Our first blog post of the New Year looks back at an important case the Texas Supreme Court decided in 2019, and its potential impact on majority owners seeking to avoid fraud claims by new investors. See Int’l Bus. Machines Corp. v. Lufkin Indus., LLC, 573 S.W.3d 224 (Tex. 2019), reh’g denied (May 31, 2019).  The case is notable because the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s judgment following a jury trial that resulted in a fraud judgment against IBM in the amount of $21 million before IBM’s appeal.

The Supreme Court overturned the judgment, because in the parties’ contract, Lufkin Industries (the buyer of computer management software) had expressly disclaimed that it was relying on any misrepresentations that IBM (the software seller) had made about its software’s expected performance before the parties signed their agreement.  Stated simply, the Court held in Lufkin that a buyer cannot pursue a claim for being defrauded into signing a contract if the buyer agrees to expressly disclaim in the contract that it was relying on any of the statements at issue.

The Court’s language was clear in setting forth the legal standard at issue that applies in  regard to claims for fraudulent inducement.

Supreme Court’s Lufkin Holding

”Under Texas law, a party may be liable in tort for fraudulently inducing another party to enter into a contract.  But the party may avoid liability if the other party contractually disclaimed any reliance on the first party’s fraudulent misrepresensations.  Whether a party is liable in any particular case depends on the contract’s language and the totality of the surrounding circumstances.  In this case involving a contract to purchase a business-management software system, we hold that contractual disclaimers bar the buyer (Lufkin Industries) from recovering in tort for misrepresentations the seller (IBM) made both to induce the buyer to enter into the contract and to induce the buyer to later agree to amend the contract.” 

This post will focus on the guidance that the Supreme Court has provided in the recent Lufkin case for majority owners who are considering bringing new investors into the business.

Elements of Disclaimer – Factors the Court Considers

The Court in Lufkin made clear that it was not eliminating all claims for fraud based on the standard merger and integration clauses that are set forth in contracts, but it held that “a clause that clearly and unequivocally expresses the parties’ intent to disclaim reliance on the specific misrepresentations at issue can preclude a fraudulent inducement claim.”  The Court cited with approval on this point, its previous decision issued ten years earlier in Forest Oil.  See Forest Oil Corp. v. McAllen, 268 S.W.3d 51, 60-61 (Tex. 2008)(emphasis added).

According to the Court, not every disclaimer is effective, and courts “must always examine the contract itself and the totality of the surrounding circumstances when determining if a waiver-of-reliance provision is binding.  See Forest Oil, 268 S.W.3d at 60.  The Court stated that in deciding if a particular disclaimer provision will be upheld and require dismissal of a fraud claim, trial courts should consider whether:
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Like fish need water in which to swim, private company owners need to secure capital on an almost continuous basis.  Capital is necessary to develop the company’s products and services, to retain top talent and to market and promote the business.  But securing capital from outside investors can cause headaches for company founders when conflicts later arise with new investors who have discordant views about the company’s strategy and business plans.  For this reason, business owners are wise to accept investments from third parties only when specific conditions are in place designed to prevent and/or resolve later conflicts that threaten the company’s continued existence. This post reviews key terms company owners should consider including in their governance documents or in separate agreements with the new investors to ensure that the majority owners maintain full control over the company.

Secure Buy-Sell Agreement With Investors

If relationships with new investors turn south and the minority investors become a thorn in the side of the company’s majority owners, they will want to have the right to remove these new investors by redeeming all of their ownership interests in the business.  This redemption right to exit minority investors will be available to the company’s owners, however, only if they secure a signed written agreement from the new investors at the time they make their investment in the company.  If the majority owners fail to secure this redemption right from new investors when the investment that is made in the business, the owners may find themselves stuck with unwelcome investors.  Without a redemption right in place, the majority owners have no ability to remove from these co-owners from the business.
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Entrepreneurs with visions of taking their company public one day may look forward to announcing their IPO by ringing the bell at the stock exchange on Wall Street and celebrating at an extravagant closing dinner with the founder team. These heady pre-IPO dreams may quickly run into a number of significant real world challenges, however, that are regularly faced by the management of public companies.  This blog post reviews some of the serious issues that public firms regularly confront, which should be weighed carefully by private company owners before they decide to move into the public market.

The Cost Factor – Public Companies Are Extensively Regulated

The vast difference in the way that public and private companies are managed results from the extensive federal regulations that govern the operation of public firms.   Moving into the public realm requires the company’s management to learn an entirely new language filled with acronyms, e.g., just a few of these are Sarbanes Oxley (SOX), the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  The dictates of federal law and the regulations promulgated by federal agencies will require the company to engage in detailed internal compliance procedures, file financial reports, accept audits by independent third parties of their financial performance and abide by operating requirements that did not exist when the company flourished as a private, closely-held business.

While a successful IPO will generate a sizable financial war chest, there are trade offs that should be considered by the company founders.  Once the company owners successfully take the business public, their management team will be required to spend more time and incur much greater expense complying with the federal regulatory scheme.   Research indicates that the cost for a small company to enter the IPO marketplace averages about $2.5 million. And after a small-cap company becomes public, it can then expect to pay an average of about $1.5 million annually in compliance costs.  (Read: The Cost of Regulation on Small-Cap Companies)   
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The private company marketplace has become increasingly attractive to investors as the number of opportunities for investment has vastly expanded.  There are approximately 6 million companies in the US, but less than 1% are publicly traded on a national stock exchange and more than 85% of businesses with more than 500 employees are privately owned.  The attraction for investors is that private companies hold the potential to yield robust financial returns due to the fact that many private companies are family-run businesses with stable management and a long-term focus on growth.  As a result, McKinsey reports that private companies have outperformed the S&P 500 Index by an average of about 3 percentage points over the past ten years.

The counter argument is that private company investing can be risky.  The downsides include the potential for the loss of the investment when start-ups and early stage companies fail as more than 50% do not survive three years.  There is also a much greater potential for fraud as private companies are substantially less regulated than public businesses.  In addition, as private companies continue to raise capital, the investor’s ownership interest may be diluted unless the investor makes additional capital contributions.  Finally, the investment may be “dead money” for an extended period with no dividends being declared, which requires the investor to wait for years to receive any return on the investment.

The opportunity to invest in private companies therefore presents investors with a classic risk/reward scenario.  While a private company investment opens the door to the possibility of securing outsize financial returns, this potential can be realized only if the investor is willing to accept a much higher degree of risk.  Whether any private company investment is a good bet is beyond the scope of this post and the terms of an investment agreement cannot eliminate this business risk.  But an investor who obtains the contract terms that are discussed in this post in the investment agreement will be poised to secure all of the intended benefits of the investment if the company does achieve success in the future.

These investor-friendly provisions can be included in a shareholder agreement, in a LLC company agreement, in a limited partnership agreement or in the company’s original or amended bylaws.   The checklist that follows is not intended to be exhaustive of all terms that are included in an investment agreement, but it includes some of the most essential terms designed to protect the rights of investors who make private company investments. 
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Following Supreme Court arguments last month, the final chapter in the long-running legal battle between Energy Transfer Partners LP (“ETP”) and Enterprise Products Partners (“Enterprise”) is finally coming to an end. ETP is requesting the Texas high court to reinstate the $535 million judgment it obtained after a jury trial against Enterprise in 2014. The case presents critical issues regarding the manner in which a Texas partnership can be formed, and the importance of these questions for business owners and the size of the judgment have made this a closely watched legal conflict since the jury issued its verdict more than 5 years ago.

This post reviews the issues at stake in the ETP litigation and explains our prediction that the Supreme Court will not reverse the decision issued by the Dallas Court of Appeals in 2017, which unanimously overturned the jury’s verdict and held that no partnership ever arose between ETP and Enterprise.  We expect the Court to rule that in light of the written conditions the parties had expressly agreed in writing must be met before a partnership would be formed between them, the contention that a partnership arose by their conduct is a dog that won’t hunt.

In the Beginning – A Brief Case Summary

The ETP case against Enterprise stems from a dispute over a highly profitable pipeline, which the parties considered pursuing together as a joint venture.  The dispute and claims arose when Enterprise changed course and signed on to do the pipeline deal with Enbridge, based in Canada.  ETP claimed that it had been jilted by its business “partner” in breach of Enterprise’s fiduciary duties, argued successfully to the jury that the parties had entered into a partnership agreement based on their conduct and oral statements.  The jury agreed and awarded damages of more than $300 million to ETP, but the figure grew to $535 million figure by the time that the final judgment was entered in the case.
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Minority investors who purchase an ownership interest in a private Texas company are advised to secure an exit strategy confirmed in a Buy/Sell Agreement at the time they make their investment.  But investors who look closely at the specific terms of their Agreement may find that the contract contains an unwelcome surprise if it includes “good faith” obligations that have been accepted by the majority owner or by the company.  While good faith may sound attractive on paper, a recent Texas Supreme Court decision holds that a promise to act in good faith does not reflect a binding commitment and is not enforceable.  See Dallas Forth Worth International Airport Board v. Vizant Technologies, LLC,  2019 WL 2147262 (Tex. May 17, 2019).

The specific terms of Buy/Sell Agreements between owners and investors in private Texas companies are of critical importance, and this post reviews how the Supreme Court’s decision in the Vizant case earlier this year may impact the rights of owners/investors.

The Vizant Case Holding

The Vizant case did not involve a dispute between business co-owners, but the Court’s decision is nevertheless significant to contracts between business partners.  In the lawsuit, Vizant Technologies sued the D/FW Airport Board (the “Board”) contending that the Board had failed to follow through on a good faith promise in a consulting agreement, which potentially provided additional compensation for Vizant.  In the contract, Vizant agreed to provide consulting services related to credit-card processing for a capped fee of $50,000, but the terms of the contract also included a “good faith” promise.  Specifically, the Board had agreed to make a good faith effort to increase the amount of the fees to be paid to Vizant if the consulting services that it provided under the contract exceeded the amount of the fee cap.
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Many Texas lawyers and their private company clients continue to refer to the claim for shareholder oppression as if it remains a viable cause of action under Texas law. And yet, for all practical purposes, the claim for minority shareholder oppression met its demise more than five years ago in 2014 in Ritchie v. Rupe[1]. In this landmark decision, the Texas Supreme Court held that a court-ordered buyout of the minority owner’s interest in a private company was not a remedy that was available under either Texas statutes or common law in response to oppressive conduct by the company’s majority owner(s).

The myth of the claim for shareholder oppression in Texas persists, because there is a lingering reference to oppression in the Texas Business Code [2], and because there is a strong continuing need for this type of remedy in response to majority owners who engage in conduct that is oppressive to minority shareholders or LLC members. [3] In Rupe, the Supreme did leave open the possibility that a court-ordered buyout could be a remedy for a breach of fiduciary duty committed by majority owners. The door that was left open to this remedy in Rupe, however, is not one that lower courts have been willing to walk through in granting or upholding a buyout remedy for the minority investor based on the majority owner’s breach of fiduciary duty.

Looking past the myth of claims for shareholder oppression, the legal remedy most often pursued by minority shareholders since Rupe is a claim for breach of fiduciary duty that is filed on a derivative basis. These derivative claims are the subject of this post.

Post-Rupe Shareholder Derivative Claims 

A shareholder derivative lawsuit based on breaches of fiduciary duty by the company’s majority owner is the chief legal weapon that remains available to minority owners (shareholders and LLC members) after Rupe. Minority owners have grounds to bring this claim when majority owners put their own self-interest ahead of the company’s best interests, which constitutes a breach of their duty of loyalty. In a derivative suit, therefore, the minority shareholders seek recovery for harm the company suffered as a result of the majority owners’ self-dealing.
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By Ricky Torlincasi and Ladd Hirsch

Historically, the sale of a private company carried with it a significant risk of claims by the purchaser. Months or even years after the sale closed, purchasers would frequently contend that the seller’s representations and warranties in the purchase agreement had been breached. This claim would support demands by the purchaser for the seller to forfeit some or all of the purchase price held back in escrow, and give rise to other claims, as well. The often contentious relationship that existed between company buyers and sellers began to change, however, when representation and warranty insurance (“R&W Insurance”) emerged and began to gain acceptance.

Although it was almost unheard of ten years ago, R&W Insurance is now widely used in today’s seller-friendly merger and acquisition (“M&A”) market. This post therefore provides an overview of R&W Insurance, explains how R&W Insurance works, and reviews how this type of policy allows buyers and sellers to an M&A transaction to allocate risk for their mutual benefit.

Role of R&W Insurance

At its most basic level in this context, R&W Insurance is an insurance policy issued to the buyer of a private company, and it protects the buyer from unanticipated losses that result from a breach of the seller’s representations and/or warranties in the purchase agreement. Some R&W policies are issued to company sellers, but more often the buyer is the insured party.

The concept of R&W Insurance is not new, but it has gained a much broader market acceptance over the past decade due to a number of factors, including, seller-friendly market conditions and an increase in the number of new insurers entering the market.   The existence of multiple insurers providing R&W Insurance has led to lower costs (premiums), better policy terms, and a quicker underwriting process allowing the policies to be issued more promptly.
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By Kelly Knotts and Ladd Hirsch

Fiduciary. The term applies broadly to cover all types of companies, as well as spouses in marriage, and is defined as “of, relating to, or involving a confidence or trust.” In the private business context, the company’s shareholders or members trust that their directors, managers and officers will make good faith decisions and act with loyalty to the business. When company leaders breach this trust and violate their fiduciary duties, however, they may become personally liable for any damages resulting from their improper conduct. This post focuses on the fiduciary duties that apply to private company leaders and reviews the legal guideposts that will help these company leaders, as well as the company’s shareholders and members better understand what constitutes compliance with these fiduciary obligations.

The Core Fiduciary Duties

Regardless of the entity structure, Texas law imposes fiduciary duties on company directors, managers and officers, which they owe to their company. Apart from Texas law, the fiduciary duties owed by company leaders are also typically addressed in the company’s bylaws, agreements, or regulations. What precisely are the fiduciary duties that Texas law imposes on business leaders, and do they vary based on the role as director, officer, or manager? The remainder of this post takes a closer look at these fiduciary duties.

  1. The Duty of Care

When making decisions for the company, the directors, managers, and officers are expected to exercise and adhere to the standard for the “duty of care.” Under Texas law, this duty is generally described as the obligation to use the amount of care an ordinarily careful and prudent person would use in similar circumstances. Gearhart Indus., Inc. v. Smith Intern., Inc., 741 F.2d 707, 720 (5th Cir. 1984). The decisions that company directors, manager, and/or officers make on behalf of the company involve a certain amount of risk as they seek to act for the benefit of the company. Recognizing that directors, managers and officers must make decisions for the company that cannot be fairly judged with the benefit of hindsight, Texas law applies the “Business Judgment Rule” to protect company leaders in their decision-making process. The Business Judgment Rule specifically precludes directors, managers, and officers from being held liable for business decisions that turn out poorly provided that they acted in an informed manner an on a good faith basis. To overcome the Business Judgment Rule as a defense, a shareholder or member who desires to assert a claim against a governing person at the company is typically required to show that this company leader engaged in self-dealing or other bad faith conduct. “. . . the Texas business judgment rule precludes judicial interference with the business judgment of directors absent a showing of fraud or an ultra vires act. If such a showing is not made, then the good or bad faith of the directors is irrelevant.” Gearhart Indus., Inc. v. Smith Int’l, Inc., 741 F.2d 707 (5th Cir. 1984);

The Texas Business Organizations Code does permit a company to limit or even eliminate a director’s personal liability for money damages to the company or its shareholders or members for breaches of their duty of care. Tex. Bus. Orgs. Code § 7.001. These so called “exculpation clauses” do not eliminate the fiduciary duty of care, but by limiting or eliminating the remedy of a cash payment for the breach of this duty, the practical effect is the same (a breach of the duty of care could give rise to non-monetary damages even when the company’s governing documents include an exculpation provision).
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By Zack Callarman and Mark Johnson

Our previous posts have stressed the critical importance of buy-sell agreements for both majority owners and minority investors in private companies (Read here). For majority owners, securing a buy-sell agreement avoids the potential of becoming “stuck” in business with a difficult co-owner without the ability to force