Tom’s practice focuses on commercial litigation and transactions. In litigation, Tom represents both Plaintiffs and Defendants. Throughout his career, he has undertaken the representation of both individual and corporate clients in subject matters concerning fraud, contracts, employment agreements, breach of fiduciary duty, securities violations, real estate and insurer bad faith. Tom’s clients include individuals and businesses local to the Philadelphia area, as well as national corporations.
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Reprinted with permission from the June 27th edition of the The Legal Intelligencer © 2017 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
Earn out clauses in business acquisitions are notoriously fertile ground for disputes. Complicated post-closing performance metrics, access to information, modifications to accounting methodologies after closing, tracking and collection of revenue information all present opportunities for buyer and seller to disagree. The classic struggle of seller’s effort to maximize sale return juxtaposed against buyer’s focus on transforming the operations of the acquired enterprise for long term success necessarily create friction. Both sides bring their unique perspectives to the interpretation of the exhaustively negotiated purchase agreement with the new benefit of hindsight.
Certainly, arbitration pursuant to the Commercial Rules of the American Arbitration Association is common in any number of business contracts. When the parties elect that process, they accept the applicable Rules and agree to adopt the procedures which have been developed by AAA. In the earn out or deferred consideration context, however, acknowledging the sheer number of potential conflicts surrounding inherent accounting practices, scriveners often incorporate a unique mechanism for dispute resolution in their transactional documents. When the issue is theoretically limited to a calculation, the parties go to great pains to define the applicable accounting terms and may design a system of dispute resolution which does not contemplate many of the applicable provisions of the Commercial Rules or empower any judicial or quasi-judicial third party to control the process.
Indeed, transactional practitioners have developed language which seeks to avoid the intricacies of AAA arbitration in preference for what should be a predictable accounting calculation based on verified numerical results of operations. In such cases, parties most commonly agree to submit any dispute related to the earn out to an informal resolution process using mutually agreed upon accountants to serve as “expert consultants and not as arbitrators.” The sole purpose of the accountants’ participation is the review of financial information relating to post closing operations and the calculation of deferred consideration; which calculation would be “final and binding”.
Reprinted with permission from the December 30, 2016 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2016 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
Historically, the courts of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania have been loathe to blur the distinction between tort and contract. The gist of the action doctrine, well formed and frequently litigated, precludes recasting contract claims as tort claims or claims of negligent performance of contractual duties. The courts have specifically held that parties to business agreements such as partnership, shareholder or LLC operating agreements may contract away or severely limit fiduciary duties owed by partners, directors and managers. Notwithstanding these long standing and often contested principles of law, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is set to address an emergent trend toward the expansion of duties imposed by contract through the implication of the duty of good faith and fair dealing in the context of business relationships. Specifically, the Court has granted allocator on the issue of whether “the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing” applies to “all limited partnership agreements under Pennsylvania law.” Assuming the Court answers the question in the affirmative, as have the Courts in neighboring Delaware in a similar cases involving business governance agreements, the bright line between tort and contract will dim.
The case of Hanaway v. Parkersburg Group, L.P. 132 A.3d. 461 (Pa. Super. 2015) arises out of a limited partnership agreement for the development and sale of real estate. The complaint alleges various breaches of fiduciary duty, conversion and contract based on the general partner’s sale of real estate at below market value to a separate entity also controlled by the general partner and involving many of the same limited partners as had invested in the original limited partnership – to the exclusion of the plaintiffs. All tort claims based on breach of fiduciary duty were found to be time barred. Further, the trial court granted summary judgment on the contract claims. On appeal to the Superior Court, plaintiffs argued that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment on breach of contract claims by finding that the provisions of the limited partnership agreement granting the general partner exclusive right to manage the business affairs of the partnership negated the duty of good faith and fair dealing. Plaintiffs argued the covenant is implied in every contract and imposes on each party a duty of good faith and fair dealing in its performance and enforcement, notwithstanding the grant of exclusive management rights.
The Superior Court held that the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing imposed the duty to exercise a contractual obligation, even a contractual obligation expressly conferring the exercise of discretion, must be exercised in good faith. “Good faith” was interpreted to mean “faithfulness to an agreed common purpose and consistency with the justified expectations of the other party; it excludes a variety of types of conduct characterized as involving bad faith because they violate community standards of decency, fairness or reasonableness”. The Court went on to describe the implied duty as requiring “honesty in fact in the conduct of the transaction concerned”. Thus, the Court concluded that the general partner’s sale of partnership assets at below market rate for its own benefit and the benefit of its like minded limited partners to the detriment of others may constitute a breach of the implied duty and an issue for trial which should not have been dismissed on summary judgment.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s impending decision will undoubtedly be guided by precedent from the Delaware Supreme Court and the statutory preservation of the duty of good faith and fair dealing even in the face of the right to contract including the right to limit other duties- even fiduciary duties. Delaware has adopted both a Revised Uniform Limited Partnership Act and a Limited Liability Company Act which permit parties to business agreements within the scope of those Acts to limit fiduciary duties owed to each other and the business. The Limited Liability Company Act goes so far as to confirm the premise that managers in an LLC owe fiduciary duties to each other under law by default, but allows for modification of such duties in the operating agreement. The Revised Uniform Partnership Act, while allowing for a contractual waiver of fiduciary duties, specifically rejects waiver of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Accordingly, while the parties are free to modify the fiduciary relationship with regard to management of business entities traditionally governed by contract, the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing remains. That premise was confirmed by the Delaware Supreme Court in Gerber v. Enterprise Products Holdings, LLC 67 A.3d 400 (Del. 2013). In Gerber, the Supreme Court explained that the implied covenant “seeks to enforce the parties’ contractual bargain by implying only those terms the parties would have agreed to during their original negotiations had they thought to address them”. Gerber, at 418.
The blending of tort and contract in the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s analysis in Hanaway is clearly evident by the Court’s summary conclusion that the breach of contract claims should have been preserved for the jury. Although directly addressing the breach of contract claim, the Court applied tort principles by finding that the evidence, if credited, could support a finding that the Defendant orchestrated the sale of partnership assets at a price below market value for its own benefit. The Court then concluded such sale could have constituted a breach of the contractual duty to exercise management of the limited partnership in “good faith”. Hanaway, 132 A.3d at 476.
A Supreme Court opinion which imposes the duty of good faith and fair dealing to all agreements governing business relationships will have far reaching implications. Clearly, if breach of contract can be successfully alleged in a business setting under circumstances described in Hanaway, the statute of limitations analysis is substantially modified. Owners of a minority business interest may no longer be limited to a two year statute. Business practitioners and drafters of organizational documents who once believed a disclaimer of fiduciary duty was sufficient must now reconsider the inclusion of a “good faith” definition. For litigators, the permissible theories of damage claims in business disputes concerning internal governance documents are expanded.
Although the Hanaway Superior Court decision is at odds with many traditional notions of separation between tort and contract, any Supreme Court determination that excludes the principal of good faith and fair dealing from business agreements would be at odds with the overarching and recognized principle that the duty is “implied in every contract”. Further, any such ruling would be at odds with recent precedent from the Supreme Court of Delaware.
Tom Donnelly is a Partner of the firm. His practice focuses primarily on commercial litigation and transactions, employment disputes and personal injury. To learn more about the firm or Tom Donnelly, visit www.ammlaw.com.
Admittedly, insurance is an important part of any business plan. Protecting against a catastrophic loss occasioned from outside factors renders the premium cost a reasonable and justifiable expense. But it is important to understand that commercial general liability insurance is not a substitute for performance, nor will insurance provide any benefit with regard to a myriad of potential claims which commonly arise in the ordinary course of business. It is important to understand what protections are acquired and the scope of the coverage.
For example, commercial general liability insurance provides no coverage for any breach of contract claim. Generally, the insurance benefit applies only to an “occurrence”; which, under Pennsylvania law is defined as an “accident”. If your business fails to perform on a contract, or deliver on a promise, there has been no occurrence, and therefore no coverage will generally apply.
Further, most basic commercial general liability policies provide no coverage for “your work” meaning no coverage is provided with respect to the products you manufacture or the things you build. For example, if your business is engaged in the design and construction of a manufacturing line and that manufacturing line malfunctions causing damage only to itself, no coverage will apply. In contrast, if the manufacturing line were to malfunction causing damage to the property where it was installed, those damages may be covered. Similarly, if the manufacturing line were to malfunction causing a loss of product, those damages may likewise be covered.
As with any contract, the scope of commercial general liability coverage and exclusion is defined by the terms of the policy. Under Pennsylvania law, as the policies of insurance are drafted by the insurers and offered to policy holders without modification, the provisions of those policies are interpreted in a light most favorable to the insured. Traditional common law precedent relating to contract interpretation are also applicable.
Many particular risks which may be excluded from coverage under a basic commercial general liability policy may be subject to additional coverages available by endorsement. Although tedious, review of the often complicated and lengthy provisions of the policy of insurance with the issuing agent is the only way to gain even a rudimentary understanding of coverages. Even then, a professional review is often worth the investment. There is simply no substitute for an understanding of the relationship between the business risks and the provisions of the commercial general liability policy and an analysis of additional risk that may be insured by endorsement to the policy.
The law requires drivers in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and New Jersey to maintain a certain minimum level of liability coverage with regard to any automobile. That coverage serves the important function of providing a fund from which an injured person may recover for injuries caused by the negligence of the person securing the coverage known as the “insured”. Liability coverage also serves the equally important role of protecting the insured’s personal assets by providing a monetary barrier between the claims of an injured person and the personal assets of the insured
Some other provisions of an automobile policy which get far less attention, however, are also designed to protect the insured as opposed to someone injured by the insured’s negligence. Policy provisions such as “stacking”, the limited tort option (known in New Jersey as the “verbal threshold”) and uninsured/underinsured protections are critically important to the insuring relationship and may be the difference between a successful recovery and a recovery which is not enough to satisfy your own medical bills, even if you are involved in an accident caused by the negligence of someone else. “Penny wise and pound foolish” is a dangerous proposition when it comes to automobile coverage.
We recently and successfully tried a week long jury trial in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas where the predominant issue in the case was the clients’ election of the limited tort option in his auto insurance policy. By choosing the limited tort option, the client had relinquished his right to bring suit against anyone whose negligence may have caused him to be injured, unless the accident resulted in a “serious impairment of a bodily function”. In our case, the client had suffered a mild traumatic brain injury – a concussion. Unlike the majority of individuals who suffer such injuries, our client did not recover as expected, and continued to suffer mild neuropsychological deficits such as difficulty in word finding and rapid processing of information. Notwithstanding those deficits, the client was able to return to his normal occupation. Because our client had chosen the limited tort option, the tortfeasor’s insurer refused to make any offer of settlement whatsoever based on his neuropsychological deficits, offering only to satisfy the client’s lost wages. Our negotiating position on behalf of our client in settlement discussions was clearly disadvantaged since the insurance company knew there was substantial potential that the very specific and nuanced nature of the injury would be difficult for a jury to grasp, and might lead a jury to conclude the client had not suffered a “serious impairment of a bodily function”. While we were successful at trial, the matter is one which should and would have been resolved in settlement but for the election of limited tort coverage by the client. Had our client invested in full tort coverage, he would have been spared an emotionally taxing and all-consuming trial on merits and damages.
Reprinted with permission from the June 24, 2016 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2016 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
The digital age and pervasive use of email communication gives rise to an entirely new and complex set of issues pertaining to the application of the attorney client privilege and the potential claim for waiver of that privilege. Many commentators have addressed the use of commercial email servers and the implications of the terms and conditions applicable to such email accounts citing the potential that emails transmitted through such accounts may not be secure or protected. The commercial provider’s right to use, retain or review the information communicated may impact on the privilege. Even more complex are the issues that arise when email communications pass between a lawyer and a client utilizing an email account provided to the employee by the employee’s employer, or using an employer provided computer. While the law on an employer’s right to review information passing through its computer systems is continuing to develop, the application of that law to potentially attorney client privileged communications is in its infancy. Research regarding the application of attorney client privilege to email communications exchanged through an employer’s email server reveals no case directly on point where the advice of counsel is sought regarding matters involving the employer.
Litigants seeking discovery of attorney client communications through an employer sponsored email account cite the principles developed in cases of inadvertent disclosure and the requirements for invoking the attorney client privilege. Pennsylvania law permits the invocation of the privilege if the communication relates to a fact of which the attorney was informed by his client, without the presence of strangers, for the purpose of securing either an opinion of law, legal services or assistance in a legal matter. Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co. v. Fleming, 924 A.2d 1259 (Pa.Super. 2007). In Carbis Walker, LLPv. Hill Barth and King, LLP, 930 A.2d 573 (Pa.Super.2007), the Superior Court adopted the five factor test to determine whether inadvertent disclosure amounted to a waiver of the attorney client privilege; (1) the reasonableness of the precautions taken to prevent inadvertent disclosure in view of the extent of the document production; (2) the number of inadvertent disclosures;(3) the extent of the disclosure;(4) the delay and measures taken to rectify the disclosure; and (5) whether the overriding interests of justice would or would not be served by relieving the party of its errors.
Pennsylvania has adopted specific provisions relating to a shareholder’s right to inspect the books and records of a corporation duly organized under the laws of the Commonwealth. The Business & Corporations Law clearly provides for a shareholder’s inspection of corporate records, including the share registry, books of account and records of proceedings upon written notice stating a proper purpose. However, when the legislature adopted the Limited Liability Company Law of 1994 (the “LLC law”) no similar provision was made relating to a member’s right to review company books and records, and no reference was made to the right of inspection applicable to corporations.
The absence of a specific reference in the LLC law does not mean that a member in a Limited Liability Company does not have the right to inspect business records. The statute approaches that right from a different direction through the application and incorporation of partnership law. Section 8904 of the LLC law incorporates by reference provisions relating to general partnerships in the case of a member managed LLC and additional provisions related to limited partnerships in the case of a manager managed LLC. In either case, the provisions of Chapter 83 relating to general partnerships are rendered applicable.
Section 8332 provides that “the partnership books shall be kept, subject to agreement between the partners, at the principal place of business of the partnership, and every partner shall at all times have access to and may inspect and copy any of them”. While partnership law does not define the types of records which are to be maintained in the same manner as the provisions relating to corporations, the statutory intent appears to be the same and thus the types of records subject to inspection are arguably similar in scope.
There are material differences between the right applicable to corporations and partnerships/ LLC’s. One major difference is that the partnership/LLC provision does not reference a requirement that the partner seeking an inspection state a “proper purpose” for the inspection. The right as stated appears to be absolute as to partnerships/LLCs whereas in a corporate setting the shareholder must identify and communicate the purpose. In addition, the provisions relating to corporations specifically provide for a cause of action for review of corporate records and for the recovery of attorney fees associated with the enforcement of that right. No provision in the partnership law applicable to LLCs provides a specific similar right, nor the recovery of attorney fees. A practitioner is left to argue the applicability of the provisions relating to corporations and the similarity of purposes served by the two statutory provisions.
By Thomas P. Donnelly, Esquire
Reprinted with permission from the November 23, 2015 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2015 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
A high business “tide” does not necessarily float all boats. Often, when business is good and profits increasing, a business owner’s desire to avoid sharing those increasing profits with an underperforming partner can create an irreconcilable divide; particularly in the case of a partner not intimately involved in the day to day operations of the business. Similarly, more difficult economic times stress cash flow, and may motivate a performing partner to explore options to decrease or eliminate that portion of the business income flowing to those performing at a lower level. Of course, the lesser performing partner generally adopts a contrary perspective. In either case, the divergence between two or more partners can render the status quo unacceptable and threaten the business as a going concern.
In approaching disputes among shareholders several factors must be considered. First, does the attorney represent the company, the majority interest, or the minority interest? The practitioner’s potential strategies must be informed by the relative position of the parties. Second, what are the respective goals of the parties? Certainly, the long term goal of extracting the most gain in income or the value of the investment is the goal of all the parties, but short terms strategies can have a dramatic and sometimes unintended consequence. Third, what is the impact of the potential short term strategies, not only on the business, but also on the individuals? Financing arrangements and personal guarantees must be considered. Finally, the respective rights and obligations of the shareholders post dissolution must guide the process.
When approached by a client considering business divorce, the attorney must consider potential conflicts of interest. Often, the majority owner’s first call is to corporate counsel. However, Rules of Professional Conduct 1.7, 1.8 and 1.9 bear upon whether corporate counsel can represent the interests of only one shareholder/member. In summary, representation of the “company” in the same or substantially related matter, or receipt of confidential information which may bear upon the representation of the party not seeking to be represented by corporate counsel, would preclude corporate counsel from undertaking the representation of a single shareholder/member. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate for the company to have separate counsel, such as where the company is a potential defendant in litigation commenced by either a third party or a shareholder. However, such representation is complicated by divergence among board members and can present difficult issues in corporate governance and communication between counsel and the corporate client.
Representation of the majority interest provides for the implementation of whatever remedies may be available under the terms of written agreements among the shareholders or by means of corporate action as to a non-performer. Significantly, there is no statutory right or method for the involuntary removal of a shareholder (arguably, such a remedy may be available in a partnership or Limited Liability Company setting). Potential courses of action include severance of employment or reduction in employment benefits for the non-performer, voluntary dissolution if provided and appropriate pursuant to the agreements between the parties, and modification of corporate governance. Of course, such potential courses of action do not come without risk, and the potential for litigation alleging minority oppression should be anticipated. In such a case, documentation of non-performance and job duties is compelling.
Representation of the minority owner is more difficult. Many times, the minority owner is left with litigation alternatives such as actions for the appointment of a custodian or liquidating receiver pursuant to 15 Pa.C.S.A. Sections 1767 or 1985, respectively. While these litigation remedies can be compelling, it should not be expected that litigation would result in continuation of the status quo indefinitely. Litigation rarely restores a broken relationship. Further, as recently noted by the United States District Court in Spina v. Refrigeration Service and Engineering, Inc. 2014 WL 4632427, a shareholder seeking the appointment of a receiver or a custodian bears a heavy burden and such appointment is at the discretion of the Court.
In addition, litigation alternatives necessarily incorporate business risk. Can the company survive the appointment of a custodian? By definition, a custodian is designed to continue the business as opposed to liquidation. The impact of a custodian on customer relationships, the entity’s capacity to contract and the willingness of business partners to engage in long term planning or projects may render liquidation inevitable. Certainly, the appointment of a custodian or receiver results in a loss of control on the part of the shareholders. All policy and management decisions fall within the purview of the court appointee. Such loss of control can be particularly problematic as it pertains to the case of tax reporting.
That same loss of control must be considered in a liquidation scenario. Liquidation contemplates an orderly winding down and distribution of assets which should be anticipated to include intellectual property and customer lists in addition to any fixed or hard assets possessed by the entity. As noted in Spina, liquidation is generally carried out by public auction so as to ensure fairness among shareholders. In the event of a liquidating receiver, a marketing campaign designed to enhance the value of the assets and maximize the selling price should be anticipated. In such circumstance, neither party may be in a position to acquire the liquidated assets or may be forced to over-pay, thereby rendering such acquisition economically unfeasible. Accordingly, while the goal at the outset of a liquidation proceeding may be to force a buy out of a shareholder, the end result may be that no party is in a position to acquire assets and engage in continued business operations.
The impact of a custodian or receivership on the individual business owners must also be considered. Business owners frequently guaranty corporate debt. The commencement of an action for the appointment of a custodian or receiver is almost always defined as an event of default with regard to the entity’s financing arrangements and could also trigger liability under the personal guaranty.
Finally, post liquidation obligations, or the lack thereof, should also be considered. It should be anticipated that former partners would compete post liquidation. The liquidation of the entity by definition precludes any claim for breach of fiduciary duty on the part of the company to the extent based on post liquidation acts or omissions and any right to enforce a post termination of employment restriction against competition. However, arguably, the sale of the entity’s assets, including confidential information such as customer lists, may implicate the Uniform Trade Secrets Act and preclude use of information known to the shareholders in competition with the buyer. While no case decided under Pennsylvania law addresses the application of the Act to such circumstance, the Act appears to be applicable where a shareholder retains possession of information which was subject to transfer in liquidation.
The complexities of business divorce through litigation mandate that the parties consider and pursue all avenues of amicable dissolution and consider all proposals for voluntary consolidation of ownership before pursuing litigation with uncertain results.
Tom Donnelly is a Partner with Antheil, Maslow & MacMinn. His practice focuses primarily on commercial litigation and transactions, employment disputes and personal injury.
By Thomas P. Donnelly, Esquire Reprinted with permission from the May 29, 2015 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2015 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
Confidentiality agreements have become commonplace in commercial litigation. The purpose of a confidentiality agreement as the protection from disclosure of either private personal or sensitive business information which gives a party a competitive advantage is certainly a noble one and one which mandates an agreement against such disclosure in a wide variety of circumstances. Often, the parties seek the imprimatur of the court by requesting the court adopt the agreement of the parties as an order thereby incorporating the court’s power to impose sanctions in the event of breach. The entry of such an order, whether intentionally or as an unintended consequence, may change the nature of a third party, foreign to the dispute with respect to which the confidentiality order was entered, to obtain information produced in the prior litigation.
By Thomas P. Donnelly, Esquire, Reprinted with permission from the November 24, 2014 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2014 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
I do not generally characterize myself as a fan of arbitration. While proponents argue arbitration is a superior form of dispute resolution and more efficient than litigation, my personal experience in the representation of privately held businesses and individuals is otherwise. In many situations, the sheer cost to initiate an arbitration proceeding may be prohibitive. For a claimant, even if that initial cost is not an effective deterrent, the budget of ongoing hourly fees required of a qualified arbitrator in addition to the parties’ own anticipated legal fees, can quickly impair the potential recovery. For a Respondent, many times the cost of proceeding was not considered at the time of execution of an agreement which compels arbitration; thus the obligation to make payment for a service technically rendered by the courts without cost comes as a surprise. In either case, the parties must realize that at arbitration each is compensating not only its own lawyer, but, at least partially, another lawyer and a private dispute resolution industry as well. While arguably profitable for the legal profession, the realities of proceeding can result in difficult client discussions.
The above being said, there are situations where arbitration clauses can be of substantive, procedural and, consequently, financial benefit. In such cases, even a skeptic of arbitration must recognize the benefits of the bargained for exchange which is an arbitration agreement. Under the current state of the law, and given the trends in the enforcement of the right to contract, a carefully considered and artfully drafted arbitration agreement can be an essential aspect to certain business relationships and an important term of negotiation.
Employers should almost always include the broadest possible arbitration clause in any employment agreement and, generally, as a term of employment. In most cases, an action arising in an employment situation concerns a claim raised by an employee, or worse, a class of employees against the employer. The employer is generally a defendant. In such cases, arbitration clauses can serve several functions. First, an employee initiating the action must satisfy the initial fee if mandated by the prevailing agreement. As such fees are often determined by the amount at issue, the larger the claim, the higher the fee, and the greater deterrent toward commencement of the action. As of November 1, 2014, the filing fee for the commencement of an American Arbitration Association claim involving more than one million but less than ten million dollars was $7,000.00. Note there is no refund of the filing fee should the matter resolve. Certainly, the requisite fee is a deterrent to the filing of a border line claim, but could also be a deterrent to a claimant’s joinder of additional even less viable claims which include different damage components. Under any circumstances, the employee faces an early branch to the decision tree.
The flexibility of arbitration clauses within employment agreements may prove even more critical. With careful drafting, an employer can effectively insulate itself from certain employment related class actions. In Quillion v. Tenet HealthSystem Philadelphia, Inc. the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit compelled arbitration of a Fair Labor Standards Act claim and, more importantly, declined to strike down a provision of an employment agreement requiring such claims be brought on an individual basis precluding proceedings as a class. The Quillion Court indicated that such a class action waiver was consistent with the Federal Arbitration Act and suggested in the strongest of terms that Pennsylvania’s preclusion of class action waiver in the employment context was preempted by Federal Law. Certainly, the equities of any such situation, including preservation of remedies and additional recovery of fees and costs are important to the court’s inquiry, but the current trend is to support the rights of the parties to contract, even to their own peril.
The flexibility of the arbitration agreement also allows for exclusions from the scope and reservation of certain matters for litigation. Matters of equity such as enforcement of restrictions against competition or solicitation can be reserved for the courts, thereby preserving immediate access to judicial process for enforcement of employer remedies. Interestingly, the reverse may not necessarily be true. The Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas recently dismissed a complaint for declaratory judgment seeking a judicial determination voiding certain restrictions against competition determining that such equity claim was within the scope of the arbitration agreement and, therefore, for the arbitrator to decide.
Arbitration also plays a vital role in the ever broadening world economy. In 2014, international business is the norm rather than the exception. The courts of the United States and the signatories to the New York Convention on Arbitration have routinely enforced arbitration clauses establishing the parameters of dispute resolution as consistent with the parties’ right to contract. Critically, the arbitration clause can protect a company operating in this country from the many pitfalls, incremental expenses and inconsistencies of litigating in a foreign country or even against a sovereign nation in its own judicial system by selecting a choice of law and a situs of the arbitration proceeding. Such forum selection also provides a certain substantive component not only as to applicable law, but also in the qualification of fact finders as the roles of qualified arbitrators available for commercial disputes continue to grow. Finally, arbitration may be preferable to litigation in the United States District Courts as the parties may be granted greater flexibility and input to the development of the schedule of proceedings rather than subject to the rule of the federal judge, who may or may not be familiar with often complex substantive issues. Finally, arbitration may also be preferable in any relationship where confidentiality is key. In some cases, the simple fact of a public filing is of concern. In many others, the factual allegations of a complaint, even if eventually proven unfounded, can be damaging. While an arbitration clause cannot prevent a claimant from filing an initial public complaint in court, an enforceable arbitration clause can bring an abrupt end to the public aspect of the dispute.
The courts remain the preferred forum for dispute resolution in many circumstances. However, with the growing trend of contract enforcement to the terms of arbitration agreements even a skeptic must admit that the inclusion of an arbitration clause in certain circumstances can provide a substantive advantage and dramatically impact the landscape of dispute resolution to your client’s benefit.
My wife doesn’t eat fish. Chicken is the staple of the diet in our house. Despite careful consideration, sometimes she gets tricked into consuming what looks like a tasty morsel only to be disappointed by the taste and texture of what comes from the sea. She promptly, but of course gracefully, extracts the fishy culprit from her mouth thereby rescinding the transaction and restoring her being to non-seafood status. Of course, a fishy business transaction cannot be so easily unwound.
Business transactions come in all shapes and sizes. From multi-million dollar mergers involving teams of lawyers and accountants to small asset purchases effectuated by only a bill of sale scribbled on a napkin. Most fall somewhere in between. Almost all involve disclosure of financial and business information in advance of closing in a “due diligence” period of evaluation and investigation. Due diligence is the means by which a buyer attempts to verify what the seller has to sell; the ongoing revenue stream and the customer pipeline. Sometimes the performance of the business after closing sharply contrasts the results of operations depicted in financial information exchanged in due diligence. The new owners are left without a roadmap to ascertain the disparities in performance. The investigation can be all consuming and require substantial attention and money at a time when the business is already in a period of transition. The new owners must balance examination of the transaction and results of operations against the focus required to conduct the daily activities of the business which, of course, remain pressing and are likely made more complex by the unexpected performance levels.
Hopefully, any agreements reached between the parties contain representations and warranties which could benefit the purchaser. The terms of the agreement are the best place to start the analysis of potential legal action. Generally, such agreements will represent and warrant the financial information exchanged in due diligence was accurate and adequately described the performance of the business. For example, often tax returns, profit and loss statements and balance sheets will be exchanged in due diligence and subject to specific representations and warranties. Examination of what documents were specifically referenced as included in the representations and warranties is critical. Where the prevailing agreements contain integration clauses, the representations and warranties are of paramount importance as integration clauses can prohibit reliance upon statements and information not specifically incorporated into the four corners of the documents and bar claims such as negligent misrepresentation and, potentially, fraud.
Determining whether the profit and loss statements and balance sheets contain material mis-statements of operations can be complicated. The investigation must begin with securing all documents subject to due diligence and the verification that those documents were the same documents that were prepared in the ordinary course of business. Ensure that any financial records or tax returns produced by the seller match financial records available from a different source such as a broker, accountant or internal revenue service. Of course, information becomes more available after the commencement of litigation by virtue of the discovery process.
The forensic analysis involves testing the information set forth in summary form in the financial statements against whatever other information is available. Quickbooks reports can reveal adjustments made to performance results. The reality however, is that most business owners, and for that matter attorneys, lack the requisite expertise to effectively conduct the necessary investigation. Accordingly, a forensic accountant skilled in fraud examination and detection is a valuable member of the analytical team. Certainly, there is a cost associated with that service, which cost must be incurred before the results are clear, but the expertise of the investigation will often control the outcome. The forensic accountant is trained to identify inconsistencies such as whether payroll was accurately stated, whether inventory and costs of goods sold were appropriately booked and whether income as stated on the financial records is impacted by other unspecified factors. A preliminary forensic investigation is essential to the decision to pursue costly litigation.
A buyer must also consider the potential parties, their financial positions, and the types of claims that can be raised. In seller financed transactions, as opposed to bank financed transactions, the buyer’s leverage is significantly enhanced. In the former, the buyer may apply pressure to a seller by discontinuing payments. In the latter the bank generally has no regard for any claims the buyer may possess against the seller and simply demands its’ payment each month. Generally, no court will interfere with the bank’s rights to security and payment as same are not dependent on the result of any claims possessed by the buyer as against the seller. The ability to recover in litigation must also be considered. The distribution of purchase price, whether distributed to creditors or held in joint accounts in a tenancy by the entireties state can impose additional obstacles to recovery and necessarily impacts litigation strategy. Identification of potential defendants and causes of action is also essential. Pennsylvania recognizes the torts of negligent misrepresentation in certain circumstances including preparation of financial information for the reliance of others, aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty and conspiracy. Accordingly, to the extent a seller was assisted in the preparation of false financial information, those who assisted may also be appropriately identified as defendants when the facts are supportive of liability. Potential claims against a seller include breach of warranty, fraud, misrepresentation, conversion, unjust enrichment and, under the right set of fact, claims for punitive damages. Breach of warranty claims are often the best chance of success as the issue of intent (or lack thereof) has no bearing on proof of a breach of warranty claim.
Finally, consider the measure of damages. Under the right circumstances, lost profits can be claimed. However, post-closing failure (or alternatively, success), management issues and other factors can complicate the damages analysis. In the absence of a lost profits claim, the difference between the valuation of the company in accordance with the financial information presented and the financial information eventually uncovered may result is a simpler damage calculation. Of course, any such analysis also requires the assistance of a business valuation expert in addition to the forensic accountant referenced above. A buyer must also be wary of any damage limitations internal to the agreements between the parties as well as any internal statutes of limitations which may be set by agreement.
In contrast to the ease by which my wife can expel inadvertently consumed sea food, rescission in a business transaction is unlikely. The very idea of rescission, placing the parties back in their respective conditions, may be impossible based on post-sale performance. Claims for money damages are far more often the claims that proceed to conclusion.
Certainly, pursuit of litigation concerning the purchase of a business can be expensive and complicated. Any such decision must weigh the likelihood of success and the cost of that success, against the distraction such litigation may cause and potential impact of that distraction on business operations. That being said, sometimes a buyer simply has no choice and sometimes what smells rotten really is just that; rotten.