a “pro-growth, pro-markets transition to a sustainable, low-carbon economy.”