Tax Planning Reminders for Businesses Before Year-End

November 7, 2013,

It is that time of year again. Every year in the fourth quarter, businesses in San Jose and all over the United States are looking at the quickly approaching year-end and trying to figure out what they can do now before it is too late to save on taxes for 2013. This is especially true for small businesses, where every dollar of deduction is important because it hits the owner(s) directly in the pocketbook. My law firm is an LLP, so all items of profit and loss flow through to the partners. Therefore, this is the time of year that I look very carefully at how much money is available and what my law firm is going to need or want to buy in the next few months. Do we need a new copier? Do we want to upgrade our software? If so, let's do it in December rather than January and get the deduction this year. With this in mind, here are a few things for business owners to consider before 2013 is over.

Purchase Equipment for Your Business
Make your equipment purchases before year-end. In 2013, up to $500,000 of both new and used assets purchased and actually put in use by December 31st can be expensed. This means you get a dollar for dollar deduction this year, without having to depreciate the asset over its useful life. This is really helpful for partners that want a deduction for every dollar spent so that they do not have taxable profits without available cash for distribution. But this benefit is limited. If you purchase and put in place more than $2,000,000 of assets during 2013, the $500,000 expense is phased out on a dollar for dollar basis. These limits will likely be even lower next year, so take advantage of them now.

Make Tenant Improvements on Your Commercial Property
Another tax break set to expire after his year is the 50% bonus depreciation, which allows companies to write off half the cost of new assets with useful lives of 20 years or less, in the first year. This includes interior leasehold improvements for commercial real estate. The remaining 50% is depreciated as usual. So, if you are planning some nice tenant improvements in your office, do them before year-end, just in case Congress does not get around to extending this tax break.

Purchase an SUV for Your Business
Have you been thinking about a new Sport Utility Vehicle? You can deduct most of the cost of new SUVs that are used 100% for business and weigh over 6,000 pounds, in the year of purchase. First, there is the special $25,000 deduction for new SUVs, add to that the 50% bonus depreciation, plus normal depreciation on top of that, and you end up with approximately $46,000 of a $60,000 heavy SUV being deductible this year.

So whether you are a partner in a law firm like me, or a partner in any type of business partnership, or a shareholder in a corporation, do not wait until tax time to look at what deductions are available to you. Start planning now for tax savings later.

Source: The Kiplinger Tax Letter, Vol. 88, No. 18, Aug. 30, 2013

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.

Crowdfunding Made Easy? Not So Much

October 1, 2013,

I have always known that Silicon Valley is home to many innovative companies and has a lot of entrepreneurial talent, but I was still amazed to read that start-ups in Palo Alto, Mountain View, Redwood City, Sunnyvale and San Jose received a combined $980+ million in funding in Q2'13. [Source: Silicon Valley Business Journal, July 16, 2013]. As a business lawyer in San Jose, I have seen a number of attempts to make fundraising for start-up companies easier. Recently, a new technique has come into favor.

The new buzz word for start-ups looking for funding is crowdfunding (sometimes known as crowdsourcing). In this type of deal, a group or entrepreneur will receive contributions from a large number of people for a project. The process started with artists raising money for their projects. Their success led for-profit companies to look at crowdfunding to raise money. Websites like kickstarter.com and indiegogo.com are just a few that provide crowdfunding opportunities.

To encourage crowdfunding, Congress passed the JOBS Act a year ago last September. In response, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) released new regulations intended to encourage crowdfunding. One of the new regulations relaxes the public solicitation limitations that had been imposed for certain types of private financing deals.

A little background may be helpful at this point. Because start-up fundraising involves selling stock, start-ups have to comply with federal securities laws. To avoid the formal and expensive registration process, companies comply by using an exemption, known as Regulation D. To be eligible to use Regulation D, you could not publicly solicit your stock. Here is where the SEC relaxed its requirements. For issuances involving only financially sophisticated persons who are accredited (meaning, rich) investors, you can publicly solicit your stock. Life is good!

Well, not so fast. The SEC said if you publicly solicit, you need to be sure the investor is actually accredited. So, what do you have to do?

In the past, most stock purchase documents merely have the purchaser state they are accredited. Under this new rule, that will not be enough. Instead, the issuer has to take "reasonable steps to verify that such purchasers are accredited investors." The SEC did not want to dictate what has to be reviewed to verify accredited status, but did make some suggestions. For example, if you are using income as a basis for accredited status, you can look at tax returns. If you are looking at net worth as a basis, you can look at bank statement, brokerage statements, and a consumer report as to liabilities from a nationwide consumer reporting agency. You can also accept a written statement from a registered broker-dealer, registered investment advisor, or attorney.

Another set of regulations that is required under the JOBS Act governs the operation of funding portals, essentially companies that will enable investors to invest in start-up companies. The only problem with these regulations is that they do not yet exist. We are all waiting for these new regulations, and the latest rumors are that we should see something in the last quarter of this year.

What this all means is that if you want to use crowdfunding to sell stock, you will need to be a lot more invasive in investigating the financial status of your investors. Investors may not be comfortable releasing this information. As a result, this newest revision from the SEC may not open the floodgates of capital to start-ups. In addition, if you want to use a funding portal, you need to wait a little longer for the SEC to get its regulations together. Still, it all adds up to a new way of raising funds, and may prove to be useful in the right situation.

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.

Limited Personal Guarantees: It Pays to be Precise!

September 27, 2013,

The personal guarantee has long been used to bolster the quality of a commercial loan, real estate loan or business loan. Often the personal guarantee is a full guarantee, extending to all obligations of the borrower and giving a lender potential recourse to all property of the guarantor in an enforcement action. Sometimes, however, the lender and guarantor agree that the guaranty will be more limited. A recent case out of the Bay Area, Series AGI West Linn of Appian Group Investors DE LLC v. Eves, 217 Cal. App.4th 156 (2013), dealt with such a limited guarantee , which carved-out the guarantor's home and exempted it from the lender's reach under the guarantee. The personal guarantee was very broad, but for the specific exclusion for the house. After the guarantee was signed, but before the loan soured and the lender demanded payment, the guarantor sold the exempted house for cash and put the proceeds of the sale in segregated accounts. Once defaults occurred under the loan, the question at issue was whether the carve-out under the guarantee exempted only the asset named, a house in Como, Italy (but for our purposes it could have been a home in San Jose or Palo Alto as well!) or extended to the proceeds from the cash sale of the house.

In the AGI West Linn case, the lender sued the guarantor and also asked the court to enter a right to attach order and writ of attachment to lock up the cash from the sale of the house. The guarantor opposed this, arguing that the money was simply proceeds of the excluded residence and, as the house itself was excluded from lender's recourse, the direct proceeds of the sale of the house should be excluded as well. The lender countered that the guarantee did not say anything about "proceeds" being excluded, only the house.

The court held for the lender, taking a strict reading of the guarantee.

So what is the take-away? Careful drafting is a must if parties wish to exclude certain specific assets from the otherwise broad scope of a personal guarantee. The court here read the plain language of the guarantee and stated that if the guarantor intended to include proceeds of the sale of the asset as part of the exclusion, he should have expressly put this in the guarantee , and it was not the court's job to save a party from the ugly implications of the plain language of a contract. One gleans from the court opinion that the strategy of strictly construing the guarantee would also likely apply if other limitations, such as a limitation on the scope of the guaranteed obligations, existed and required analysis.

Another point is to be aware that when analyzing the guarantee, this court rejected the approach of applying the UCC formula for treatment of proceeds of collateral, which extends a lien on an asset to a lien on proceeds of the asset if it is liquidated (subject to certain tests). If the UCC's formula was being followed, segregated proceeds of the sale of the exempted house would have naturally been included with the carve-out of the house. The court in the AGI West Linn case dismissed this avenue of analysis and instead applied principles of strict contract interpretation.

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.

Asset Purchases May Come With Hidden Liabilities

September 11, 2013,

One of my clients is a medium sized manufacturing plant here in San Jose. Although not a high-tech business, they have extensive capital assets and specialized skills. The business is being run by the second generation of family members, and the third generation is now being trained to take the reins someday. The family has recognized that many of their competitors are still being run by the first generation of owners, and it does not look like those businesses are likely to transition to other family members. As the owners of the competitive businesses age and want to retire, they will be looking to sell their manufacturing plants. My client wants to buy them. We recently sat down and discussed acquisition strategies. I explained that there are two common ways to buy a business - either you buy the stock, or you buy the assets. What most people do not realize, is that even when you are only buying the assets, you could be liable for up to three times the purchase price in state taxes that should have been paid by the seller.

Most people know that when you buy the stock of a corporation (or membership interests in an LLC), you get all of the assets as well as all of the liabilities in that company. As a result, many of my clients want to buy only the assets of a company as a strategy to avoid the liabilities (known and unknown) that come with a business with history behind it. To accomplish this, we draft an asset purchase agreement that includes lists of which assets we are buying, which liabilities we are buying, and which liabilities we are not taking on. For example, when you buy the stock of a company, you get all of its employees including their accrued and unpaid vacation time. When you buy the assets of a company, we ask the selling business to terminate all of its employees so that we can start over by hiring them in the acquiring company as new employees, without any potential claims for what came before. However, many people do not realize that certain tax liabilities may follow the business of the company rather than the company itself. So, if you buy enough of the assets to be considered as having purchased the company, you could be buying tax liabilities... even if they are on your list of items excluded from the sale.

Each of the Franchise Tax Board (state franchise and income taxes), the Board of Equalization (sales taxes) and the Employer Development Department (employment taxes) has the right to come after the buyer of a business for unpaid taxes in an amount up to the entire purchase price. So, if you pay $100,000 for the assets of a company, you could be liable for unpaid taxes of up to $100,000 to each of those three government entities. Your $100,000 purchase price just became $400,000!

Most asset purchase agreements deal with this concern in two ways: First, they request a representation and warranty from the seller that there are no unpaid taxes. Second, the agreement includes an indemnification provision whereby the seller has to indemnify the buyer if any claim for unpaid taxes is made against the buyer for the time period before the company's assets were purchased. However, an indemnification provision is not enough protection. All it does is provide a contractual claim against the seller. The buyer still has to sue the seller and get a judgment and then collect that judgment.

A much better way to protect yourself as a buyer of a business is not to rush into things. In only 60 days, you can get tax clearance certificates from all three entities showing you exactly how much unpaid taxes, if any, are outstanding. Each agency has its own requirements for submitting such a request. If the agency does not return a tax clearance certificate within 60 days (30 days for the EDD), then the buyer may not be held liable for outstanding taxes of the seller's business. So, take your time, open an escrow, and get tax clearance certificates prior to closing escrow on the purchase. And of course, consult with an attorney if you need help with an acquisition. Otherwise that $100,000 business may cost you $400,000 in the end.

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.

A Checklist for Closing Down a Business

August 7, 2013,

Small businesses dominate the U.S. economy. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), 99% of all independent companies in the U.S. have less than 500 employees. As a small business attorney in San Jose, most of the time I am working with clients to form new businesses. However, as we all know, not all businesses succeed. Recently I was counseling a client with regard to the sale of her retail store. She had worked hard building the store into a business that could support her needs, but it was time to retire. Rather than going through the hassle of selling the business as a whole, she decided to simply sell the inventory to a competitor and shut the doors. However, shutting down a company can still be a hassle, and if you forget to do one thing it could result in a big liability later.

So, what does it take to shut down a small company? Here is just a short to-do list of the basic items common to most small businesses. This list does not take into account the added complexities of a business with multiple owners.

1. Talk to your accountant, attorney, financial advisor and any other professionals that may be able to assist you in a smooth closure of your business.

2. Check your leases and terminate them. If they cannot be terminated, try to negotiate with your landlord. For example, if your real property lease still has a number of years left to run, advanced notice to the landlord may allow time for the landlord to re-rent the space. Or, the landlord may take a lump sum payment of a portion of the total liability to let you out of the lease now. Do not forget smaller leases like your postage machine lease or copier lease. If you have a car lease, talk to the dealer about assigning the lease to you individually.

3. Check your contracts for rights to terminate and any personal liability. If allowed, provide notice of termination. Try to complete contracts if possible. If not, return any unused deposits or payments.

4. Try to sell off as much inventory as possible. Use a liquidator, have a 'going out of business' sale, and contact competitors to see if they want to buy what is left at a discount. Publish a bulk sales notice if required.

5. Liquidate other business assets - furniture, equipment, etc.

6. Collect as much of the accounts receivable as possible - after others hear you are going out of business it may be harder to collect.

7. Notify anyone that may be affected by the closure - especially creditors. Pay or settle your debts as much as possible. Ask each creditor for a confirmation that they have been paid in full, or settled in full satisfaction. Note that there are specific bulk sales requirements for notifying creditors if you sold your inventory. If you cannot satisfy your creditors, contact a bankruptcy or insolvency attorney to help assess your options. A bankruptcy or an assignment for the benefit of creditors may affect your rights to take actions on this list.

8. Tell your employees and give them as much notice as you can. Be ready to pay them their final paychecks, including all accrued and unpaid vacation, on the date of their termination. Notify your payroll company that these are the final paychecks so they can notify the Employment Development Department (EDD), or if they do not notify the EDD, file a DE-24 form yourself.

9. Submit final sales taxes and employment taxes.

10. File all final federal, state and local tax returns.

11. Cancel any business permits or licenses, including sales tax resale permit. File a Notice of Closeout for Seller's Permit (form BOE-65) with the California Board of Equalization,.

12. Close your bank accounts, cancel any line of credit and outstanding credit cards, and shred business checks.

13. Turn off utilities.

14. Forward mail and email accounts.

15. Shut down websites (or post a notice) and turn off any e-commerce accounts.

16. If you have a fictitious business name, file a statement of abandonment with the county.

17. Distribute remaining assets to yourself (the owner), but only after creditors have all been satisfied. It is important to transfer any assets that are currently titled in the name of the business, before the business entity is dissolved.

18. Dissolve your business entity with the Secretary of State.

Businesses with more complex ownership structures may wish to consult with an attorney or tax professional to guide them through the shutting-down process.

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.

UCC-1 Financing Statements: Easy to Make A Whopper of a Mistake

July 25, 2013,

In this digital age, the courts increasingly have zero tolerance for errors on a UCC-1 financing statement intended to perfect a lender's security interest in collateral as part of a loan transaction. Most recently, a federal court in Rushton v. Standard Industries, Inc., et al. (In re C.W. Mining Company), 488 B.R. 715 (D. Utah, 2013) ruled that a UCC financing statement that omitted two periods from the debtor's name was materially misleading, and the "secured party" was therefore not perfected. A lender who thought it was properly secured on a $3 million obligation suddenly found itself entirely unsecured because of this seemingly trivial mistake!

The debtor in this matter was C.W. Mining Company, whose fortunes had slipped, leading to a bankruptcy. Well before the bankruptcy petition was filed a creditor with a security interest in coal owned by the debtor (C.W. Mining Company was a coal producer) filed a UCC-1 financing statement naming the debtor as "CW Mining Company." The bankruptcy trustee (usually the bad guy in these situations, from the secured creditor's point of view) brought an action to, among other things, avoid the lien because of this mistake, arguing that the creditor was not properly perfected.

The Bankruptcy Court and the Federal District Court, on appeal, agreed with the trustee. They held that the manner in which the creditor set forth the debtor's name on the UCC-1 financing statement was seriously misleading, as it omitted the two periods. Of major importance was the fact that the search algorithm used by the state - Utah in this instance - did not pick up the filing in its data base when the debtor's proper name was entered.

This recent case is in line with the harsh holdings for creditors by other courts on this issue. So what is the take-away lesson? If you intend to be a secured creditor, treat the debtor's name as you would a new email address or a phone number. If you are off by one character or digit, the communication fails. This means getting the debtor's registered name (when the debtor is a corporation, limited liability company or LLC, or limited partnership) correct from the beginning by searching the Secretary of State's business entity information and/or obtaining copies of articles. Don't rely on the name put down on a letterhead, logo or business card, which may simply be a trade name. Also, when filling out a UCC-1 financing statement, be sure the information inserted on the form is carefully checked and the process supervised, not delegated to an inexperienced person and forgotten.

There is a UCC Safety Net but it has Many Holes!

If you discover that a financing statement has a mistake in the debtor's name, you of course should take steps to correct it, but even without doing so a possibility exists that the security interest will nevertheless be perfected and enforceable. The Uniform Commercial Code provides that if a search of the records in a state's filing office under the correct debtor name using "the filing office's standard search logic" would disclose the creditor's financing statement, the error in the debtor's name is not seriously misleading. (This is found in Section 9506 of the California Commercial Code.) The more sophisticated the particular state's UCC search algorithm, the more likely it is that errors or inconsistencies will be recognized and the financing statement nevertheless captured and displayed in a search, providing a small measure of safety for the secured creditor. The obvious problem is that it is difficult or impossible to know in advance whether a seemingly minor mistake on the financing statement will be fatal or not. Therefore, the only safe approach is to get the debtor's registered name right on the UCC-1 financing statement, character-by-character.

A Legal Note Concerning UCC Financing Statements and Perfecting a Security Interest in Collateral

To have an enforceable security interest in most types of business assets, a UCC-1 financing statement must be filed in the filing office of the state where a debtor is registered - assuming the debtor is a business entity such as a corporation, limited liability company or limited partnership. In California and most other states, the filing office is run by the Secretary of State. Most lenders and borrowers are very familiar with this process. The UCC-1, once filed, becomes part of the searchable data base in the state where it is filed. In lawyer-speak, filing the UCC-1 financing statement "perfects" the security interest, which is an essential requirement to making it generally enforceable. The UCC-1 filing also gives the lien priority over any lien described in a later filed UCC-1 financing statement, as well as certain other types of filings. If a person wants to learn whether anyone has a lien encumbering assets of a particular debtor, a search can be conducted under the debtor's name and all generally enforceable encumbrances on the business assets of the debtor will show up - so long as the correct debtor name is entered.

A UCC-1 filing will not perfect a security interest in certain types of collateral. To perfect a security interest in real estate in California and most other states (as is well known by most lenders and borrowers), a deed of trust or mortgage must be recorded in the real property records of the county in which the real property is located. Other types of specialized collateral, such as copyrights, aircraft and motor vehicles, have unique filing offices and requirements for perfection of security interests. A security interest in some other types of collateral, such as bank accounts, stocks and securities, may be perfected by possession or control.

You probably can guess the last point to be made here. Perfection of security interests can be a confusing matter, so if you have any questions, consult your attorney!

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.

New Corporate and LLC Startups May Find Relief with the Passage of a New Bill in California

July 15, 2013,

In Silicon Valley, home to many large technology corporations and thousands of innovative startups, businesses need to move quickly to stay ahead of the competition. As a small business attorney in San Jose, I have formed countless of limited liability companies (LLCs), partnerships and corporations with the Delaware and California Secretaries of State over the years. And one of the first questions my eager small business clients ask me in our initial meetings is almost always, "How long will it take to form my company?"

For many years my answer was that we could have the filed Articles of Incorporation (for a Corporation), Articles of Organization (for an LLC), or Certificate of Partnership within about a week. When the California Secretary of State slowed down a few years ago, I had to tell clients that it could take as much as several weeks. However, in the last year or so the delays crept up to three months or more for the California Secretary of State to process and return a business filing.

Of course, California does provide a 24-hour expedited filing option, for an additional $350 over the usual filing fees. In my more cynical moments I have had to wonder whether it was the California budget crisis that was causing filing times to slow down because of lack of resources, or if the Secretary of State was purposefully taking longer to return routine filings in order to force virtually everyone to pay the "rush" fees.

Now it seems my cynicism may have been misplaced. Governor Brown just signed a bill (AB 113) which will provide $1.6 million in funding to the California Secretary of State to be used to eliminate the backlog of over 100,000 filings and speed up the business filing process. The stated goal is to reduce waiting times for a business filing to be processed and returned from three months to between 5 and 10 days by November, 2013. [Source: Spidell's California Taxletter, Vol 35.6, June 1, 2013, p.71]

Although I applaud the Governor for trying to do something, I think we need to go a lot further than this. As the home of Silicon Valley, California should be setting the standard for the use of technology in business. Never mind that we can form corporations and LLCs usually the same day by email in Delaware (with no extra fees). I want to be able to form entities immediately on-line, without extra State charges, and without the need to pay extra fees to filing agents in Sacramento to walk my client's filings into the Secretary of State's office to be at the front of the line (processing times for filings by mail are much slower).

If our business owners and inventors can start their business in California faster and less expensively (with no rush fees), this will benefit everyone. The State will collect more franchise taxes and will likely start collecting more payroll taxes and sales taxes from new businesses sooner. With this in mind, I hope the Secretary of State is seriously considering significant investments in technology both as part of the $1.6 million and in addition to the AB 113 funds.

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.

Upcoming Nationwide Changes in UCC Financing Statements

June 28, 2013,

Head's up!! UCC financing statements are changing as of July 1, 2013. Lenders and borrowers need to take extra care to ensure that they have correctly prepared UCC financing statements and, of course, consult with an attorney as necessary. UCC filings are of critical importance in any secured loan transaction, whether it involves asset based loans, technology lending, construction financing, equipment financing, and even real estate lending where fixture filings may be an integral part of the transaction or personal property may be included in the collateral pool. Accordingly, changes in UCC forms affect every lender, secured party and borrower. In a problem loan, loan workout or bankruptcy situation, the validity of the lender's security interest becomes of paramount importance.

For lenders, the basic rule for perfecting a lien or security interest in most types of assets is to file a UCC-1 Financing Statement with the Secretary of State where the debtor or borrower is registered. If the borrowing company happens to be in San Jose or Palo Alto, California, for example, and is registered as a California corporation, the UCC-1 is filed with the Secretary of State in California. As of July 1, a revised form of UCC-1 is to be used in most states, including California and Delaware.

The changes to the form are driven by privacy concerns and primarily involve eliminating entries for a company's registration number and an individual's social security number. Such identifying information has not been required - in fact, social security numbers have automatically been redacted or made unreadable - for a while now in California. One thing the change highlights, however, is the ever-increasing importance of getting the debtor's name correct on the UCC form, character by character, as other references to a borrower or debtor no longer appear.

California says that it will continue to accept the "old" form of UCC-1 for the present, but that may change with the old forms entirely eliminated in the future once new forms are widely circulated. Other states have announced that the period for accepting old forms will be phased out just 30 days after July 1, after which time only new forms will be accepted for all UCC filings.

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.

Closing a Business Transaction is A Lot Like Riding a Mountain Bike

June 10, 2013,

As a business and M&A lawyer in San Jose, it is not uncommon for me to burn the midnight oil hammering out a deal for a Silicon Valley client. There is often a need to break from the perpetually connected life to recharge the lithium cells, so to speak. On a recent bike ride in Santa Clara on the local single track, it occurred to me that the life of a deal can be contained in a single mountain bike ride.

A ride starts with the first drop of a pedal. Any deal starts with the first realization that two people or groups can get together and construct a process that will create value for both of them. Whether it is a simple software license, or a complex strategic alliance and funding deal, it is that first pedal that moves everything forward.

Whether you are involved in a transaction deal or a single track mountain bike ride, you need the right tools to make it all work. For a lawyer, it is the years of learning that just begin after you leave law school. The late nights wrestling with creating a structure that will reduce risks and the time spent attending or teaching professional seminars all contribute to the base of knowledge that comes to bear in every transaction. Making sure your tires fit the trail and your derailleur is adjusted and chain oiled can make the difference between a ride and an ordeal.

Both deals and rides can vary in how they start. Sometimes, you are thrown right into the negotiations, having just met the client minutes before, like the ride that starts with a pounding incline over gravel and sharp rock. Other times, there are in depth discussions over goals and approaches, like the trail that starts level and smooth through redwood shade.

Then, there is the slog. I ride in the mountains, and it is very typical for rides to start uphill, and end downhill. Cranking slowly up a ponderous grade is not glamorous, but is critical to getting to your goal. Even a business deal built on insightful strategy needs implementation, and it is the late nights and weekends, slogging through reams of documentation and often mind-numbing minutiae that lead to success. It is sweaty ponderous work, but somebody has got to do it.

The home stretch is where things can get, shall we say, interesting. In mountain biking, the downhill is where skill is required to keep bike and body together. Any mountain biker will tell you about their last "endo," so named because your body has just gone "end over" the handle bars. Road rash and cracked ribs are the usual result. In deals, it is the same. At some point, some new fact or number is looked at just a little bit differently, or a recalcitrant stockholder will not cooperate, or a delayed negotiation on a major issue leads to stalemate, or a lawsuit from left field hits, and you have received the legal equivalent of a body slam. Although the first few minutes may feel like it is the end of the world, most times you pick yourself up, assess the damage, figure out the fix (time to replace the rear derailleur drop out or buy out that difficult stockholder) and continue on your way. In rare circumstances (like you just snapped your collar bone or the Federal Trade Commission will not approve your deal), you lick your wounds and try again another way on another day. But this is rare.

There is an old lyric that goes "... you better watch your speed, trouble ahead trouble behind, don't you know that notion just crossed my mind". All parties to a deal want it done yesterday, and the business case for doing so can be convincing. Going too fast on a mountain bike, however, can lead to the dreaded endo, and a whole other parade of orthopedic and epidermal horribles. In a business deal, it can be worse. The Time Warner AOL acquisition was rumored to have been negotiated and signed under a very compressed time schedule, and is taught in business schools as one of the worst mergers in American history. Go fast, but be deliberate and do it right.

Everyone will tell you that deals are not a sprint. In any ride, you need to make sure your energy stays fueled, or you will "bonk", hit the wall, run out of gas, or hit countless other metaphors that mean you've just come to a full and complete stop. In a transaction, we call it deal fatigue. Bringing up countless new issues as a deal gets closer to close, experiencing unexpected delays, or a thousand other things, can kill a deal as fast as any bonk. The cure: deal with it upfront. Before a ride I slam a peanut butter sandwich (whole grain bread, thank you very much). Before a deal, the more I know about the parties, their business, motivation, experience and interests, and the more I know about getting done the type of deal in which I am involved, the less chance my transaction will bonk.

I could go on, but the last conference call just ended, the next turn of the agreement went out the door, and it is time to go spin the local single track.

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.

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

May 22, 2013,

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.

Recent California Tax Law Changes

May 13, 2013,

Some tax law changes recently went into effect that that will have an impact on both individuals and businesses in San Jose and throughout the State:

Yet Another Gas Tax Increase
On February 28th the Board of Equalization approved a 3.5 cent gas tax increase, effective July 1, 2013. This brings the gas tax rate to 39.5 cents for 2013-2014. This adjustment should produce revenue at the same rate as if Proposition 30 applied to gas sales. (Proposition 30 resulted in a 0.25% state sales tax increase which does not apply to gas sales.)
Source: Spidell's California Taxletter, Vol. 35.4, April 1, 2013.

Payroll Tax Reporting Changes
The Employment Development Department has announced two changes:

First, employers must use "business days," not "banking days" to determine payroll tax deposit due dates.

Second, an employee is considered a rehire if she returns to work for an employer after a separation of at least 60 consecutive days. Employers must report all new and rehired employees to the New Employee Registry within 20 days of starting work.
Source: Spidell's California Taxletter, Vol. 35.4, April 1, 2013.

For Real Estate Professionals
A real estate professional that spends over half of his or her working hours and at least 750 hours per year materially involved in real estate is exempt from the passive loss rules. These tests are difficult to meet if you also have a job, and the IRS knows it. Since 2007 the IRS has been specifically pulling returns for audit of individuals that claim they are real estate professionals but also have significant W-2 wage income. Be reasonable -- records of time spent on real estate must be contemporaneous and believable.
Source: Kiplinger Tax Letter Vol. 88 No. 8, April 12, 2013.

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.

Lender Liability After the "Riverisland" Ruling - A Time To Assess Lending Procedures?

April 23, 2013,

In the wake of the California Supreme Court's Riverisland ruling concerning lender liability, lenders in the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley may want to evaluate and consider modifying their current lending procedures. As a San Jose based attorney experienced in loan documentation, problem loans and loan workouts throughout California, I have followed the ebb and flow of lender liability law for many years. Although it is a bit early to assess the long term impact of the California Supreme Court's Riverisland decision, it is not too early to consider precautionary steps, which generally have to be taken at the outset when the loan is being negotiated and documented, to minimize the chance of claims being asserted later.

The court in Riverisland said that a lender's oral statements about loan terms, even if made before the documents were signed, can come into evidence in a lawsuit if the purpose is to show that the lender used fraud to induce the borrower to enter into the transaction. The facts of Riverisland are discussed below. Before Riverisland, if the borrower's evidence of oral statements by the lender about the loan terms was inconsistent with the loan documents, the borrower's evidence could not even come into the case. Now it can, if the purpose is to show fraudulent inducement by the lender. And the facts supporting the borrower's claims can be taken from the borrower's own testimony of his or her recollections. This shifts some bargaining strength toward the disgruntled borrower in problem loan negotiations, as it will be difficult after Riverisland to eliminate such fraud claims early in litigation, or perhaps even before a trial.

The immediate question for lenders is whether any changes in the loan-making and loan documentation process are needed to protect against the potential effect of the Riverisland ruling. Some ideas of possible changes are offered below.

Summary of the Riverisland Case.

A recap of the Riverisland case is helpful. Formally known as Riverisland Cold Storage v. Fresno-Madera Credit Association, 55 C.4th 1169 (2013), this case dealt with a commercial loan secured by California real estate. (The court's ruling, however, applies equally to technology financing, asset based lines, or any other kind of financing facility.) The borrowers fell behind on their payments and the lender and borrowers entered into a restructuring agreement in which the borrowers put up additional real estate collateral for the loan, while the lender promised to forbear and take no enforcement action. The borrowers, however, again missed payments and new loan defaults occurred. At this point, faced with the prospect of enforcement actions and foreclosure, the borrowers paid off the loan.

The borrowers then filed litigation claims against the lender alleging fraud and negligent misrepresentation, stating that two weeks before the restructuring agreement was signed a vice-president of the lender orally promised that the loan extension would be for a period of two years and only two new properties would be required as additional collateral. The actual written forbearance, however, provided for only a three month extension and identified eight parcels of additional collateral. The borrowers signed the forbearance agreement without reading it.

The trial court relied on a 1935 case commonly known as Pendergrass in ruling that the alleged oral statements of the lender could not be introduced into evidence precisely because they varied from the written loan documents. That is, the written loan documents, which contained an integration or merger clause, could not be contradicted by "parol" (oral) evidence that the lender stated the terms of the loan document were something different. In fact, the purported evidence of inconsistent oral statements could not even be considered. This "Pendergrass rule" had stood for over 75 years and has been a useful weapon in eliminating claims that fraud was used to induce a borrower to enter into a loan that actually contained different terms than those the borrower later said it had bargained for.

The California Supreme Court, however, explicitly overturned the Pendergrass rule and held that evidence of purported fraud by the bank could not be kept out. The court nevertheless indicated that the mere fact the evidence of fraud could come in did not mean it would be a winning argument; that is, the borrowers may have been negligent themselves for failing to read the loan documents even if the lender's oral statements were made.

The Potential Problem for Lenders.

The key point from Riverisland is that the evidence of oral discussions to support a fraud claim can no longer simply be kept out of litigation. That opens the door to discovery and evidence gathering, and makes it more likely the matter will go to trial. Given this new reality, the lender should consider if it has established a foundation that makes it as easy as possible to show that the disgruntled borrower's recollection of oral discussions are inaccurate or unreliable, or are put in proper context by other evidence.

Tips for Reducing Potential Claims.

To mitigate the potential negative effects of the Riverisland case, a lender should consider changes in how it conducts loan negotiations, documentation and closings. As always, business judgment will be important in deciding whether a specific change is necessary or makes sense in your particular situation. Some ideas to consider are:

1. During oral discussions with borrowers the lender should qualify statements by noting that all terms must be confirmed by the lender in writing. Be vigilant to follow up any oral discussions about loan terms with email, written summaries and/or term sheets to the borrower. If there is an important provision on which the parties do not agree, put the lender's position in writing, or note the fact that the lender has not agreed to the borrower's request.

2. Provide execution versions of final loan documents well before closing, so the borrower has sufficient time to review them prior to signing. Do not present drafts of written documents for the first time at a meeting to sign documents and close the loan.

3. Include a summary of key terms in an obvious place in the loan documents.

4. Include with the loan documents a statement that the borrower has thoroughly reviewed the loan documents and they are consistent with the agreement of the parties and no other agreements have been made. Alternatives for expanding this: (a) have that section initialed; (b) add a representation that the borrower's counsel also reviewed the loan documents; (c) have the statement made/signed on a separate document; and/or (d) include a representation that the statement is made under penalty of perjury.

5. Increase the use of initials on loan documents, so the borrower explicitly acknowledges its awareness of important provisions.

6. Increase the use of bold or large size font to highlight important sections of the loan documents.

7. The potential for increased litigation makes it more important than ever that a jury trial waiver and alternative non-jury proceedings are specified in loan documents, such as judicial reference or arbitration.

The above points indicate ways of reducing potential claims of fraud, in the wake of Riverisland.

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.

Closing the Deal: Boring is Best

March 27, 2013,

Having represented both buyers and sellers in mergers and acquisition transactions in Silicon Valley for more years than I care to admit, I have been through a number of closings. Some M&A closings that I have been involved in were smooth affairs, accomplished through an exchange of a single phone call with a confirming email, while others have stretched into all night marathons. Although it is often difficult to know whether your deal will allow you to finish at a reasonable time, there are a number of actions you can take to make sure your closing is as smooth and stress free as possible.

Obtain Third Party Consents:
The most important task for both the seller and acquirer is to plan ahead. Everything you will need, to accomplish the closing, will take longer than you think. One item which often delays a closing is getting the necessary consents to the transaction required from third parties. Certain third parties, often parties to major relationships that the acquired company, post-closing, requires for its operations, have rights under their contracts to consent to any change in control. Many of these contracts create significant value for the acquired company and their continued existence are often a key incentive for the buyer proceeding with the deal. It is best to identify these material agreements early on and plan a strategy for securing the necessary consents. Other areas where third party consents might be required are when a party, often a strategic investor, has a right of first refusal that is triggered by the transaction.

Obtain Stockholder Approval:
Stockholder approval, especially where large numbers of stockholders exist, can often be a gating item. As with third party consents, it is critical that the parties design a strategy early on for soliciting approvals from the stockholders, and, if necessary, investigate and resolve any securities compliance issues that might exist. This may require significant advance planning and document creation, particularly for securities compliance purposes.

Complete Agreements and Disclosure Schedules Before Closing:
Part of planning ahead is to front load all of the work that needs to be accomplished for the closing. For those transactions in which a closing follows sometime after the contract signing, agreements and schedules required for the closing, such as key employment agreements and disclosure schedules, should be completed and attached to the contract as part of signing. The temptation to put these types of schedules and agreements off until the closing can prove costly, as these types of documents, particularly a disclosure schedule, can raise issues which may require significant time to resolve.

Remove Contingencies:
As a closing approaches, it is critical to make sure all contingencies pertaining to the closing are removed or waived. One way to ensure this is to make sure, during contract negotiation, that contingencies are based on standards that are objective and easy to determine. One area that can be problematic is a contingency based on the occurrence of a material adverse effect. Because these tend to be very broadly and qualitatively designed, it is best to objectify them as much as possible. This can be accomplished by tying the effect to financial or other measures, or limiting it to known risk issues.

Have a Pre-Closing Review:
Expectations during this period need to be rational. If there is any deal term or contingency that is open, the transaction simply is not ready to close. For this reason, it is always a good idea for the deal team to conduct a pre-closing a few days before the planned closing date, to make sure all remaining issues and contingencies are resolved and that the documentation is sufficiently in order to close.

Be Closely Involved:
The most important task for the business executive is to understand that his or her job at this point in time is not necessarily to run the business, but to get the deal done. The executive needs to be closely involved with the transaction, and should not merely rely on his or her advisors. There is no substitute for carefully reviewing all of the documents involved in the transaction. In addition, the executive needs to ensure that the entire deal team be available for the inevitable last minute decisions.

Like many things in life, closings benefit from advanced planning and hard work early on. Save the surprises for birthdays and holidays. When it comes to closings, boring is best.


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.

Do I Really Need to Formally Dissolve My Corporation?

March 20, 2013,

A few years ago, I met with a new client here in San Jose about forming a corporation for his real estate management business. He wanted to use his name as the name of the corporation, e.g. John Smith, Inc., and he had no problems with using his name as the Agent for Service of Process, and having his home address as the business address on public record. Imagine my surprise when I went to the Secretary of State's database to confirm that the name was available and found that the exact name was taken by the same client at the same address. The corporation had been formed back in 1989 and had been suspended for decades.

I discussed it with the client and discovered that he had spoken with another lawyer about forming a corporation many years ago, and although he thought it was just an informational meeting, the attorney actually formed the corporation and the client didn't even know about it. If my client wanted to use the name of the suspended corporation, he would first have to revive it, in which case, he would have had to pay tens of thousands of dollars in back franchise taxes and interest. I counseled the client to walk away from the suspended corporation and simply start a new one under a different name. In this case, that was okay because he took no assets from the corporation and therefore could not be held personally liable for the corporation's taxes. However, shareholders should not walk away from a corporation without carefully considering whether the same conclusion would apply to their situation, and whether they are willing to endure the annoying tax notices to the corporation in the meanwhile.

The landmark case in this area is the Appeal of Howard Zubkoff and Michael Potash, Assumers and/or Transferees of Ralite Lamp Corporation (April 30, 1990, 90-SBE-004). In that case, the Board of Equalization stated that the only way shareholders are liable for the corporation's franchise taxes would be if the Franchise Tax Board proves that all of the following conditions were met:

- The corporation transferred property to the shareholder(s) for less than full and adequate consideration;
- At the time of transfer and when shareholder liability was asserted, the corporation was liable for the taxes;
- The transfer was made after liability for the tax was accrued;
- The corporation was insolvent at the time of the transfer or as a result thereof; and
- The FTB had exhausted all reasonable remedies against the corporation.

Source: Spidell's California Taxletter Vol. 34.11, Nov. 1, 2012

Even if a shareholder thinks he, she, or it qualifies under the Ralite conditions, and would not be held personally liable for the taxes, the shareholder must understand what the last condition means - the FTB may exhaust all remedies against the corporation in trying to get it to pay the taxes. The FTB will send the corporation a Demand to File notice, then a Notice of Proposed Assessment, and then try to collect against the corporation. Since the FTB is pursuing the corporation and not the shareholder (yet), there is no defense that the shareholder can offer. A Ralite defense is inapplicable at this stage because that is a defense by the shareholder, not the corporation. A shareholder needs to be willing to receive these documents on behalf of the corporation and not respond until the FTB eventually comes after him or her personally for payment. That is when Ralite can be invoked. And that is when the taxpayer will have to prove the above conditions are met by providing supportive documentation to the FTB. This could be a long process requiring ample time and attention from the shareholder.

If the corporation was formed back in 1989, and the shareholder clearly meets the above conditions because he wasn't even aware of the formation, walking away makes sense. However, if the corporation just failed to file a final tax return or dissolve with the Secretary of State in the last few years, the shareholder may be better off paying the back taxes and interest to avoid this hassle in the future.

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.

The Phantom Trustee - Not a Problem on a Deed of Trust

March 11, 2013,

Those of us involved in real estate loans, debt financing, and problem loans or loan workouts have sometimes wondered whether a deed of trust can be valid if no trustee is identified. I am often asked this question and, surprisingly, the issue was never been directly addressed by California courts until the end of 2012! In a decision handed down a few months ago, a California Court of Appeals ruled that the omission of a named trustee on a deed of trust at the time it is executed and recorded does not preclude enforcement of the deed of trust through a foreclosure sale of the secured property.

The facts of the case are straightforward. A real estate loan was made and secured by a deed of trust on the property being purchased. The lender designated Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc., or MERS, as the beneficiary and simply omitted naming a trustee. Later, the borrowers defaulted on the loan and MERS then recorded a substitution of trustee naming ReconTrust Company, N.A. (ReconTrust) as trustee, and assigned its beneficial interest under the deed of trust to a loan servicer who further assigned the beneficiary's rights to Arch Bay Holdings, LLC - Series 2010B (Arch Bay). As newly appointed trustee, ReconTrust filed the required notice of default and notice of sale, and eventually conducted a trustee's sale at which Arch Bay purchased the property. After the sale, the borrowers filed a lawsuit asserting, among other things, that the failure to designate a trustee in the original deed of trust was a fatal flaw and precluded any trustee's sale under the power of sale in the deed of trust. See, Shuster v. BAC Home Loans Servicing, LP, et al. 211 Cal.App.4th 505 (2012).

The court first noted that this issue had never been addressed in prior California rulings. After wading through some technical arguments, the court ruled in favor of the lender or creditor and against the borrower, stating that the essential validity of the deed of trust is not affected because a trustee is omitted in the original deed of trust, as long as a trustee is named prior to a foreclosure. The court reasoned that the very limited powers granted to a trustee under a deed of trust - to convey the property at an out of court sale - are insufficient incidents of ownership or control to make the actual naming of a trustee critical to the validity of the document.

Caveat: This decision is strictly limited to deeds of trust and does not apply to any other types of trusts.

If you are involved in a real estate loan or other financing, perhaps in Silicon Valley, San Jose or elsewhere in California, we still advise that the deed of trust contain the name of a trustee, as it avoids the risk that other critical information will accidentally be omitted. However, if the trustee name is for any reason not specified, there no longer is any doubt that the lien remains valid and enforceable.

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.