In mid-March 2020, The Cheesecake Factory faced an unprecedented challenge to its business from the COVID-19 pandemic impact. In that context, the company issued several disclosures regarding the effect of, and its response to, COVID-19. For example, on March 23, 2020, its press release stated that the company was transitioning to an “off-premise model” that was “enabling the company’s restaurants to operate sustainably at present under this current model.”
The disclosures turned out to be misleading because they excluded expenses attributable to corporate operations from its sustainability claim. The disclosures failed to note that the Cheesecake Factory even had to draw on the last $90 million of its revolving credit line and was actively seeking additional liquidity through lenders or private equity investors. In fact, the company was losing approximately $6 million in cash per week and projected that it had only 16 weeks of cash remaining even after drawing the $90 million. The result was the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) settled with the company for a paltry civil penalty of $125,000.
Don’t be fooled by the penalty. While the monetary penalty may seem insignificant, I believe the SEC’s message is significant and one all registrants should digest and consider carefully.
In its SEC filings on March 23, 2020, and April 3, 2020, The Cheesecake Factory stated that its restaurants were “operating sustainably” during the COVID-19 pandemic. While The Cheesecake Factory was telling the markets that its restaurants were operating sustainably, it asked its landlords for help. In its March 23 filing, the company described actions undertaken to preserve financial flexibility during the pandemic. However, it failed to disclose that Cheesecake Factory told its landlords that it would not be making its rent payments in April, following a major decline in income due to COVID-19.
CEO David Overton wrote in a letter to the landlords, “Please understand that we do not take this action or make this decision lightly, and while we hope to resume our rent payments as soon as reasonably possible, we simply cannot predict the extent or the duration of the current crisis.”
According to the 8-K filing, “The company fully cooperated with the SEC in connection with the settlement.” The Cheesecake Factory agreed to the SEC’s order to pay a civil money penalty of $125,000 and cease and desist from committing or causing any violations and any future violations of the reporting standards of Section 13(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rules 12b-20 and 13a-11 thereunder.
SEC Chairman Jay Clayton said in a statement, “During the pandemic, many public companies have discharged their disclosure obligations in a commendable manner, working proactively to keep investors informed of the current and anticipated material impacts of COVID-19 on their operations and financial condition.
As our local and national response to the pandemic evolves, it is important that issuers continue their proactive, principles-based approach to disclosure, tailoring these disclosures to the firm and industry-specific effects of the pandemic on their business and operations. It is also important that issuers who make materially false or misleading statements regarding the pandemic [COVID-19’s] impact on their business and operations be held accountable.”
As companies analyze their specific facts and circumstances and consider their disclosure obligations, the SEC is encouraging them to consider a broad range of questions, including:
Remember, the opposite of transparency is concealment!
This settlement was the first time the SEC charged a public company for misleading investors about the economic effects of COVID-19.
Boards, specifically the Audit and Disclosure Committees, need to be diligent and ensure transparency by ensuring the books and records (see below), including disclosures, are at a minimum complete and accurate.
The books and records provision was enacted in 1977 as part of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”). It requires issuers—companies that are required to file reports with the SEC or that have securities registered with the SEC—to “make and keep books, records, and accounts, which, in reasonable detail, accurately and fairly reflect the transactions and dispositions of the assets of the issuer.”
In one of the few reported decisions discussing the books and records provision, a federal district court described the provision’s three goals:
(1) Assure that an issuer’s books and records accurately and fairly reflect its transactions and the disposition of assets.
(2) Protect the integrity of the independent audit of issuer financial statements that are required under the Exchange Act.
(3) Promote the reliability and completeness of financial information that issuers are required to file with the Commission or disseminate to investors under the Exchange Act.
That the books and records provision was enacted as part of the FCPA is deceiving; the provision covers practices that may be neither foreign nor corrupt. In recent years, the SEC has brought enforcement actions for books and records violations in circumstances that had nothing to do with bribery and related to purely domestic transactions—for example, records relating to the value of mortgage-backed securities; round-tripping transactions that led to overstated revenue; options backdating; and miscalculation of tax liabilities.
The SEC generally imposes strict liability for inaccurate or insufficiently detailed books and records because the statute does not explicitly require materiality or scienter. In other words, a company may be held liable for sloppy entries in its books and records, no matter how small, and regardless of whether there was any intent to deceive.
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