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Due Diligence Counts

Posted on Oct 5th, 2013

Private equity and venture capital funds who distinguish themselves as being “active investors” should take note of a recent First Circuit decision in the Sun Capital Partners III et al v. New England Teamsters & Trucking Industry Pension Fund decision where the could The First Circuit found a private equity fund can be jointly and severally liable for the unfunded pension obligations of companies in its portfolio where it took an active role in the company’s business.

The portfolio company in question, Scott Brass, Inc., went into bankruptcy and defaulted on its withdrawal obligations to the New England Teamsters &Trucking Industry Pension Fund (Teamsters) at a time when the company was held by two Sun Capital Funds. The Teamsters argued that the funds were jointly and severally liable for the Scott Brass obligations because they were engaged in a trade or business and were controlled by ERISA along with Scott Brass.

The Massachusetts federal district court disagreed in late 2012 and held that the Sun Capital funds were not trades or businesses, and were instead private investment funds whose only function was to receive investment income. The First Circuit, in a decision that was admittedly “fact specific”, reversed, reasoning that what might otherwise be a passive investment could qualify an investor to be a trade or business when it is coupled with certain activities. The court referred to this as the “investment plus” analysis but declined to establish specific guidelines for what those “certain activities” might be.

Factors that the court did mention include:

  • The general partners of the Sun Capital funds had hiring and firing authority and otherwise managed the day-to-day operations of their portfolio companies.
  • Sun Capital affiliates actively worked on improving and restructuring the portfolio in order to sell it at a better price. These affiliates also served on the boards of portfolio companies and held the majority of the seats on the Scott Brass board.
  • Sun Capital Fund IV in particular received management fees from Scott Brass.

These factors prompted the Court to render its decision as to Sun Capital Fund IV and to remand the case as to Sun Capital Fund III for a new “trade or business” analysis; the receipt of management fees from Scott Brass is a key consideration.

Even if ERISA work isn’t your area, this case is an important reminder that even well-crafted reps and warranties and corporate limited liability shields may not protect an investor from being pursued by creditors of a portfolio company, especially a bankrupt one. For legal issues such as funded and unfunded retirement plans covered by ERISA, there is no substitute for careful due diligence by specialized professionals. Second, investors who find themselves in a similar situation should seek guidance from the Sun Capital case on how to manage the investment without toeing the line that results in potential exposure to the fund managers and their assets.

If you have any questions about this topic, please feel free to email us.