Natasha Romagnoli and Hannah K. Ahn
With the recent rise in novel diversity lawsuits, which have targeted some of the leading companies across the country, and are sure to be a hot topic of litigation this year and beyond, policyholders are highly encouraged to review their existing directors and officers (“D&O”) insurance policies to ensure that they have adequate protection in place to cover diversity claims.
If you are one of the more than 100 million people who watched the Super Bowl, you noticed that companies are starting to be more vocal about the importance of diversity. With ads featuring all Black actors and more modern families, companies are celebrating inclusion and promising to join the fight to end systemic racism. The NFL itself is a prime example of this change in messaging. Years after Colin Kaepernick faced backlash for kneeling to protest inequality, the NFL ran its own ad this year that highlighted its pledge to spend $250 million to end racism.
Talk of diversity and inclusion has been growing—and growing more insistent—starting with the first Black Lives Matter protests in 2013 and building to last year’s protests following the murder of George Floyd, who died while being forcibly detained by Minneapolis police. Despite their messages of support for diversity and inclusion, however, many companies have struggled to promote diversity in their own ranks, especially with respect to their boards of directors and C-suite executives. But consumers and investors alike are now pressuring companies to meaningfully respond to their demands for internal change. Of late, this includes shareholder derivative lawsuits that use federal securities law not only to target the company’s lack of success in diversifying, but also to challenge the commitment of the company’s directors and officers to enact change. These novel “diversity lawsuits” open a new realm of potential liability, in addition to forcing companies to consider how to promote diversity in their ranks and respond to internal and customer demands for change.
While there have only been a handful of diversity lawsuits filed as of today’s date, the allegations against some of the best known names in business, like Facebook, Oracle, and Monster Beverages, could easily apply to other publicly-traded companies across the country. The individual details vary from case to case, but the common charge against the directors and officers of the sued companies is that they breached their fiduciary duties and violated Section 14(a) of the federal Securities Exchange Act by failing to include diverse directors on their boards and in their senior executive ranks, while at the same time touting their commitment to diversity, equality, and inclusion in the company’s proxy statements and other corporate publications. Corporate counsel can forget about their old playbook for dealing with employee discrimination complaints or outside groups threatening a boycott. This is new legal terrain being staked out by stakeholders in companies (in some cases, institutional investors) and the class action lawyers representing them.
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This client alert was reprinted in Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory Solutions U.S. in April 2021.