board diversity disclosures

Well – this took four months. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ordered en banc rehearing of an unsuccessful challenge to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s approval of the Nasdaq Stock Market’s rules concerning diversity of directors on boards of Nasdaq-listed companies. The rules – which a panel of the Fifth Circuit upheld in October 2023 – require listed companies to disclose director-diversity information and either to have a certain number of diverse directors or to explain why not. We blogged about that decision here.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied review of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s approval of proposed rules promulgated by the Nasdaq Stock Market concerning the diversity of directors on Nasdaq-listed companies’ boards. The rules require listed companies to disclose director-diversity information and either to have a certain number of diverse directors or to explain why not. The decision in Alliance for Fair Board Recruitment v. SEC held that the rules do not violate the Constitution and that the SEC did not violate its statutory obligations in approving them.

The Nasdaq rules do not require board diversity; they require only disclosures and explanations. But the need to comply with the rules could have the practical effect of increasing diversity on boards of Nasdaq-listed companies.

A California federal court held that a California statute requiring California-based corporations to have a minimum number of directors from designated under-represented groups violates the federal Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. The decision in Alliance for Fair Board Recruitment v. Weber (E.D. Cal. May 16, 2023) is one of the latest skirmishes in the culture wars raging around diversity and other ESG-related matters. The ruling addresses the same law that a California state court previously invalidated in a decision that is currently on appeal.

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.

A California court invalidated a state law requiring that boards of directors of public companies based in California include members from under-represented groups, including persons of several races and ethnic groups and those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.  The April 1, 2022 decision in Crest v. Padilla, No. 20ST-CV-37513, by Judge Terry Green of the Los Angeles Superior Court, was issued in one of several cases attacking California laws designed to increase diversity on corporate boards of directors, a significant goal of the ESG movement.

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.