This is the appeal of an adverse ruling from the district court judge in our suit challenging the SEC's conflict minerals rule. Click here for details on that ruling.
Our appeal was expedited, and focused on largely the same issues that were before the trial judge. Review was de novo, which means that the appeals court looks at the case fresh, without any presumption that the trial court's ruling is binding on them.
The NAM, joined by the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argued that the SEC incorrectly interpreted the statute, which requires reporting of certain minerals that "did originate" in and around the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to cover minerals that "may have originated" there. It also failed to recognize and use its power to establish a reasonable de minimis exception for small amounts of minerals, which could provide substantial relief from the burdensome requirements of the rule for thousands of manufacturers. We also raised an important First Amendment objection to the requirement that companies make misleading and stigmatizing public statements unfairly linking their products to terrible human rights abuses.
We filed our main brief on the merits on Sept. 11, and our reply Nov. 13, 2013. Oral argument was held on Jan. 7, 2014, during which counsel for the SEC faced difficult questioning about the SEC's rule and the First Amendment objections.
On April 14, the court deferred to the SEC on its interpretations of the substantive provisions included in the rule, but overturned the requirement that companies disclose that their products are not "DRC conflict free." The First Amendment prohibits the requirement that companies report to the SEC and post on company web sites the fact that certain manufactured products are not “conflict free”. This constitutes government-compelled speech. It is now up to the SEC to determine what reporting requirement to impose and what to do while it is making that decision, since the first reports under the regulation must be filed by June 2, 2014. If it tries to formulate alternative reporting requirements, it may need to revist the whole public reporting aspect of the rule through a new round of notice-and-comment rulemaking.
On April 29, the NAM, Chamber and Roundtable filed a motion with the SEC to stay the rule or at least filing deadline. The whole point of the rule and the statute was to try to effect social change by shaming companies who cannot label their products as "DRC conflict free," and since the shaming mechanism has been struck down, the remainder of the rule has questionable benefits. Moreover, there are a host of questions without easy answers that must be considered before imposing enormous costs on industry. The SEC will have to determine what type of disclosure shold replace the unconstitutional requirement, whether that would required changes to other provisions of the rule, re-analyze the costs and benefits of the rule, and provide for notice-and-comment rulemaking. Finally, requiring some type of truncated report is an approach that will not serve the law's intended purpose and will worsen the massive uncertainty and confusion among those who are subject to the rule.
The same day, Keith Higgins, director of the SEC's Division of Corporation Finance, issued a statement saying that companies will still need to file their first reports by the due date and address those portion of the rule that the court upheld. He added that "No company is required to describe its products as 'DRC conflict free,' having 'not been found to be ‘DRC conflict free,’' or 'DRC conflict undeterminable.' If a company voluntarily elects to describe any of its products as 'DRC conflict free' in its Conflict Minerals Report, it would be permitted to do so provided it had obtained an independent private sector audit (IPSA) as required by the rule. Pending further action, an IPSA will not be required unless a company voluntarily elects to describe a product as 'DRC conflict free' in its Conflict Minerals Report.
We also released a statement April 30 saying in part that "Congress and the SEC need time to evaluate how to amend the statute and/or the rule in light of the court's decision. Given the significant issues involved, we believe that it is in everyone's interest to stay the rule until these issues can be fully analyzed and addressed. Accordingly, we will ask the DC Circuit to grant a full stay of the rule until the implications of the decision are clear to all parties."
On May 2, 2014, the SEC issued a partial stay of the portion of the rule that requires issuers to disclose that any of their products have "not been found to be “DRC conflict free.'" It denied our request that the entire rule be stayed. The Commission did not, however, stay the effective date (June 2) for complying with all the other requirements of the rule. Companies are struggling to determine the meaning of the SEC’s action and what to do. The D.C. Circuit’s decision in our challenge to the rule means that the case will be sent back to the trial judge to determine whether to vacate the rule in its entirety or provide some other remedy.
Because this litigation was ongoing and the SEC had not voluntarily stayed the implementation of the rule, the NAM and other business organizations went back to the D.C. Circuit on May 5 and filed an emergency motion for stay of the rule in its entirety until the trial court has addressed the unresolved questions.
We argued that the rule’s compelled confessions, which have been declared unconstitutional, constitute the entire basis for the rule, imposing astronomical costs on affected companies. It makes no sense to enforce a rule that no longer achieves its goals and that likely will be vacated, and a stay would avoid “forcing companies to implement interim procedures for filing truncated reports under unilateral staff guidance that is subject to change at any time.”
On May 14, the court denied our motion for a stay. Companies must now comply with the modified filing requirements by June 2.
On May 29, both the SEC and Amnesty International asked the D.C. Circuit to hold any further appeals until after it ruled in the American Meat Institute v. USDA case, which it did on July 29. On Aug. 15, Amnesty International supplemented its brief in support of a petition for rehearing en banc, and on Aug. 28, the Court ordered us to file a response. We filed it on Sept. 12, arguing that the standards for rehearing this case have not been met, and that the court's decision in the American Meat Institute case was limited to "purely factual and uncontroversial" disclosures, not disclosures like the ones required by the conflict minerals regulation. The disclosures in this case, according to the judges who ruled on them, require an issuer "to tell consumers that its products are ethically tainted, even if they only indirectly finance armed groups," or even if the issuer is merely unable to determine their origin.
On Nov. 18, the 3-judge panel agreed to rehear this case, and asked for further briefing on the impact of the decision in American Meat Institute v. USDA, as well as the meaning of "purely factual and uncontroversial information" and whether that determination is a question of fact for the court. The SEC filed its brief on December 8, and ours was filed December 29. Oral arguments have not been scheduled.