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Trinity Wall Street v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Delaware

November 26, 2014

TRINITY WALL STREET, Plaintiff,
v.
WAL-MART STORES, INC., Defendant

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Joel Friedlander, Jeffrey M. Gorris, FRIEDLANDER & GORRIS, P.A., Wilmington, DE, Counsel for Plaintiff.

For Angela C. Whitesell, Philip A. Rovner, Matthew E. Fischer, POTTER ANDERSON & CORROON, LLP, Wilmington, DE; Adam H. Offenhartz, Arie H. Wu, Elizabeth A. Ising, GIBSON, DUNN & CRUTCHER LLP, New York, NY, Counsel for Defendant.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION

November 26, 2014Wilmington, DE

Leonard P. Stark, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff, Trinity Wall Street (" Trinity" or " Plaintiff), owns shares of common stock of Defendant, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (" Wal-Mart" or " Defendant" ), which is the

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world's largest retailer. Trinity seeks declaratory judgments to the effect that Wal-Mart violated federal securities laws when it refused to include in its proxy materials relating to its 2014 annual shareholders meeting a proposal submitted by Trinity that would have added to the obligations of one of Wal-Mart's Board of Directors committees, and that Wal-Mart will again violate these same federal securities laws if and when it refuses to include the same or a similar Trinity proposal in Wal-Mart's proxy materials for its 2015 annual meeting. Trinity also seeks injunctive relief to prevent Wal-Mart from excluding its proposal from the 2015 proxy materials.

Pending before the Court are three motions: Wal-Mart's Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint for Lack of Jurisdiction Over the Subject Matter (D.I. 33), Trinity's Motion for Summary Judgment (D.I. 37), and Wal-Mart's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment. (D.I. 47)[1] All of the motions relate to Trinity's amended complaint, Count I of which challenges the proxy materials Wal-Mart distributed in connection with its June 6, 2014 annual meeting, and Count II of which challenges Wal-Mart's anticipated actions with respect to proxy materials Trinity intends to submit in advance of the 2015 annual meeting. (D.I. 32) For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds it has jurisdiction to hear Trinity's claim with respect to the 2014 proxy materials. This claim is not moot as it presents a type of dispute that would otherwise evade review yet is capable of repetition. However, the Court lacks jurisdiction with respect to the challenge to the 2015 proxy materials, as this dispute is not ripe. Turning to the merits, the Court concludes that Trinity is correct that its proposal should not have been excluded from Wal-Mart's 2014 proxy materials. Thus, the Court will grant Trinity's motion for summary judgment with respect to Count I of the amended complaint and will deny Wal-Mart's motion for summary judgment. Finally, the Court will grant Trinity injunctive relief.

BACKGROUND

The parties' dispute relates to the process by which shareholder proposals are included in proxy materials distributed to shareholders in advance of an annual shareholder meeting. Plaintiff Trinity, an Episcopal parish headquartered in New York City, is a shareholder of Defendant Wal-Mart. (D.I. 32 ¶ 3, 18) Trinity owns, at all relevant times has owned, and intends to continue to own -- at least through the date of Wal-Mart's 2015 annual meeting -- at least $2,000 of Wal-Mart shares. ( Id. ¶ 3)

Wal-Mart is a publicly listed Delaware corporation with its corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. ( Id. ¶ 19) " Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, runs chains of large department and warehouse stores." ( Id.)

On December 18, 2013, Trinity submitted a proposal (" the Proposal" ) for inclusion in Wal-Mart's 2014 proxy materials, seeking a shareholder vote. (D.I. 3-1, Exhs. B, D) The Proposal requests that the charter of Wal-Mart's Board of Directors' Compensation, Nominating and Governance Committee (" Committee" ) be amended to add the following to the Committee's duties:

27. Providing oversight concerning the formulation and implementation of, and the public reporting of the formulation

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and implementation of, policies and standards that determine whether or not the Company [i.e., Wal-Mart] should sell a product that:
1) especially endangers public safety and well-being;
2) has the substantial potential to impair the reputation of the Company; and/or
3) would reasonably be considered by many offensive to the family and community values integral to the Company's promotion of its brand.

(D.I. 3-1, Exh. D) The narrative portion of the Proposal states that the oversight and reporting duties extend to determining " whether or not the company should sell guns equipped with magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition ('high capacity magazines') and to balancing the benefits of selling such guns against the risks that these sales pose to the public and to the Company's reputation and brand value." ( Id.)

On January 30, 2014, as required by SEC Rule 14a-8(j), 17 C.F.R. § 240.14a-8(j), Wal-Mart filed a detailed letter with the Securities and Exchange Commission (" SEC" ), notifying the SEC staff and Trinity that Wal-Mart intended to omit the Proposal from its 2014 proxy materials; the letter explained how, in Wal-Mart's view, the Proposal " deals with matters relating to the Company's ordinary business operations." (D.I. 3-1, Exh. E at 2) On February 4, 2014, Trinity submitted its own detailed letter to the SEC staff, providing Trinity's analysis as to why its Proposal was not excludable and requesting, hence, that the SEC staff " deny the Company's request for no-action relief." (D.I. 3-1, Exh. F) On March 20, 2014, the SEC staff advised Wal-Mart that it had reviewed the correspondence and found that " there appears to be some basis for your view that Wal-mart may exclude the proposal under rule 14a-8(i)(7), as relating to Wal-mart's ordinary business operations ... Accordingly, we will not recommend enforcement action to the Commission if Wal-mart omits the proposal from its proxy materials." (D.I. 3-1, Exh. G)

On April 1, 2014, Trinity filed suit in this Court, seeking a declaratory judgment that " Wal-Mart's decision to omit the Proposal from the 2014 Proxy Materials violates Section 14(a) of the 1934 Act and Rule 14a-8, 17 C.F.R. § 240.14a-8." (D.I. 4 at 12) Trinity also seeks a permanent injunction to prevent Wal-Mart from excluding its Proposal from Wal-Mart's 2015 proxy materials. ( Id.) Also on April 1, Trinity filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent Wal-Mart from " printing, issuing, filing, mailing, or otherwise transmitting proxy materials in connection with its 2014 Annual Meeting that do not contain the shareholder proposal submitted by Plaintiff." (D.I. 1 at 1)

Ten days later, on April 11, 2014, the Court heard argument on the preliminary injunction motion. As of that date, only six days remained until Wal-Mart's scheduled deadline for printing its proxy materials. (D.I. 23 at 12) (" April 17th is a hard date in order to have a resolution without anybody incurring additional costs." ) As is always the case, Plaintiff confronted a heavy burden to demonstrate that the extraordinary remedy of a preliminary injunction was warranted. In particular, in seeking to have the Court intercede to frustrate Wal-Mart's printing plans, Trinity was asking the Court to take an extraordinary step -- and to do so on a highly expedited basis. As the Court stated during the preliminary injunction hearing:

It's very clear that the SEC has had hundreds of opportunities to consider questions like this. I have not. While the SEC may only have a few hours or whatever to put into each of these, I

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have roughly the same amount of time. You come to what you know is an extremely busy court. We have given this expedited attention. It comes to us with a no action conclusion [from the SEC staff] ... You come to me, you have the burden asking for extraordinary relief, and I need to find that it's likely that at the end of the trial, whenever we get there, I'm going to disagree with the SEC [staff].

( Id. at 8-9)

The Court denied Trinity's request for a preliminary injunction, primarily on the basis that Trinity had not met its burden to show a likelihood of success on the merits. ( Id. at 42) The Court found that the Proposal " deals with guns on the shelves and not guns in society" and was properly excluded from Wal-Mart's proxy materials since it dealt with an ordinary business matter. ( Id. at 46)[2] In ruling from the bench at the end of the preliminary injunction hearing, the Court further explained:

The proposal also expressly and I think importantly states that the requested " oversight and/or reporting is intended to cover policies and standards that would be applicable [to] determining whether or not the company should sell guns equipped with magazines holding more than 10 round of ammunitions, high capacity ...

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