One of the key considerations in structuring merger and acquisition (M&A) transactions is determining which contracts of the target company, if any, will remain in effect for the acquiror following closing. This post will briefly outline: (1) the general rules of contract assignment; (2) the effect of anti-assignment clauses and other exceptions to the general rule of assignability; and (3) the effect of four common M&A structures on contract assignment.
General Rule: Contracts are Freely Assignable
The general rule is that contracts are freely assignable unless the contract itself, a statute, or public policy dictates otherwise. This is true in Washington State, where courts have found that contractual rights are generally transferable unless the contract expressly prohibits assignment in “very specific” and “unmistakable terms.”
Exceptions to the General Assignability Rule
The exceptions to the general rule of free assignability fall into two broad categories: (1) contractual prohibitions on free assignability (“anti-assignment clauses”) and (2) case law prohibitions on free assignability of certain types of contracts that arise out of public policy concerns.
In light of the general rule of free assignability, most business contracts contain a clause – commonly referred to as an “anti-assignment clause” – that expressly prohibits the assignment of contractual rights without the consent of the other party to the contract. These anti-assignment clauses typically take one of two forms. The first, which we will call “simple” anti-assignment clauses, simply prohibit the contractual right from being assigned without the consent of the other party to the contract. For example, a simple anti-assignment clause might state:
This contract shall not be assigned or transferred by Party X without first obtaining the consent of Party Y.
While simple anti-assignment clauses are generally enforceable, certain types of M&A deal structures effectively circumvent such provisions and, accordingly, the necessity of third-party consents (see the discussion below regarding the impact of M&A deal structures on contract assignment for more detail).
Comprehensive Anti-Assignment Provisions
In response to the inability of “simple” anti-assignment clauses to protect contractual rights in certain M&A contexts, many contracts include more robust anti-assignment provisions designed to require third party consent prior to an M&A event, even where the content itself will not be transferred. For example, a comprehensive anti-assignment clause might state:
Party X shall not assign this Agreement in whole or in part without Party Y’s prior written consent, which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld, conditioned or delayed. Any change in control of Party X resulting from a merger, consolidation, stock transfer or asset sale shall be deemed an assignment or transfer for purposes of this Agreement that requires Party Y’s prior written consent.
Courts will generally enforce these types of comprehensive anti-assignment clauses and conclude that consummation of a change of control transaction without consent is a breach of contract. Accordingly, to assign contracts with comprehensive anti-assignment provisions, the target must seek the consent of the counterparties to each such contract. Obtaining third party consents in connection with M&A transactions may create sticky situations or cause costly delays. The target company may not want their customers, suppliers or others to know that they are going through an M&A event, while the acquiror may want assurances that important contracts will remain in place. What is more, certain contract counterparties may use the leverage of their consent to renegotiate the terms of the contract or extract concessions from the target company. Accordingly, it is important that the parties identify and address comprehensive anti-assignment clauses early in the process – particularly where the contracts to be acquired make up a large portion of a target company’s value.
Contracts That Involve a “Personal” Right
Contracts involving “personal rights” or contracts deemed “personal” by contractual recital or federal law are considered non-assignable or non-transferable unless specific consent is given by the non-assigning party. Generally, “personal” contracts are those that contemplate personal services, skills or performance from the non-assigning party, such as employment, consulting, and partnership agreements. Courts have found that these types of agreements are not freely assignable as a matter of public policy because assigning personal contracts may result in materially adverse consequences (e.g., a material change in duty, risk, or burden) to the non-assigning party. In addition to general contracts for personal services discussed above, courts have also found many types of intellectual property (IP) licenses to be “personal” in nature due to the profound importance of an IP holder’s right to choose who may use the protected IP. Accordingly, non-exclusive IP license rights pertaining to copyright, trademark, and patent licenses are generally considered non-assignable, unless specific consent is given by the non-assigning party. Personal contracts are also treated differently from other types of contracts in the context of M&A events (see the discussion below regarding the impact of M&A deal structures on contract assignment for more detail). Each of the types of “personal” contracts described above should receive heightened contract-by-contract due diligence to ensure that assignment does not violate applicable law.
Courts may also consider the subject matter of the contract and the material risks associated with transferring those rights to the acquiror. For example, where the non-merging entity is a competitor to the acquiring entity, courts may find that given the high risk and burden to the non-merging party, the assignment is ineffective on equitable grounds.
The Effect of the Four Most Common M&A Structures on the Assignment of the Target’s Contracts
The structure employed in a given M&A transaction is critical to determining the treatment of the target company’s various contractual rights. This section will examine the treatment of contractual rights in connection with four common M&A structures: (i) reverse triangular mergers, (ii) forward-triangular mergers, (iii) stock purchases, and (iv) asset purchases. For more information regarding M&A deal structures, please see here and here. While reviewing each of the deal structures that follow, please note that each of the general rules are subject to the exceptions discussed above.
Reverse Triangular Merger
A reverse triangular merger occurs when an acquiror forms a subsidiary and the newly created subsidiary merges with and into the target company. The target survives as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the acquiror following the merger, and continues to own its assets, owe its liabilities, and be party to its contracts.
In a reverse triangular merger, simple anti-assignment clauses generally are not triggered because, as a matter of law, no assignment of the contract has occurred (the target company survives and is the same legal entity as the original contracting party). Accordingly, the contracts of the target remain with the surviving entity without the need to obtain third party consents or take other action. Despite the general rule that no assignment occurs in connection with a reverse triangular merger, thorough contract-by-contract due diligence is still required to identify all contracts that include comprehensive anti-assignment provisions and/or may be deemed to be contracts for personal services (and therefore require consent) under applicable law.
Forward Triangular Merger
In a forward triangular merger, the acquiring entity forms a subsidiary corporation and the target corporation merges directly with and into the newly created subsidiary. As a result, the subsidiary survives the merger. Under this structure, the subsidiary obtains all of the target company’s assets and liabilities by operation of law.
Simple anti-assignment clauses are generally not triggered in a forward triangular merger because the rights are vested, and not assigned, by operation of law. Therefore, the target’s contracts generally transfer automatically to the acquiror without the need to obtain third party consents. However, courts have created considerable ambiguity around the applicability of this general rule in the context of forward triangular mergers. Accordingly, acquirors frequently require target companies to obtain third party consent as a matter of risk allocation and to create certainty that important contracts will remain in place after the merger. As with the above, contract-by-contract due diligence is required to identify contracts that contain anti-assignment language or may be considered to be “personal.”
Direct Stock Purchase
In a direct stock purchase, the acquiror purchases all the outstanding shares of the target directly from its stockholders. Instead of owning certain assets and related liabilities, the acquiror owns the entire selling company. The selling company continues to exist as a separate legal entity and wholly-owned subsidiary of the acquiror (assuming 100% of the outstanding stock is purchased).
In a sale of the target company through a direct stock purchase, the individual assets of the target company (including its material contracts) need not be separately assigned because only the ownership rights of the target are being transferred. Like a reverse triangular merger, a direct stock purchase generally does not trigger a simple anti-assignment provision because the assets are not conveyed to a different entity. Accordingly, the contracts of the selling company remain entirely in place without the need to obtain third party consents. However, contract-by-contract due diligence is required to identify any contracts that contain comprehensive anti-assignment language that would be triggered by the change of control that occurs upon consummation of a stock sale and contracts that may be considered “personal” under applicable law.
The sale of some or all of the assets of a company is one method of transferring part or full ownership in the underlying business. In an asset purchase, the acquiror purchases certain enumerated assets and liabilities of the target in exchange for the cash, the acquiror’s stock, or other consideration.
In an asset purchase transaction, the acquiror is only responsible for the assets and liabilities specifically enumerated in the purchase agreement. All other assets and liabilities remain with the target. Without the protection of a merger statute, the purchaser of contractual assets will need to become a party to the purchased contracts through the general rule of assignability (and the absence of any exceptions). Therefore, if a contract purchased as part of an asset sale contains an anti-assignment provision (whether “simple” or “comprehensive”) or may be considered “personal”, then the target company must obtain the consent of the counter party in order to convey the contract to the acquiror. In the event that neither of the exceptions to the general rule apply, then the contract is generally assignable to the acquiror.
Although contracts are generally freely assignable, in the context of any M&A transaction or other proposed contract assignment, careful consideration should be given to: (1) whether the contract in question includes an anti-assignment provision and, if so, whether the provision is “comprehensive” (i.e., applies to change of control transactions even where, by operation of law, no assignment would be deemed to occur); (2) whether the contract is “personal” in nature; and (3) how the proposed deal structure impacts the treatment of the target’s contractual rights. Given the fact-specific standards for assignment, each of the target’s contracts should be carefully reviewed during the due diligence phase of an M&A transaction to ensure that they are assigned in compliance with applicable law.
Although not nearly as complex as change of control provisions, assignment provisions may still present a challenge in due diligence projects. We hope this blog post will help you navigate the ambiguities of assignment clauses with greater ease by explaining some of the common variations. (And, if you like it, please check out our full guide on Reviewing Change of Control and Assignment Provisions in Due Diligence.)
What is an Assignment Clause?
First, the basics:
Anti-assignment clauses are common because without them, generally, contracts are freely assignable. (The exceptions are (i) contracts that are subject to statutes or public policies prohibiting their assignment, such as intellectual property contracts, or (ii) contracts where an assignment without consent would cause material and adverse consequences to non-assigning counterparties, such as employment agreements and consulting agreements.) For all other contracts, parties may want an anti-assignment clause that allows them the opportunity to review and understand the impact of an assignment (or change of control) before deciding whether to continue or terminate the relationship.
In the mergers and acquisitions context, an assignment of a contract from a target company entity to the relevant acquirer entity is needed whenever a contract has to be placed in the name of an entity other than the existing target company entity after consummation of a transaction. This is why reviewing contracts for assignment clauses is so critical.
A simple anti-assignment provision provides that a party may not assign the agreement without the consent of the other party. Assignment provisions may also provide specific exclusions or inclusions to a counterparty’s right to consent to the assignment of a contract. Below are five common occurrences in which assignment provisions may provide exclusions or inclusions.
Common Exclusions and Inclusions
Exclusion for Change of Control Transactions
In negotiating an anti-assignment clause, a company would typically seek the exclusion of assignments undertaken in connection with change of control transactions, including mergers and sales of all or substantially all of the assets of the company. This allows a company to undertake a strategic transaction without worry. If an anti-assignment clause doesn’t exclude change of control transactions, a counterparty might materially affect a strategic transaction through delay and/or refusal of consent. Because there are many types of change of control transactions, there is no standard language for these. An example might be:
In the event of the sale or transfer by [Party B] of all or substantially all of its assets related to this Agreement to an Affiliate or to a third party, whether by sale, merger, or change of control, [Party B] would have the right to assign any or all rights and obligations contained herein and the Agreement to such Affiliate or third party without the consent of [Party A] and the Agreement shall be binding upon such acquirer and would remain in full force and effect, at least until the expiration of the then current Term.
Exclusion for Affiliate Transactions
A typical exclusion is one that allows a target company to assign a contract to an affiliate without needing the consent of the contract counterparty. This is much like an exclusion with respect to change of control, since in affiliate transfers or assignments, the ultimate actors and responsible parties under the contract remain essentially the same even though the nominal parties may change. For example:
Either party may assign its rights under this Agreement, including its right to receive payments hereunder, to a subsidiary, affiliate or any financial institution, but in such case the assigning party shall remain liable to the other party for the assigning party’s obligations hereunder. All or any portion of the rights and obligations of [Party A] under this Agreement may be transferred by [Party A] to any of its Affiliates without the consent of [Party B].
Assignment by Operation of Law
Assignments by operation of law typically occur in the context of transfers of rights and obligations in accordance with merger statutes and can be specifically included in or excluded from assignment provisions. An inclusion could be negotiated by the parties to broaden the anti-assignment clause and to ensure that an assignment occurring by operation of law requires counterparty approval:
[Party A] agrees that it will not assign, sublet or otherwise transfer its rights hereunder, either voluntarily or by operations of law, without the prior written consent of [Party B].
while an exclusion could be negotiated by a target company to make it clear that it has the right to assign the contract even though it might otherwise have that right as a matter of law:
This Guaranty shall be binding upon the successors and assigns of [Party A]; provided, that no transfer, assignment or delegation by [Party A], other than a transfer, assignment or delegation by operation of law, without the consent of [Party B], shall release [Party A] from its liabilities hereunder.
This helps settle any ambiguity regarding assignments and their effects under mergers statutes (particularly in forward triangular mergers and forward mergers since the target company ceases to exist upon consummation of the merger).
Direct or Indirect Assignment
More ambiguity can arise regarding which actions or transactions require a counterparty’s consent when assignment clauses prohibit both direct and indirect assignments without the consent of a counterparty. Transaction parties will typically choose to err on the side of over-inclusiveness in determining which contracts will require consent when dealing with material contracts. An example clause prohibiting direct or indirect assignment might be:
Except as provided hereunder or under the Merger Agreement, such Shareholder shall not, directly or indirectly, (i) transfer (which term shall include any sale, assignment, gift, pledge, hypothecation or other disposition), or consent to or permit any such transfer of, any or all of its Subject Shares, or any interest therein.
“Transfer” of Agreement vs. “Assignment” of Agreement
In some instances, assignment provisions prohibit “transfers” of agreements in addition to, or instead of, explicitly prohibiting “assignments”. Often, the word “transfer” is not defined in the agreement, in which case the governing law of the contract will determine the meaning of the term and whether prohibition on transfers are meant to prohibit a broader or narrower range of transactions than prohibitions on assignments. Note that the current jurisprudence on the meaning of an assignment is broader and deeper than it is on the meaning of a transfer. In the rarer case where “transfer” is defined, it might look like this:
As used in this Agreement, the term “transfer” includes the Franchisee’s voluntary, involuntary, direct or indirect assignment, sale, gift or other disposition of any interest in…
The examples listed above are only of five common occurrences in which an assignment provision may provide exclusions or inclusions. As you continue with due diligence review, you may find that assignment provisions offer greater variety beyond the factors discussed in this blog post. However, you now have a basic understand of the possible variations of assignment clauses. For a more in-depth discussion of reviewing change of control and assignment provisions in due diligence, please download our full guide on Reviewing Change of Control and Assignment Provisions in Due Diligence.