On August 1, 2014, amendments to Delaware’s alternative business entity statutes,  as well as the statute of limitations applicable to Delaware contracts,  became effective. These amendments (the “2014 Amendments”) represent a continuing effort by Delaware to create a flexible statutory framework for alternative business organizations and transactions involving business entities generally. This post briefly summarizes the more significant 2014 Amendments.
Posts Tagged ‘Contracts’
Leo Strine, Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court Review and a Senior Fellow of the Harvard Law School Program on Corporate Governance, and J. Travis Laster, Vice Chancellor, Delaware Court of Chancery, recently issued an essay that is forthcoming in Elgar Handbook on Alternative Entities (Eds. Mark Lowenstein and Robert Hillman, Edward Elgar Publishing 2014). The essay, titled The Siren Song of Unlimited Contractual Freedom, is available here.
The abstract of Chief Justice Strine’s and Vice Chancellor Laster’s essay summarizes it briefly as follows:
One frequently cited distinction between alternative entities—such as limited liability companies and limited partnerships—and their corporate counterparts is the greater contractual freedom accorded alternative entities. Consistent with this vision, discussions of alternative entities tend to conjure up images of arms-length bargaining similar to what occurs between sophisticated parties negotiating a commercial agreement, such as a joint venture, with the parties successfully tailoring the contract to the unique features of their relationship.
I’ve recently posted to SSRN a book chapter called “An Economic Theory of Fiduciary Law,” which will be published in Philosophical Foundations of Fiduciary Law by Oxford University Press. The editors are Andrew Gold and Paul Miller.
The purpose of my chapter is to restate the economic theory of fiduciary law. In doing so, the chapter makes several fresh contributions. First, it elaborates on earlier work by clarifying the agency problem that is at the core of all fiduciary relationships. In consequence of this common economic structure, there is a common doctrinal structure that cuts across the application of fiduciary principles in different contexts. However, within this common structure, the particulars of fiduciary obligation vary in accordance with the particulars of the agency problem in the fiduciary relationship at issue. This point explains the purported elusiveness of fiduciary doctrine. It also explains why courts apply fiduciary law both categorically, such as to trustees and (legal) agents, as well as ad hoc to relationships involving a position of trust and confidence that gives rise to an agency problem.
In many jurisdictions, a statute of limitations may not be extended by contract.  Delaware follows this rule, so its three-year statute of limitations for contract claims generally may not be extended.  Moreover, under Delaware’s borrowing statute, contract claims arising outside of Delaware but litigated in a Delaware court are subject to the shorter of that three-year period or the time established by the jurisdiction where the cause of action arose.  Notwithstanding these default rules, the statutory limitations period can be reduced by contract.  While many private company acquisition agreements do in fact shorten the statute of limitations for many breaches of certain representations and warranties by providing that such representations and warranties “survive” for a shorter period, it is also often the case that buyers want certain representations and indemnification obligations to “survive” longer, and in some cases, beyond the statutory period.  In order to achieve such a result, parties may, under Delaware law, use a so-called “specialty” contract, i.e., a contract that is entered into under seal, which will be subject to a twenty-year limitations period. 
Based on a number of cases decided by the Delaware courts in 2013, below we summarize practice tips regarding careful drafting of contractual provisions and complying with technical and statutory requirements.
Disclaimers of Reliance and Accuracy Clauses Likely Do Not Bar Fraud Claims
The Delaware courts have had several opportunities to examine a range of disclaimer provisions in agreements, usually an integration (or “entire agreement”) clause and a disclaimer of extra-contractual statements, to determine if they were adequate in barring fraud claims. Although in the past the courts have disallowed fraud claims based on rather thinly worded disclaimers of extra-contractual statements (i.e., disclaimers that do not include an express statement of non-reliability or non-reliance), recently the courts seem to be requiring an express statement that the buyer was not relying on extra-contractual statements to bar such fraud claims. See, for example, the decisions of the Court of Chancery in Anvil Holding Corporation v. Iron Acquisition Company, Inc. (May 17, 2013), and of the Superior Court in Alltrista Plastics, LLC v. Rockline Industries (September 4, 2013) and TEK Stainless Piping Products, Inc. v. Smith (October 14, 2013).
In an important decision last week, a New York appellate court ruled that claims for breach of representations and warranties made in connection with residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) accrue when the representations and warranties are made, which typically occurs when the securitization closes. ACE Securities Corp. v. DB Structured Products, Inc., No.650980/12 (N.Y. App. Div. 1st Dep’t Dec. 19, 2013). The court held that the six-year contract statute of limitations begins to run at that time, instead of when a defendant refuses to comply with a plaintiff’s demand for a contractual remedy.
Forum-selection clauses are common, and highly useful, features of commercial contracts because they help make any future litigation on a contract more predictable for the parties and, in some cases, less expensive. But what procedure should a defendant use to enforce a forum-selection clause when the defendant is sued in a court that is not the contractually selected forum?
On December 3, 2013, the US Supreme Court issued a decision in Atlantic Marine Construction Co. v. United States District Court for the Western District of Texas that answers this question. The Court held that, if the parties’ contract specifies one federal district court as the forum for litigating any disputes between the parties, but the plaintiff files suit in a different federal district court that lawfully has venue (and therefore could be a proper place for the parties to litigate), the defendant should seek to transfer the case to the court specified in the forum-selection clause by invoking the federal statute that permits transfers of venue “[f]or the convenience of the parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice.” If the contract’s forum-selection clause instead specifies a state court as the forum for litigating disputes, the defendant may invoke a different federal statute that requires dismissal or transfer of the case.
In recent years, large severance payouts to executives who have been fired from poorly performing firms have attracted a great deal of attention in the popular press. There is a considerable degree of popular outrage on what seem to be egregious ex post payments that are unrelated to the executive’s performance during his tenure at the firm. However, though severance agreements are potentially important elements of executives’ compensation contracts, there is little empirical evidence on the incidence and terms of ex ante severance agreements negotiated by executives, let alone on how these contracts fit into executives’ overall incentive compensation schemes.
In our paper, How Do Ex-Ante Severance Pay Contracts Fit into Optimal Executive Incentive Schemes?, forthcoming in the Journal of Accounting Research, we analyze a unique hand-collected sample of 3,688 severance contracts in place at 808 firms in 2004. Based on the full list of S&P1500 firms, this sample is the most comprehensive of any work in this area, including firms of all sizes, ages, and industries, and executives of a wide range of ranks including the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Operating Officer (COO), and other executives. Around 68% of the firms list explicit severance contract terms with their executives. Most contracts list up to three sets of benefits: explicit cash payments as multiples of salary and bonus (most common benefit); medical and life insurance benefits, and benefits covering the payment of legal fees, outplacement, and other perks.
A large corporation is sued over the alleged breach of a substantial contract. Due to the complex nature of the contract, the corporation’s business executives frequently sought advice from in-house counsel when entering into, and performing under, the agreement. The corporation’s in-house counsel has concerns that sensitive documents reflecting attorney-client communications—or even in-house counsel’s own work product—may be produced by mistake, given the volume of email and electronic documents that must be reviewed quickly.
Clawback Provisions Provide Protections and Cost Savings
Even when a party to a litigation employs precautions to prevent the inadvertent disclosure of privileged documents, some privileged materials are likely to slip through. Recognizing this likelihood, litigants commonly enter into “clawback agreements” at the start of discovery. Typically, a clawback agreement permits either party to demand the return of (that is, to “claw back”) mistakenly produced attorney-client privileged documents or protected attorney work product without waiving any privilege or protection over those materials.
Clawback agreements allow parties to specifically tailor their obligations (if any) to review and separate privileged or protected materials in a manner that suits their needs. For example, before discovery begins, the parties can agree on how they will search for and separate privileged or protected materials from their document productions. So long as the parties abide by the agreement, they will be permitted to take back any privileged or protected material inadvertently produced. Thus, parties can reduce their exposure to costly and time-consuming discovery disputes over whether the protection of privileged material was waived by its production.
Risk allocation provisions (RAPs) are an important part of M&A contracts. In a new research paper, Allocating Risk Through Contract: Evidence from M&A and Policy Implications, I analyze those provisions in the contracts for a representative sample of deals for US targets, and find both wide variation but also clear patterns in when they are used and how they are designed. The patterns I observe reflect multiple economic theories: they show that RAPs are used and designed in light of the information different parties to a deal are likely to have, their incentives during and after the deal, and also transaction costs, especially the costs of enforcing contracts. Despite these patterns, the contracts also show enormous variation in how risk is allocated — and some of this residual variation correlates with the experience of deal lawyers — suggesting that some choices are better than others. Practitioners can benefit from better understanding economic theories, and academics can benefit from better understanding how varied and complex real-world contracts are.
Among the basic patterns I find are the following: