Risky Representations – Part 1

Those endless representations and warranties in your acquisition agreement aren’t just for your merger and acquisition lawyer. Ignore them at your own risk.

Mergers and acquisitions in San Jose and elsewhere are a lot more complex than those of the past when deals were closed with a handshake. As acquisition documentation becomes more extensive, companies frequently turn to mergers and acquisitions attorneys to assist them with their transactions. One issue on which an attorney will focus deals with the representations and warranties of a seller.

A seller’s representations and warranties, which are the commitments that a seller will make to a buyer concerning the state of the seller’s business, make up one of the more extensive sections of an acquisition agreement and serve a number of functions. This is because they allocate between the buyer and seller many of the risks existing in the buyer’s business.

Representations allocate risk in a fairly straightforward manner. The seller will make a statement of fact regarding its business. If the seller’s statement is wrong, and the buyer is damaged as a result, the seller will compensate the buyer for any damages the buyer incurs.

An example helps illustrate the point. Let’s say that the seller states that it has paid all of its taxes, a very common representation. After the closing, the business that was sold gets hit with a sales tax audit, and is found to have underpaid its sales taxes. Because the seller’s representation was wrong (i.e., it hadn’t paid all of its taxes), the buyer, all other things being equal, can look to the seller for reimbursement for the amount of the additional sales tax liability.

The situation above describes the simplest form of risk allocation in an acquisition agreement. In this form, the seller bears the risk whether the seller knew there was a problem or not.

Some types of risk allocation shift risk only if the seller knew there was a problem. These representations, sometimes referred to as knowledge-qualified representations, allow a seller to escape liability in a representation if the seller did not know a problem existed.

In our sales tax example above, let’s say that the representation stated that the seller did not know of any nonpayment of taxes. Let’s also say that the seller’s officers were completely unaware that they had failed to pay any sales taxes. In that situation, the seller would not be liable for the sales tax liability.

Because acquisition agreements are prepared by lawyers, the concept of knowledge can mean different things. For example, does knowledge mean the subjective knowledge of the seller’s CEO, or the subjective knowledge of all of the seller’s employees? Does knowledge mean just what is in employees’ memories, or should employees be required to look through their files? If employees are required to look through files, should they also be required to look through other documentation, such as public records and other resources? For these reasons, it is critical that the concept of knowledge be defined so that the seller knows what they have to do to satisfy the representation, and both parties know how the risk is to be allocated.

What if the seller wants to allocate the risk of an item back to the buyer? When a seller makes a representation that he or she knows may not be entirely correct, the seller will disclose an “exception.” The seller provides this disclosure in a schedule commonly attached to acquisition agreements, known as a “disclosure schedule,” or a “schedule of exceptions.” Unless the agreement specifies otherwise, a buyer cannot recover for damages for an item that has been disclosed.

Going back to our sales tax example, if the seller knew there was a problem, the seller would describe the problem in a disclosure schedule. The seller would say something like “Seller underpaid its sales tax liability for the periods 2008 through 2010, which liability seller believes to be between $50,000 and $75,000.” The buyer could not thereafter bring a claim for reimbursement for the later assessed tax liability as a result of the seller’s disclosed exception.

As I mentioned above, representations and warranties, and their accompanying disclosures, are heavily negotiated. One point of contention is whether the risk of an item, even when disclosed, should be allocated to the buyer. Buyers with sufficient leverage will force the seller to remove the disclosed item, or affirmatively accept the risk associated with the item. Another point of contention is what the concept of knowledge means, and whether knowledge can qualify a particular representation. For these reasons, it is critical to spend a lot of time understanding the representations and warranties of any acquisition agreement so that you can understand the risks that may exist for you in a deal.

Structure Law Group, LLP attorneys can help you prepare or review an acquisition agreement and other acquisition documents.