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Massachusetts Appeals Court Rejects Stockholder Representative’s Appeal to Deny Partial Settlement Out of Escrow Fund

Posted on Dec 4th, 2013

A recent decision by the Massachusetts Appeals Court interprets the right of a seller shareholder to bypass a stockholders’ representative and settle directly with a buyer claimant and to use for such settlement the proceeds from an escrow fund established as part of the sale transaction.  This opinion is an important read for anyone engaged as a stockholders representative or serves as counsel to one.   While the decision is somewhat limited by the specific provisions of the merger and escrow agreements at issue, corporate practitioners may find the facts useful for tightening up standard provisions on these issues in future deals.  The case also provides a handy explanation of the oft-used (and misunderstood) term “power coupled with an interest”, which we have summarized below.  A full copy of the opinion can be found here.

The case arises from a stock purchase merger in September 2007 of Atlantis Components, Inc. by Astra Tech, Inc.  for $71 million. Per common practice, $6.3 million of the purchase price was placed into an escrow fund, to be disbursed to the former Atlantis shareholders on a pro rata basis on December 31, 2008, the release date. The purpose of the the escrow fund was to indemnify Astra Tech if it paid any claims asserted against Atlantis after the closing date but before the release date. The merger agreement designated a Shareholder Representative as the agent of the former Atlantis shareholders, which had the duty of approving or challenging any indemnification claim on the escrow fund.

Shortly after the closing, Astra Tech brought a claim against Atlantis for failing to disclose  certain correspondence alleging that Atlantis was infringing on the patents of one its competitors.   The parties disagreed on the merits of AstraTech’s claims and various lawsuits ensued.  As legal costs for these matters ballooned to nearly $2.5 million, in October 2010 certain of the Atlantis shareholders opted to settle directly with Astra Tech, using their pro rata share of the escrow fund as payment.  After reaching an agreement, the settling shareholders and Astra Tech moved in Superior Court for approval of their settlement. The shareholders’ agent opposed the settlement, on the basis that neither the merger agreement nor the escrow agreement permitted the settling shareholders to seek disbursement absent the consent of the shareholders’ agent. A judge approved the settlement agreement between Astra Tech and the settling shareholders and this appeal followed.

The Court’s decision involved the interpretation  and interplay of three contracts between the parties: (1) the escrow agreement between Astra Tech, Atlantis, the stockholders rep, and the escrow agent; (2) the merger agreement between Astra Tech, Atlantis, and the stockholders rep; and (3) the settlement agreement between Astra Tech and the settling shareholders.

On the escrow agreement, the Court determined that that the express provisions of that Agreement did provide for a procedural mechanism to allow the settling shareholders to seek court approval of their settlement.  An excerpt of that provision is provided below for reference. (1)

On the merger agreement, the stockholders rep argued that it had the exclusive right to negotiate with Astra Tech under under Sections 8.6(a) and (e) (pasted as footnote (2) below).  While the Court agreed that these provisions granted the Stockholders Rep with broad powers to negotiate and make decisions for the settling shareholders, it held that these rights were not exclusive, which would be required to bar the settling shareholders from negotiating for themselves.  The Court refused to construe the provision that the rep’s decisions and acts “constitute a decision of all Company shareholders” and are “final, binding and conclusive upon each such Company Shareholder” as granting the rep with exclusive rights.   To create an exclusive agency, the parties must expressly and unambiguously indicate such an intent in the contract.”  The Court noted that if the parties had wished to give the shareholders’ agent the sole or exclusive authority to negotiate on behalf of the settling shareholders, they should have provided for that expressly in the contract. (“We will not contort the plain language of the merger agreement to interpret “final, binding and conclusive” as synonymous with “irrevocable” or “exclusive.”)

Finally, the stockholders rep contended that its agency was irrevocable because it has a “power coupled with an interest.”  The Court disagreed.   Despite general agency law principles (which allow a creator of the agency relationship to revoke the agent’s authority at any time, even if their agreement expressly states that the principal may not revoke), the agent’s authority can be made irrevocable when it is a “power coupled with an interest”.  The Court explained that a ”power coupled with an interest is not technically an agency relationship because “it is neither given for, nor exercised for, the benefit of the person who creates it.”  In an agency relationship, granting authority to the agent is solely for the benefit of the principal, but when a “power is coupled with an interest, the donee holds that power for his own benefit (or for the benefit of a third party), but not for the benefit of the donor.”  The reference to “interest” in this phrase means that the agent (donee of the power) must have a present interest in the property upon which the power is to operate.  It is generally accepted that the “interest” must be ownership of the property itself and it is this ownership which makes the power irrevocable.

In its analysis, the Court broke down the term “a power coupled with an interest”  into two components: first, does the agent have “a power”, and second, is the power “coupled with an interest.  On the first point, the Court held that the  rep did not have “a power” in the escrow fund, as it did not have  exclusive or irrevocable power under the merger agreement or the escrow agreement.  The rep also did not have unilateral power in the escrow fund (a distinguishing factor in other cases cited by the Court) but rather was required to reach an agreement with Astra Tech before the escrow agent could be compelled to release the funds.

On the second point, the stockholders rep did not have “an interest” in the escrow fund sufficient to create a power coupled with an interest.  Citing cases going back to 1823, the common thread requires the agent to have title or some other form of ownership of the underlying asset to assert that the power is “coupled with an interest”.   Even though the shareholders rep (as a Atlantis shareholder) had a personal interest in a portion of the escrow, it did not have a property interest in the entire fund in its capacity as shareholders’ agent.  The Court emphasized that the critical distinction between an agent and the donee of a power coupled with an interest lies in who receives the benefit of the relationship. “In a principal-agent relationship, the principal receives the benefit; for a power coupled with an interest, the benefit inures to the donee himself (or to a third party), but not to the donor.”

After concluding that the stockholders rep had neither the exclusive right to negotiate under the merger agreement nor a power coupled with an interest in the entire escrow fund, it then held that the settling shareholders did have a right to bypass the rep and enter into a direct settlement with Astra Tech.  In the absence of an agreement, the settling shareholders retain their common-law rights as principals. Notwithstanding any agreement between principal and agent, an agent’s actual authority terminates … if the principal revokes the agent’s actual authority by a manifestation to the agent. Because a principal may revoke part of the agent’s authority, it follows that a principal may, in the absence of an agreement to the contrary, negotiate on his own behalf without infringing on the agent’s ability to perform his duties.  Because nothing in the agreements abrogated these common-law rights, the Court held that the settling shareholders had the power to negotiate a settlement agreement with Astra Tech.

This opinion illustrates a number of interesting drafting points for preparing escrow and stockholder rep provisions in complex merger and sale agreements.  At the very least, practitioner may wish to counsel their clients on the alternatives of exclusive and nonexclusive roles of the rep and the possible ways those results can be effected.  Based on this decision, it appears likely that a Massachusetts court facing a similar issue will construe these agreements strictly and will require the exclusivity and revocability to be expressly stated to be enforceable.

If you have any questions regarding the issues discussed in this point, please feel free to contact us.

Footnotes:

 

(1) ”Any Disputed Claim and any other dispute which may arise under this Escrow Agreement with respect to the rights of [Astra Tech] or any other Indemnified Party and the Shareholders’ Agent or the Company Securityholders to the Escrow Fund shall be settled by mutual agreement of [Astra Tech] and the Shareholders’ Agent (evidenced by joint written instructions signed by [Astra Tech] and the Shareholders’ Agent and delivered to the Escrow Agent); provided, however, that upon receipt of a copy of a final and nonappealable order of a court of competent jurisdiction with respect to payment of all or any portion of the Escrow Fund, … the Escrow Agent shall deliver the portion of the Escrow Fund specified in such award or order to [Astra Tech] or other Indemnified Party and/or the Shareholders’ Agent for the benefit of the Company Securityholders as directed in such award or order.”

(2)  ”[T]he Shareholders’ Agent shall be, and hereby is, appointed and constituted in respect of each Company Securityholder, as his, her or its agent, to act in his, her or its name, place and stead, as such Company Securityholder’s attorney-in-fact, as more fully set forth in this Section 8.6. Without limiting the generality of the foregoing, the Shareholders’ Agent shall be constituted and appointed as agent for and on behalf of the Company shareholders to give and receive notices and communications, to authorize delivery to [Astra Tech] of the monies from the Escrow Fund in satisfaction of claims by [Astra Tech] Indemnified Persons against the Escrow Fund, to object to such deliveries, to agree to, negotiate, enter into settlements and compromises of, and demand arbitration and comply with orders of courts and awards of arbitrators with respect to such claims, and to take all actions necessary or appropriate in the judgment of the Shareholders’ Agent for the accomplishment of the foregoing.” [FN13]

Section 8.6(e) further delineates the actions that may be taken by the shareholders’ agent:

“A decision, act, consent or instruction of the Shareholders’ Agent shall constitute a decision of all Company shareholders … and shall be final, binding and conclusive upon each such Company shareholder, and the Escrow Agent and [Astra Tech] may rely upon any decision, act, consent or instruction of the Shareholders’ Agent as being the decision, act, consent or instruction of each and every such Company shareholder.”