The United States Capitol building in Washington DC
In April 2017, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC’s) Division of Corporate Finance announced it will not recommend enforcement action for companies that disclose, but do not further investigate usage of conflict minerals which may be from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Any company manufacturing or contracting to manufacture products using such minerals had previously been required to conduct extensive due diligence on its supply chain and make this diligence publicly known with a note that its products contained minerals which “have not been found to be ‘DRC conflict free.’” However, following a series of partial losses in court, the SEC appears to be backing off the rule—for now.

The Conflict Minerals Rule and Disclosure Requirements

A provision in the Dodd-Frank Act aims to cut off funding sources for armed rebel groups in the DRC and surrounding countries in central Africa. It requires companies manufacturing products containing certain minerals to conduct supply chain audits and disclose if those minerals were known to have originated in the DRC or adjoining countries. The SEC, as the enforcer of this provision, issued a rule requiring issuers of securities who filed reports with the SEC under Sections 13(a) or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and who manufactured or contracted to manufacture a product in which the defined conflict minerals were a necessary part, to file a separate special disclosure form, Form SD.  Although these obligations were placed on manufacturing issuers, in practice, the diligence requirement was imposed on others in the supply chain because many manufacturers required their supply chain partners to certify origin of minerals and compliance with the rule.

When Form SD was first issued, items 101(a) and (b) required companies using conflict minerals to attempt to identify the country of origin of those minerals. If after conducting a “reasonable country of origin inquiry” the company determined that the country of origin was neither the DRC nor an adjacent country, it had to disclose this finding (and a description of the country of origin inquiry conducted) on its website as well as to the SEC. Per item 101(c) of Form SD, if a company’s minerals may have originated in either the DRC or its neighboring countries, the company was required to conduct additional, more extensive due diligence, and then file and publish a conflict minerals report. This report had to include a description of the company’s due diligence efforts, certified results of an independent private audit, and a list of planned changes as a result of the audit. In the report and on its website, companies also had to describe which products had “not been found to be ‘DRC conflict free,’” although for the first two years of enforcement they could use the label “DRC conflict undeterminable.”

Legal Challenges

The National Association for Manufacturers challenged these regulations on both procedural and constitutional grounds. After the district court granted the SEC summary judgment, the Association appealed to the DC Circuit of Appeals. Ultimately, the appeals court found that forcing companies to note whether or not their products are DRC conflict free was unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The case was remanded to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which issued its final judgment in April 2017 and set aside the part of the rule that requires companies to add language that their products are “DRC conflict free” or “have not been found to be ‘DRC conflict free.’” Citing both the court decision and the unclear efficacy of the rule,  SEC Chair Michael Piwowar reopened comments and the SEC stayed the compliance portions of the rule pending the conclusion of litigation. The SEC announced it would not pursue enforcement actions against companies who only complete Form SD items 101(a) and (b) and do not pursue more extensive diligence on sourcing or secure an independent audit. The SEC has taken the view that the purpose of item 101(c) of Form SD and the related conflict minerals reports was to determine the status of conflict minerals by requiring the “conflict free” or “not conflict free” labels, and that these measures and the requirements for more detailed due diligence are in need of re-evaluation and clarification given recent court rulings on this matter.

Implications

Although companies are not currently expected to conduct the extensive due diligence envisioned by item 101(c) of Form SD, they are still expected to conduct in good faith a reasonable country of origin inquiry and disclose this information to the SEC and the public. Companies and boards still need to ensure there are effective diligence programs in place that allow reasonable inquiry into supply chain partners and components, particularly if conflict minerals are necessary to any product the company manufactures. By statute, the SEC is required to issue a rule relating to due diligence for conflict minerals. Although the “conflict free” labeling requirement has been eliminated, the question remains whether conflict minerals reports, in their current form, are otherwise valid. The SEC is currently developing its future enforcement recommendations with respect to the rule.

In the interim, companies should continue to ensure effective supply chain diligence mechanisms are in place that allow them to confirm where components, particularly conflict minerals, are sourced. To the extent that auditing or diligence measures had already been put into place prior to the final judgment and SEC announcement, companies may want to continue to implement these measures given the lingering uncertainty about future application of the rule. Companies also have the ability to submit comments on the rule to the SEC and should make their views known to influence future enforcement on this issue

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