Offers and sales of “securities” must be registered unless there is an applicable exemption from the federal and state securities laws. The most commonly known exemption is the private placement exemption set forth in Regulation D promulgated by the Securities and Exchange Commission under the Securities Act of 1933 (and corresponding private placement exemptions under applicable state “blue sky” laws).
Regulation D was primarily designed to facilitate capital raising transactions, as opposed to employee stock option or stock purchase plans. Many people are unaware that when an employer (or controlling Shareholder) sells stock to an employee (even at a discount, or even if to an executive), such a sale is subject to the securities laws and applicable federal and state exemptions from registration must be found.
Federal Rule 701
In 1988, the SEC adopted Rule 701 which exempts from registration securities issued pursuant to a written compensatory employee benefit plan or written contract by a nonreporting (i.e., privately held) company. An employee benefit plan includes any purchase, savings, option, bonus, stock appreciation, profit sharing, thrift, incentive, pension, or similar plan. The participants in the plan (or party to the contract) must be employees, directors, general partners, trustees (if a business trust), officers, consultants, or advisers.
The plan or the contract setting forth the arrangement must be in writing and a copy must be given to the employees. The exemption is available only to the securities offered or sold by the issuer, which means the employee must find another exemption for their resale.
Rule 701 contains a limitation on aggregate sales price or amount sold in any consecutive 12-month period based upon the greatest of $1 million, 15 percent of the company’s assets, and 15 percent of the outstanding securities of the class.
Rule 701 also contains a disclosure requirement. The disclosure requirements apply only if the aggregate sales price or amount of securities sold during any consecutive 12-month period exceed $5 million. Subject to that qualification, an issuer relying upon Rule 701 is required to provide to investors, a reasonable period of time prior to sale, (1) a copy of the plan or contract; (3) a copy of the summary plan description required by ERISA or, if the plan is not subject to ERISA, a summary of the material terms of the plans; (3) information concerning risks associated with the securities sold; and (4) financial statements required by Part F/S of Form 1-A as of a date no more than 180 days prior to sale. Providing financial statements would be difficult for some issuers since, even though the statements do not have to be audited unless the issuer otherwise has audited statements available, they must be prepared in accordance with GAAP. It should err on the side of caution and make the required disclosures if there is a possibility that sales will exceed the $5 million limitation.
Until recently, Louisiana did not exempt sales of stock by employers to employees unless the sale was effected pursuant to a special type of stock option plan or pursuant to a stock purchase plan qualified under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (as amended), as Louisiana did not automatically exempt all types of transactions exempt under Federal Rule 701. Thus, unless one of the narrow Louisiana exemptions applied, privately held companies which desired to sell stock to Louisiana employees were forced to try to find another exemption, absent which they were forced to either (a) register the transactions with the Louisiana Commissioner of Securities, or (b) as was more likely the case, simply not proceed with the proposed sale to employees. However, the Louisiana Office of Financial Institutions recently promulgated a rule which provides that any transaction exempt under Federal Rule 701 is now exempt under Louisiana law. Louisiana Administrative Code, Title 10, Part XIII, § 801. A copy of the Rule can be found at www.ofi.louisiana.gov. The promulgation of this new rule has the effect of broadening the exemptions available to privately held companies which desire to sell stock to Louisiana employees.
For example, the sale of stock pursuant to a stock purchase plan (regardless of whether qualified under the Internal Revenue Code) or other written compensatory agreement which meets the requirement of Federal Rule 701 will now be exempt under Louisiana law. In addition, although Louisiana law has long exempted the issuance of stock options (and the exercise of such options) if issued pursuant to a plan which limited participation to employees only, Louisiana law did not exempt stock plans if the plan allowed for the issuance of options to non-employees (e.g., non-employee directors). Federal Rule 701 contains no such limitation with respect to option plans which authorize the issuance of options to non-employees and thus the new Rule seems to provide more flexibility for stock option plans as well.
Privately held companies which desire to sell stock or other equity ownership to one or more Louisiana employees should consider the securities laws implications of doing so before effecting any offers or sales.