The COVID-19 pandemic’s dramatic disruption of the legal and business landscape has included a steep drop in overall M&A activity in Q1 2020. Much of this decrease has been due to decreased target valuations, tighter access by buyers to liquidity, and perhaps above all underlying uncertainty as to the crisis’s duration.
For pending transactions, whether the buyer can walk away from the deal (or seek a purchase price reduction) by invoking a material adverse change (MAC) or material adverse effect (MAE) clause – or another clause in the purchase agreement – due to COVID-19 has become a question of increasing relevance. MAC/MAE clauses typically allow a buyer to terminate an acquisition agreement if a MAC or MAE occurs between signing and closing.
Actual litigated cases in this area have been few and far between, as under longstanding Delaware case law, buyer has the burden of proving MAC or MAE, irrespective of who initiates the lawsuit. And the standard of proof is high – a buyer must show that the effects of the intervening event are sufficiently large and long lasting as compared to an equivalent period of the prior year. A short-term or immaterial deviation will not suffice. In fact, Delaware courts have only once found a MAC, in the December 2018 case Akorn, Inc. v. Fresenius Kabi AG.
And yet, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous widely reported COVID-19 related M&A litigations have been initiated with the Delaware Court of Chancery. These include:
- Bed, Bath & Beyond suing 1-800-Flowers (Del. Ch. April 1, 2020) to complete its acquisition of Perosnalizationmall.com (purchaser sought an extension in closing, without citing specifically the contractual basis for the request);
- Level 4 Yoga, franchisee of CorePower Yoga, suing CorePower Yoga (Del. Ch. Apr 2, 2020) to compel CorePower Yoga to purchase of Level 4 Yoga studios (after CorePower Yoga took the position that studio closings resulting from COVID-19 stay-at-home orders violated the ordinary course covenant);
- Oberman, Tivoli & Pickert suing Cast & Crew (Del. Ch. Apr 6, 2020), an industry competitor, to complete its purchase of Oberman’s subsidiary (Cast & Crew maintained it was not obligated to close based on alleged insufficiencies in financial data provided in diligence);
- SP VS Buyer LP v. L Brands, Inc. (Del. Ch. Apr 22, 2020), in which buyer sought a declaratory judgment in its favor on termination); and
- L Brands, Inc. v. SP VS Buyer L.P., Sycamore Partners III, L.P., and Sycamore Partners III-A, L.P (Del. Ch. Apr 23), in which seller instead seeks declaratory judgment in its favor on buyer obligation to close.
Such cases, typically signed up at an early stage of the pandemic, are likely to increase. Delaware M&A-MAC-related jurisprudence suggests that buyers seeking to cite MAC in asserting their positions should expect an uphill fight, given buyer’s high burden of proof. Indeed, Delaware courts’ sole finding of a MAC in Akorn was based on rather extreme facts: target’s (Akorn’s) business deteriorated significantly (40% and 20% drops in profit and equity value, respectively), measured over a full year. And quite material to the Court’s decision was the likely devastating effect on Akorn’s business resulting from Akorn’s deceptive conduct vis-à-vis the FDA.
By contrast, cases before and after Akorn, courts have not found a MAC/MAE, including in the 2019 case Channel Medsystems, Inc. v. Bos. Sci. Corp. There, Boston Scientific Corporation (BSC) agreed to purchase Channel Medsystems, Inc., an early stage medical device company. The sale was conditioned on Channel receiving FDA approval for its sole product, Cerene. In late December 2017, Channel discovered that falsified information from reports by its Vice President of Quality (as part of a scheme to steal over $2 million from Channel) was included in Channel’s FDA submissions. BSC terminated the merger agreement in May 2018, asserting that Channel’s false representations and warranties constituted a MAC.
The court disagreed. While Channel and Akron both involved a fraud element, Chanel successfully resubmitted its FDA application, such that the fraudulent behavior – the court found – would not cause the FDA to reject the Cerene device. BSC also failed to show sufficiently large or long-lasting effects on Channel’s financial position. Channel thus reaffirmed the high bar under pre-Akron Delaware jurisprudence for courts to find a MAC/MAE (See e.g. In re IBP, Inc. S’holders Litig., 789 A.2d 14 (Del. Ch. 2001); Frontier Oil Corp. v. Holly Corp., 2005 WL 1039027 (Del. Ch. Apr. 29, 2005); Hexion Specialty Chemicals v. Huntsman Corp., 965 A.2d 715 (Del. Ch. 2008)).
Applied to COVID-19, buyers may have challenges in invoking MAC/MAE clauses under their purchase agreements.
First, it may simply be premature at this juncture for a buyer to show the type of longer-term effects that have been required under Delaware jurisprudence. The long-term effects of COVID-19 itself are unclear. Of course, as weeks turn into months and longer, this may change.
A second challenge is certain carve-outs typically included in MAC/MAE clauses. Notably, it is typical for these clauses to include exceptions for general economic and financial conditions generally affecting a target’s industry, unless a buyer can demonstrate that they have disproportionately affected the target.
A buyer may be able to point to other clauses in a purchase agreement in seeking to walk away from the deal. Of note is the ordinary course covenant that applies to the period between signing and closing. By definition, most targets are unable to carry out business during the COVID-19 crisis consistent with past practice. It is unclear whether courts will allow for a literal reading of these clauses, or interpret them taking into account the broader risk allocation regime as evidenced by the MAC or MAE clause in the agreement, and in doing so reject a buyer’s position.
For unsigned deals, there may be some early lessons for practitioners as they prepare draft purchase agreements. On buyer walk-away rights, buyers will want to ensure that the MAE/MAC definition includes express reference to “pandemics” and “epidemics”, if not to “COVID-19” itself. Conversely, Sellers may wish to seek to loosen ordinary course covenant language, such as by including express exceptions for actions required by the MAC or MAE and otherwise ensure that they comply with all obligations under their control. Buyers will also want to pay close attention to how COVID-19 affects other aspects of the purchase agreement, including seeking more robust representations and warranties on the impact of COVID-19 on the target’s business.
 Although the discussion of this based Delaware law, caselaw in other U.S. jurisdictions often is consistent Delaware.