Hostile Work Environment

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed an injunction against enforcement of portions of Florida’s “anti-woke” law, which prohibits employers from requiring employees to attend training sessions or other activities that “espouse” or “promote” eight “concepts” relating to race, color, sex, or national origin. The unanimous decision in Honeyfund.com, Inc. v. Governor, State of Florida (11th Cir. Mar. 4, 2024) held that the Florida statute draws “distinctions based on viewpoint – the most pernicious forms of dividing lines under the First Amendment” – and cannot be sustained as an “attempt to control speech by recharacterizing it as conduct.”

In a new skirmish in the volatile ESG and culture wars, a Florida federal court preliminarily enjoined enforcement of portions of Florida’s “anti-woke” law, which prohibits employers from requiring employees to attend training sessions or other activities that “espouse” or “promote” eight “concepts” relating to race, color, sex, or national origin.  U.S. District Judge Mark Walker held in Honeyfund.com, Inc. v. DeSantis (N.D. Fla. Aug. 18, 2022), that the statute is a “naked viewpoint-based regulation on speech,” in violation of the First Amendment, and also is unconstitutionally vague.

Earlier this spring, yet another lawsuit alleging a company failed to adequately promote diversity was dismissed for a failure to properly allege demand futility.

In City of Pontiac Police & Fire Ret. Sys. v. Jamison, the plaintiff, a shareholder of Tractor Supply Company, had alleged that the company and members of its Board falsely stated in securities filings that they were committed to promoting diversity.  The plaintiff alleged that diversity maximizes shareholder wealth and that the lack of racial diversity at Tractor Supply contributed to economic disparities at the company.  Because, according to the plaintiff, the defendants had failed to sufficiently promote diversity within the company while, at the same time, made statements in Tractor Supply’s 2020 proxy statement that the Board was “committed to the principles of diversity and inclusion,” they had violated Section 14(a) of the Exchange Act.

Another diversity-based derivative suit was dismissed this week by a federal district court, joining a list of decisions that have rejected similar shareholder allegations.

This most recent decision, from the District of Delaware, dismissed claims alleging Qualcomm Inc. had allowed unlawful and discriminatory practices to exist within its executive ranks.  Though the complaint was initially filed in the Southern District of California, Qualcomm’s Bylaws contain a forum-selection provision designating Delaware as the exclusive forum for derivative litigation, and thus the case was transferred to Delaware in March 2021.

Last week, yet another federal court dismissed a shareholder derivative suit that claimed a company had failed to diversify its corporate leadership team.  Shareholders had alleged that Opko Health Inc., a Miami-based medical company, failed to nominate or appoint minorities to the board and executive management team despite public statements celebrating the company’s diverse staff.

After much debate, the SEC on Friday approved a Nasdaq proposal that will require listed companies to adopt several diversity-related measures.  Nasdaq first made this proposal, which requires listed companies to publicly disclose diversity information about their board members and either hire “diverse” members to their boards or explain why they do not in writing, last December.  Under SEC regulations, self-regulatory organizations such as Nasdaq must formally submit proposed rule changes to the Commission.  Nasdaq made some minor revisions to the proposed rule in February that granted smaller boards and newly listed companies some compliance leeway, but the proposal has otherwise survived scrutiny from conservatives, corporate interests, and popular newspaper editorial boards.

On July 30, 2021, L Brands, the parent company behind Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, settled a rash of derivatives actions which had alleged “toxic” workplace conditions and “a culture of misogyny” at the company.  We previously detailed the allegations in this space as part of our ongoing review of shareholder attempts to hold companies liable for perceived diversity failures and workplace discrimination.  As we noted, a New York Times report detailing specific allegations of a former Chief Marketing Officer led to the filing of shareholder actions across the country, including in Ohio, Oregon, and Delaware.