Federal court rules for Buyer in earnout case

Earnouts are rife with controversy.  While they are popular in today’s deal market, and most parties see them as a creative remedy to bridge a pricing or funding gap, the majority fail and result in disputes.  Assuming the best of intentions to honor the original agreement, it is impossible to predict all of the parameters that may impact a future earnout potential.  A recent decision by the US District Court for E.D. of Wisconsin, Didion Milling, Inc. v.  Agro Distribution, LLC (2007 WL 702808) is a good primer of some the issues that may need to be tested at the purchase agreement stage.

The earnout here was based on a net cash flow determination, where the APA provided a list of guidelines on how it would be calculated, including a reference that GAAP would be used.  Despite a provision in the APA that the agreement could not be assigned, the buyer assigned the agreement to another entity, which in turn assigned it again, so that the party owing the earnout was not the original buyer.   Since the earnout was based on a calculation of the original business acquired, this complicated the earnout calculation not to seller’s liking.

One issue was that net cash flow was supposed to take into account after-tax numbers.  The original buyer was a corporation, so it paid its own taxes.  The ultimate successor was an LLC, a pass-thru, so the tax rates and rules would be different, and would not be paid by the business but by its members.   This created ambiguity as to whether taxes should be included, and if so, how much.  This is probably something that, now with 20-20 hindsight, should be addressed specifically in the purchase agreement.

 The parties disagreed as to the interest deduction against the earnout calculation, and whether the buyer’s overall cost of capital can be used to apply across the board.  Again, probably something that can be spelled out in advance, at least by plugging in numbers for min/max.

Finally, this case also involves a claim for good faith and fair dealing, which is common in earnout cases.   To provide the flavor what is usually alleged, the plaintiffs claimed that each of the following was a separate reason to find bad faith:  (1) buyer acquired the business aware that seller had not consented to the assignment; (2) buyer focused on reselling the business rather than operating it; (3) buyer failed to provide seller with monthly financial statements; (4) buyer failed to provide seller with the documentation necessary to support calculation of net cash flow; and (5) buyer engaged in “sharp dealing” by assessing taxes, charging interest, and early expensing of payment. The court rejected all of these as a matter of law.  

 A couple of these deserve comment.  On the consent issue, the court noted that while a good faith claim did not work here because the ultimate buyer had no privity with the seller under the original seller, there could be a claim for intentional interefence with a contract (which was not alleged here). 

On “sharp dealing”, the court explained that a party may violate the duty of good faith by taking deliberate advantage of another party’s oversight. Such sharp dealing may or may not be actionable in tort. Actions such as avoiding an unbargained for expense or obtaining an advantage by way of exploiting superior knowledge do not, however, constitute sharp dealing or a breach of the duty of good faith. 

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