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Frequently Asked Questions
  Staff Interpretation Letter 2017-1
Identification Number 1351

This is in response to your correspondence asking whether Listing Rule 5605(a)(2) (the “Rule”) specifically prohibits the Company from deeming the Directors independent.

The Listing Rules specifically prohibit a finding of independence in certain circumstances, as set forth in the Rule. If any of the circumstances enumerated in the Rule are present with respect to a director, then that director cannot be deemed independent, and the board is not permitted to conclude otherwise. On the other hand, if the enumerated circumstances are not present, then the board must, under the Rule and IM-5605, affirmatively determine that no relationship exists that would interfere with the exercise of independent judgment in carrying out the director’s responsibilities.

We discuss below whether the Rule specifically prohibits a finding of independence with respect to the Directors, given payments the Company has made, and will continue to make, to the Lessor, which is partially owned by the Directors. We do not address the broader question of whether the relationships described among the Directors, the Lessor, and the Company would interfere with the exercise of the Directors’ independent judgment and express no opinion as to the whether such a determination by the Company’s board that they do not interfere would be appropriate in this instance.

According to the information you provided, the Company has a lease agreement for its main office with the Lessor. You also indicated that the annual lease payments made by the Company to the Lessor in the current fiscal year are in excess of $200,000 and 5% of the Lessor’s consolidated gross revenues for the year (the “Payments”).

You explained that the Lessor is organized as Limited Liability Company and that it currently has less than 10 members, each holding a membership interest between 5% and 22.5%. You also stated that one of these members, the only managing member of the Lessor, holds a 20.0% membership interest. Under the Lessor’s operating agreement, the managing member makes all of the control decisions for the Lessor. The operating agreement also provides that all material items require approval of 65% of the membership and routine items require the approval of 51% of the membership. Each of the Directors indirectly owns membership interests in the Lessor of between 17% and 20%.

You also stated that the Directors do not perform any policy making function for the Lessor and do not have a family member who is a partner in, or controlling Shareholder, or an Executive Officer of the Lessor. You further stated that under the Lessor’s operating agreement, you believe the non-managing members’ interest in the Lessor is similar to the interest of a limited partner in a partnership.

Following our review of the information you provided, we have determined that the Company’s board of directors is not precluded by Rule 5605(a)(2)(D) from finding that the Directors are independent, notwithstanding the Payments. We have reached this conclusion because none of the Directors is (i) a partner in; (ii) a controlling Shareholder of; or (iii) an Executive Officer of the Lessor.

Although the Directors are members of the Lessor, and the Lessor is a limited liability company, you suggested that the Company’s structure could more appropriately be viewed as similar to that of a limited partnership. To the extent that we accept that view, the Directors’ membership interests would be analogous to limited partnership interests and, as noted in IM-5605, the reference to “partner” in Listing Rule 5605(a)(2)(D) is not intended to include limited partners. On the other hand, to the extent the Company’s structure is treated like a corporation, the Directors would be shareholders and none of the Directors would be a controlling Shareholder of the Lessor because under the current ownership and operational structure of the Lessor, as governed by the operating agreement, neither of the Directors has the ability individually to exercise either significant influence over the Lessor’s operations or the power to direct or cause the direction of the management and policies of the Lessor. This determination is made based on the specific facts and circumstances you described, including the small number of members of the Lessor, the Directors’ inability (based on their membership interests) to determine the vote on either routine or material items; and the fact that there is a member -- the only managing member -- who makes all the control decisions for the Lessor and has an ownership position that is no less than each of the Directors’. Finally, none of the Directors is an Executive Officer of the Lessor under the Listing Rules because they are not the managing member of the Lessor and do not perform any policy making function for the Lessor. In addition, and as explained in IM-5605Rule 5605(a)(2)(B) is generally intended to capture situations where compensation is made directly to (or for the benefit of) a director. Nonetheless we note that to the extent we were to look through the Lessor and treat the Payments as compensation made directly to the Lessor’s members, the portion of the payments attributable to each Director would be less than $120,000 in the current fiscal year and the Payments would therefore not prevent the Directors from being considered independent by Rule 5605(a)(2)(B).

Notwithstanding this determination, the Company remains subject, on an ongoing basis, to Rule 5605(a)(2) and IM-5605, which require the Company’s board to make an affirmative determination that no relationship exists between the Company and the Directors that would interfere with their exercise of independent judgment in carrying out their responsibilities as directors. As noted above, we are not expressing any opinion as to the whether the Board could reasonably make such a determination.

Publication Date*: 4/11/2017 Mailto Link Identification Number: 1351
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