At this point most reasonable people would not dispute that Mr. Musk has difficulty wording his communications (tweets) in a manner that is acceptable or more likely to be acceptable under the securities laws. Greatly summarizing the law, ask yourself if the wording and information that Mr. Musk has communicated or is proposing to communicate is or would be (1) viewed as being material to the average investor, (2) vague puffery, (3) a statement or assertion of current fact, (4) a statement or assertion of forward-looking wording and information, or (5) a mixed combination of any of (1)-(4)?
Vague puffery should not be actionable. Information that is not “material” also should not be actionable; however, whether information is material (quantitatively or qualitatively) can be a slippery slope question of fact, and you might ask why Mr. Musk would be communicating the information if he did not consider the information to be important as to Tesla? Regarding (3), well . . . is the statement or assertion of current fact true and accurate as expressed? Regarding (4), well . . . even if the statement or assertion includes forward-looking warnings or disclaimers (which it should/must), is there a reasonable factual basis for making and believing the truth and accuracy of the forward-looking statement or assertion?
The players involved at least include Mr. Musk, the SEC, the Board, the Audit Committee, the Disclosure Controls Committee, and the new experienced securities attorney who is supposed to review, fix/modify, and authorize Mr. Musk’s communications before Mr. Musk makes them. Obviously, this has been, and will be a challenge for Ms. Musk. Presumably, he views Tesla and Tesla’s further future success, or not, as his creation, and rightly so. Mr. Musk has accomplished an amazing task thus far. But public companies have rules of communication that must be followed. And it is arguable that at this point his manner of communications might be hurting Tesla as much as they help. Assertions of current fact, and assertions of forward-looking statements certainly can be made, and it is arguable that they are supposed to be or at times must be made or disclosed, but they need to be made in an appropriate manner.
Where has the Board been in all of this? We don’t know, because the Board has not said. The Board is overall responsible for risk management.
These certainly are risk management, governance, and internal controls issues.
Where has the Audit Committee been in all of this? We don’t know, because the Audit Committee has not said. The Audit Committee Charter in part states that the Audit Committee assists the Board with oversight of the Company’s compliance with legal and regulatory requirements, and also assists the Board with oversight of the Company’s risk management. The Charter further states that the Audit Committee also is involved in the oversight of internal controls and at least some of Tesla’s corporate communications.
Tesla also has a Disclosure Controls Committee. Where has the Disclosure Controls Committee been in all of this? We don’t know because the Disclosure Controls Committee has not said.
And, assuming that the Court approves the new Musk / SEC agreement, going forward where will then be the experienced securities attorney who is supposed to review, fix/modify, and authorize Mr. Musk’s communications before Mr. Musk makes them?
Thus far, oversight has not worked. And, there are red flags all over the place. Although Boards, and Board Committees (e.g., the Audit Committee), and in-house legal and compliance professionals usually are not personally liable for unlawful activities of the company or its officers, that is a changing environment, and cases also do hold that liability can attach when red flags are ignored or not remedied.
This is really easy to resolve if Mr. Musk wants to modify how he does his communications, as frustrating as that might be for him.
What will/should the Judge do? I would approve the new agreement, perhaps with a few minor changes. I would put in place a process for meet and confer between the parties, and then also quick Court involvement if there is a perceived new violation of the new agreement, and I would schedule a new status hearing in the not-to-distant future, such as 30 days.
Every case and situation is different. You do need to consult with an attorney and other professionals about your particular situation. This post is not a solicitation for legal or other services inside of or outside of California, and, of course, this post only is a summary of information that changes from time to time, and does not apply to any particular situation or to your specific situation. So . . . you cannot rely on this post for your situation or as legal or other professional advice or representation.
Thank you for reading this website. I ask that you also pass it along to other people who would be interested as it is through collaboration that great things and success occur more quickly.
Best to you, David Tate, Esq. (and inactive California CPA) – practicing in California only.
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