I Gave It All To You, So Why Don't You Like Me: Post-Closing Disputes in Mergers and Acquisitions

May 22, 2013, by Robert V. Hawn

As a veteran M & A lawyer in San Jose, where deal making has never gone out of style, I have been though my share of mergers and acquisitions. For business counsel, the closing of a deal is one of the times I get to spike the ball in the end zone as I watch the cash flow to a happy (and relieved) seller. Needing only to put together a closing package, my work is done and I am off to popping the corks at the closing dinner. Or is it?

From sole proprietors and small businesses to large corporations, many business owners enter the sale process believing the closing of a deal is accompanied by a one-way ticket to paradise. They often find out, however, that the fun is just beginning. The first year after closing presents a number of challenges, all of which must be carefully managed to make sure the seller gets the full value of the business.

As I have discussed in prior blogs there are a number of adjustments, associated with audits and working capital, which occur within the first three to six months after closing, including the following:

Post-Closing Audit
The first concerns the post-closing audit. Typically, a selling company's books will close on the actual closing date, and funds will be held back to deal with any adjustments exposed by the audit. Hopefully, the buyer and seller will have agreed in advance to the accounting procedures which must be used, i.e., how generally accepted accounting principles will be interpreted. Otherwise, the first fight will be over whose interpretation should control. This is particularly difficult, because each side may be constrained to using accounting procedures that differ from each other. Key issues in accounting procedures that can lead to disputes revolve around revenue recognition (a favorite for software companies), collectability of receivables, and valuation of hard assets.

Adjustment of Working Capital
The second concerns the working capital adjustment. This follows closely behind the audit, because it is the audit that establishes whether the working capital adjustment established in the acquisition agreement has been satisfied. I have talked before about the working capital adjustment, and like any post-closing adjustment, it is critical to ensure that the parties establish agreed upon accounting procedures to make sure they are not comparing apples to oranges.

Earnouts
The mother of all battles, however, usually occurs around earnouts. I have spoken about earnouts before. Earnout disputes are so pervasive in merger and acquisition deals that litigation attorneys have another word for them: inventory. This is also where the seller must be the most involved. Earnouts depend on business performance, and as much as the seller wants to start their new life, their presence and operation of the company post-closing can make a large difference in the amount ultimately received for their business. Changing business operations, sales approaches, and collection procedures are all matters the former owner needs to watch carefully. One of the biggest issues comes in the form of administrative overhead allocations, with the earnout payment being reduced due to a reduction in net earnings as a result of over allocation of administrative overhead.

Breach of Fiduciary Duty
Another fruitful area for litigation is where a representation or warranty may be breached. We discussed these in past blogs, and noted that, in most deals, funds are held back to satisfy buyer damages arising out of a breach of a representation or warranty. A seller that remains on the shop floor, so to speak, often has the institutional knowledge and relationships to prevent or minimize the acts or omissions that lead to a breach, and thereby reduce the ultimate hit against the holdback that might otherwise occur.

Resolving post-closing disputes is not easy. Most acquisition agreements will require disputes to be resolved through arbitration, which is usually faster than waiting for a court (especially here in California with our impacted court system). Arbitration, however, is not simple, fast or inexpensive. Where post-closing adjustments are involved, many of the issues revolve around accounting concepts, requiring accounting experts to be retained. These experts are not cheap. Where a seller's representation has been breached, complex indemnification provisions are often triggered, which can muddy ultimate resolution. It is not unusual for post-closing disputes to add a year or more to ultimate payout to a seller.

For this reason, sellers should expect that their full payout from the sale of their business may require continued involvement for a year or two after the closing. Sellers may find, however, that the additional involvement is a small price to pay.

The information appearing in this article does not constitute legal advice or opinion. Such advice and opinion are provided by the firm only upon engagement with respect to specific factual situations. Specific questions relating to this article should be addressed directly to the author.