June 8, 2009

Strategic Sandbagging: Let the Buyer Beware

– by John Jenkins, Calfee Halter & Griswold

Webster’s Dictionary defines the term “sandbagging” to mean “to conceal or misrepresent one’s true position, potential, or intent especially in order to take advantage of…to hide the truth about oneself so as to gain an advantage over another.” In the world of M&A, the term sandbagging generally refers to the ability of the beneficiary of a representation and warranty to rely on that rep – and sue for its breach – notwithstanding the fact that the beneficiary knew that it was untrue when it was made.

Many buyers will assert that they ought to be able to rely on a representation despite knowing that it was incorrect when made. The justification for pro-sandbagging position is that representations and warranties serve a risk allocation function in M&A, and the parties have a right to bargain to allocate that risk as they see fit.

If that’s your argument, and your agreement is governed by Delaware law, then it looks like the law is on your side. In Cobalt Operating LLC v. James Crystal Enterprises LLC, No. Civ.A. 714-VCS (Del. Ch.; 7/20/07), Vice Chancellor Strine held that a breach of contract claim arising out of an acquisition agreement does not depend on the buyer establishing justifiable reliance:

Due diligence is expensive and parties to contracts in the mergers and acquisitions arena often negotiate for contractual representations that minimize a buyer’s need to verify every minute aspect of a seller’s business. In other words, representations like the ones made in the Asset Purchase Agreement serve an important risk allocation function. By obtaining the representations it did, Cobalt placed the risk that WRMF’s financial statements were false and that WRMF was operating in an illegal manner on Crystal.

So sandbag away, right?

Not so fast. It isn’t entirely clear that Vice Chancellor Strine’s position in Cobalt Operating is the last word on this issue under Delaware law. The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Vice Chancellor’s decision last year, but it did so in summary fashion, and it didn’t address a long line of cases from Delaware and other jurisdictions holding that “according to sound Delaware law, a plaintiff must establish reliance as a prerequisite to a breach of warranty claim.” Kelly v. McKesson HBOC, Inc., C.A. No. 99C-09-265 WCC (Del Super.; 1/17/02).

Perhaps it’s fitting that the Delaware courts leave us scratching our heads a bit on this issue, because frankly, the case law in this area is a bit of a mess across the country. The trend seems to be toward the kind of position enunciated by Vice Chancellor Strine, and the leading case is probably the New York Court of Appeal’s decision in CBS, Inc. v. Ziff-Davis Publishing Co., 553 N.E.2d 997 (NY 1990). (Here is a survey of the state of the law on this issue in various jurisdictions, as of 2002.)

Still, courts are still pretty far from giving buyers a license to intentionally sandbag. First of all, not everybody is with the program – some states still have an express reliance requirement. For example, if your agreement is governed by Minnesota law, the Eighth Circuit has held that you’ll need to demonstrate justifiable reliance in order to proceed with a claim for a breach, and you won’t be able to do that if you knew of the inaccuracy when the representation was made. Hendricks v. Callahan, 972 F2d 190 (8th Cir. 1992).

What’s more, cases following the Ziff-Davis line make it clear that the facts count. For instance, it may matter whether the buyer knew of the misrepresentation before signing (see Galli v. Metz, 973 F.2d 145 (2d Cir. 1992)), or whether the information about the inaccuracy of the information came from the seller or from a third party (see Rogath v. Siebenman, 129 F.3d 261 (1997)).

Since the case law remains somewhat opaque, lawyers often recommend that buyers negotiate for language stating that the seller’s representations and indemnity obligations won’t be affected by the buyer’s due diligence or its knowledge or suspicion that a rep is false. That kind of language puts buyers in a much better position to argue that they bargained for the risk allocation that’s embodied in the agreement.

That’s good advice, and it’s advice that many buyers appear to be taking. The 2006 Deal Points Survey of private company transactions indicates that approximately 50% of private deals contained “pro-sandbag” language, while only 8% contained an “anti-sandbag” clause that would preclude a buyer from making a claim with respect to a rep it knew was false. Still, 41% of the deals surveyed were silent on this issue, and the case law suggests that there may be more risks to this approach than most buyers realize.

That brings up another point. Maybe the most important advice for a buyer is that intentionally sandbagging the other side is a very risky tactic. As one commentator who analyzed the Ziff-Davis line of cases put it: “sandbag at your peril – if you have knowledge of a breach before signing and do not seek a specific indemnity, you risk losing your rights, even if you have attempted to preserve them.” Robert Quaintance, Jr. “Can You Sandbag? When a Buyer Knows Seller’s Reps and Warranties Are Untrue,” 5 The M&A Lawyer 9 (March 2002).

Let’s face it, the optics of strategic sandbagging look pretty bad, and as the case law suggests, there are all sorts of ways for courts to distinguish situations involving what it thinks is unfair behavior from those more benign situations in which general right to allocate risk through representations and warranties has been upheld. So when it comes to strategic sandbagging, caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.