A potentially overlooked but important issue that public companies should have in mind when granting option or option-like awards is avoiding the unintentional appearance of “spring-loading” and “bullet-dodging,” both of which have been a recent focus of the SEC and shareholders and viewed as potentially poor corporate governance practices.

“Spring-loading” is when a public company grants option or option-like awards shortly before the release of positive material nonpublic information, which is expected to increase the company’s stock price. The grantee of a spring-loaded award immediately benefits from the increase in the stock price. For example, if stock options are granted with an exercise price of $10 per share before market trading, and a positive earnings release causes the stock price to close the same day at $15 per share, each option would already be $5 in-the-money.

The converse of spring-loading is “bullet-dodging,” which is when a public company grants option or option-like awards shortly after the release of negative material nonpublic information, which is expected to decrease the company’s stock price. Again, the grantee immediately benefits from the decrease in the stock price. For example, if stock options are scheduled to be granted before market trading with an exercise price of $15 per share, but the grant is made after a negative earnings release, or more significantly if it is delayed until after the negative earnings release, and the stock price has since closed at $10 per share, the company would have avoided granting options that would each be $5 out-of-the-money.

Companies that have allegedly engaged in spring-loading or bullet-dodging have been the subject of SEC investigations as recently as a few years ago. Additionally, in November 2021, the SEC indicated its concern and scrutiny of spring-loaded awards, by issuing accounting guidelines in Staff Accounting Bulletin (SAB) No. 120, explaining how companies should properly recognize and disclose compensation cost for spring-loaded awards. The SEC stated in a press release that “non-routine spring-loaded grants merit particular scrutiny by those responsible for compensation and financial reporting governance at public companies. SEC staff believes that as companies measure compensation actually paid to executives, they must consider the impact that the material nonpublic information will have upon release. In other words, companies should not grant spring-loaded awards under any mistaken belief that they do not have to reflect any of the additional value conveyed to the recipients from the anticipated announcement of material information when recognizing compensation cost for the awards.”

More recently, in December 2022, the SEC has continued to show its increased scrutiny of spring-loaded and bullet-dodging awards by finalizing new Item 402(x) of Regulation S-K, which requires both a discussion of companies’ policies and practices on the timing of awards of options and option-like awards in relation to the disclosure of material nonpublic information and tabular disclosure of stock options and option-like awards granted to named executive officers in the four business days before and one business day after disclosing material nonpublic information. The SEC is therefore requiring companies to clearly outline to investors when such awards are granted close in time to major events which may affect the company’s stock price. Companies are required to comply with the new Item 402(x) disclosures in their Form 10-K (or proxy statement incorporated by referenced into the Form 10-K) for the first filing that covers the first full fiscal period that begins on or after April 1, 2023, and for smaller reporting companies, this date is October 1, 2023.[1] For companies that have a fiscal year that is the calendar year, this means the Item 402(x) disclosure will need to be in the Form 10-K (or proxy statement incorporated by referenced into the Form 10-K) filed in 2025.

In addition to SEC scrutiny, shareholders are also taking notice of companies granting apparent or alleged spring-loaded and bullet-dodging awards. Shareholders have brought claims of breach of duty of candor, breach of fiduciary duty of loyalty, waste of corporate assets, and unjust enrichment. Claims may also be predicated on alleged materially false statements about spring-loaded and bullet-dodging option practices in a proxy or other public statements under the proxy anti-fraud rule or other general fraud rules under the federal securities laws.

In light of increased SEC and shareholder scrutiny, it remains important for companies to discuss their specific equity-granting practices with their legal and accounting advisers to avoid unintended liability issues that can result from ordinary course timing of awards. While the issues discussed above technically relate to option and option-like awards, similar legal and accounting considerations may apply to other types of non-option-like equity awards, such as restricted stock and RSUs, and indeed the new SEC rules may garner attention from the plaintiffs’ bar on these issues. Companies should review, evaluate and/or develop equity grant practices and policies to address the timing of equity grants (especially options and option-like awards) and should seek advice on how to navigate non-routine off-cycle option, option-like, and non-option-like awards.

Summer Associate, Breanna Keane, assisted with writing this post.

[1] See SEC Compliance and Disclosure Interpretation Question 120.26.

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Photo of Andrea Rattner Andrea Rattner

Andrea S. Rattner is a partner in the Tax Department and member of the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group. For more than 30 years, her practice has focused on a broad range of executive compensation and employee benefits matters, advising clients on…

Andrea S. Rattner is a partner in the Tax Department and member of the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group. For more than 30 years, her practice has focused on a broad range of executive compensation and employee benefits matters, advising clients on an ongoing basis as well as in the context of corporate transactions and other transformative and unique situations. Her clients include public and private companies, boards of directors, compensation committees and senior executives in a broad range of industries. Andrea has been involved in Firm management for many years, having served as a member of the Executive Committee and a former chair of the Tax Department.

Andrea counsels clients with respect to the tax, securities, corporate governance, stock exchange, ERISA and other implications affecting executive compensation arrangements. Andrea regularly provides advice regarding equity arrangements (such as stock options, restricted stock, RSUs, LLC/partnership interests and phantom equity), employment agreements, change-in-control agreements and all other types of compensation arrangements (including incentive awards, SERPs, deferred compensation and “409A” covered and exempt arrangements).

She counsels clients on benefits and compensation matters arising in all types of corporate transactions, including mergers & acquisitions, spin-offs, restructurings, joint ventures, debt and equity offerings and bankruptcies. In numerous transactions, she has addressed the treatment of stock options and other equity awards, change-in-control and “golden parachute” tax issues, severance obligations and separation agreements, the negotiation of new employment agreements and other executive arrangements, retention and other bonus plans, benefit plan liabilities, COBRA, PBGC-related issues and post-closing benefit plan and compensation structures and integration.

Andrea also advises clients on compliance with ERISA, the Internal Revenue Code, and other laws affecting employee benefit plans, as well as plan design, administration, termination, fiduciary duty issues, prohibited transactions, qualification requirements and other matters concerning pension, profit-sharing, employee stock ownership, 401(k), and other types of plans. She has extensive experience with respect to the legal consequences relating to the use of employer stock in tax-qualified plans such as ESOPs, profit-sharing, stock bonus and pension plans.

Andrea has been lauded by various legal rankings directories, including Chambers USA and Legal 500, noting that her “depth of knowledge and involvement in this practice area, [including] the business and trends, is terrific.” She is also recognized for having an “excellent understanding of the business community” and for being “pro-active in keeping clients up to date.” She writes and lectures frequently on employee benefits and executive compensation matters and is a co-editor and chapter author of Executive Compensation (Law Journal Press). Since 1993, she has served as an adjunct professor on the faculty of Cornell University (New York State School of Industrial & Labor Relations-Management Programs). Andrea is also active in Proskauer’s relationship with the Women Corporate Directors (WCD), the only global membership organization of its kind focused on helping women obtain and succeed in board positions.

Photo of Tyler Forni Tyler Forni

Tyler Forni is an associate in the Tax Department and a member of the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group.

Photo of David Teigman David Teigman

David Teigman is a partner in the Tax Department and a member of the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group. David focuses his practice on executive compensation and benefit matters, principally in connection with mergers and acquisitions, securities offerings and senior executive employment…

David Teigman is a partner in the Tax Department and a member of the Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Group. David focuses his practice on executive compensation and benefit matters, principally in connection with mergers and acquisitions, securities offerings and senior executive employment relationships.

David regularly counsels public and private companies on compensatory and benefit arrangements, such as equity-based incentives, cash-based incentives and employment, change-in-control, retention, separation and consulting agreements. He also advises on corporate governance, tax law and securities law related to employment matters.

A frequent author, David has published the following articles:

  • “Share Reserve and Other Limits in Public Company Equity Plans” (Practical Law)
  • “Roadmap to Providing Appropriate Incentives to Employees When Your Company is Going to be Sold” (The M&A Lawyer)
  • “Taxation of an Option Exercise When the Shares are Subject to a Substantial Risk of Forfeiture” (Practical Law)

David is often called upon by leading industry publications, including Agenda/Financial Times, Law360 and Modern Healthcare, for his perspective on executive compensation and benefit issues.

David received his J.D., cum laude, from the University of Buffalo, where he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Buffalo Law Review and the Executive Editor of the Public Interest Law Journal, and his B.S. from Cornell University.

Photo of Frank Zarb Frank Zarb

Frank Zarb is a partner in our Corporate Department and a member of the Capital Markets Group, where he concentrates his practice on equity finance and a wide range of regulatory matters under U.S. federal securities laws.

He counsels public and private companies…

Frank Zarb is a partner in our Corporate Department and a member of the Capital Markets Group, where he concentrates his practice on equity finance and a wide range of regulatory matters under U.S. federal securities laws.

He counsels public and private companies, hedge funds and family offices, and market intermediaries and other financial institutions on a wide range of transactional and securities regulatory compliance matters including:

  • Equity investments and dispositions in public and private companies
  • Public company registration, disclosures and preparation of periodic reports
  • Tender offers, equity lines, proxy contests, SPACs, and other highly regulated transactions
  • Regulation M, Regulation SHO, Forms 13F and 13H, insider trading and other trading issues
  • Corporate governance and stock exchange listing standards
  • Federal and state proxy requirements as well as shareholder proposals and communications
  • Regulation of financial intermediaries, including trading of public and private equity, and complex and novel trading structures
  • Advocating with the SEC on behalf of a market intermediary related to back-office processing matters.

Frank’s practice is both domestic and international, beginning with his experience in senior positions with the Securities and Exchange Commission. As a member of the staff of the SEC’s Office of International Corporate Finance, Frank advised U.S. companies seeking to do business in the EU, Asia and the Middle East, as well as companies from those regions doing business in the U.S., or otherwise seeking to comply with the U.S. securities laws.  In the Office of Chief Counsel, he focused on federal proxy rules, and supervised a team of staff members that provided guidance in the course of proxy season.

Prior to joining the Firm, Frank was deputy general counsel/chief securities counsel for Bristol Myers Squibb Co. in a new position required by the SEC. Prior to joining Bristol-Myers, Frank was a corporate partner with Morgan, Lewis & Brockius.

Social Responsibility

Frank is a Trustee of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, and he provides significant pro bono assistance to non-profit social service institutions in the Washington, D.C. area.

Photo of Louis Rambo Louis Rambo

Louis Rambo is a partner in the Corporate Department and a member of the Capital Markets Group. He focuses his practice on counseling public companies and their boards of directors on corporate governance, capital markets transactions, mergers and acquisitions, securities regulation, disclosure and…

Louis Rambo is a partner in the Corporate Department and a member of the Capital Markets Group. He focuses his practice on counseling public companies and their boards of directors on corporate governance, capital markets transactions, mergers and acquisitions, securities regulation, disclosure and shareholder activism. Prior to joining the Firm, Louis served as an attorney in the Division of Corporation Finance with the Securities and Exchange Commission.