October 1, 2008
Delaware Court of Chancery Directs Hexion/Huntsman Merger To Go Forward
From Travis Laster: On Monday night, Delaware Vice Chancellor Lamb issued his much anticipated post-trial decision on the Hexion/Huntsman deal. In the opinion and implementing order, Vice Chancellor Lamb holds that (i) Huntsman had not suffered an MAE, (ii) Hexion “knowingly and intentionally” breached its obligations under the merger agreement such that potential damages are not limited to the $325 million termination fee, (iii) whether or not the combined entity would be insolvent is an issue that is not yet ripe, and (iv) Hexion must specifically perform its obligations under the merger agreement (which does not include an obligation to close). This decision is a blockbuster that will occupy center stage for a while. Here are some highlights from this major ruling.
Practitioners should start with the implementing order. It is a partial final order that Vice Chancellor Lamb certified as final pursuant to Court of Chancery Rule 54(b), thereby setting up an appeal as of right for Hexion.
Several paragraphs leap out of the order. In paragraphs 3-7, Vice Chancellor Lamb orders Hexion to move forward with the actions necessary to complete the merger. This is the type of open-ended, affirmative relief that Delaware courts often resist giving. Even more strikingly, in paragraph 8, Vice Chancellor Lamb prohibits Hexion from terminating the merger, and in paragraph 11, Vice Chancellor Lamb orders that “If the Closing has not occurred by October 1, 2008, the Termination Date under the Merger shall be and is hereby extended until five (5) business days following such date that this Court determines that Hexion has fully complied with the terms of this Order.” This language would appear to eliminate the drop dead date and make the Merger Agreement effectively open-ended, requiring Huntsman consent or court approval to terminate the deal. To my knowledge, this is unprecedented relief.
Turning to the opinion, VC Lamb first holds that there was no MAE. This is largely a fact-driven application of IBP and Frontier Oil; however, three points are particularly noteworthy. First, the Huntsman MAE contained a carveout for industry-wide effects, with an exception for effects with a disproportionate effect on HUN. Hexion argued that this required comparing Huntsman’s performance against the chemical industry’s performance to determine whether an MAE had occurred. VC Lamb rejects this reading and holds squarely that the initial inquiry is whether the target suffered an MAE at all. “If a catastrophe were to befall the chemical industry and cause a material adverse effect in Huntsman’s business, the carve-outs would prevent this from qualifying as an MAE under the Agreement. But the converse is not true–Huntsman’s performance being disproportionately worse than the chemical industry in general does not, in itself, constitute an MAE.” (37-38). This interpretive approach should apply to MAE carveouts generally and will affect how they are read and the leverage respective parties have.
Second, addressing the expected future performance of Huntsman, VC Lamb holds that whether Huntsman suffered an MAE is NOT measured by how it performed versus its projections. This is principally because in the merger agreement, Hexion disclaimed reliance on any Huntsman projections. “Hexion agreed that the contract contained no representation or warranty with respect to Huntsman’s forecasts. To now allow the MAE analysis to hinge on Huntsman’s failure to hit its forecast targets during the period leading up to closing would eviscerate, if not render altogether void, the meaning of [that section].” (46).
Third, in assessing the past performance aspect of the claimed MAE, VC Lamb concurred with Huntsman’s expert that the terms “‘financial condition, business or results of operations’ are terms of art, to be understood within reference to their meaning in Reg S-X and Item 7, the ‘Management’s Discussion and Analysis of Financial Conditions and Results of Operation’ section” of SEC filings. That section requires companies to disclose their results for the reporting period as well as their results for the same time period in each of the previous two years. Therefore, VC Lamb, holds that the proper benchmark for assessing whether changes in a company’s performance amount to an MAE is an examination of “each year and quarter and compare it to the prior year’s equivalent period.” (47-48) Though it addresses only one aspect of the MAE analysis-i.e. past performance not expected future performance-this is the clearest guidance the Court of Chancery has yet provided on the appropriate metrics for evaluating an MAE.
As in IBP and Frontier, burden of proof appears to have played a significant role in the ruling, and VC Lamb suggests in a footnote that parties to a merger agreement contractually allocate the burden of proof for establishing an MAE. (41 n.60).
In the next major ruling in the opinion, VC Lamb holds that Hexion committed a “knowing and intentional breach” of its obligations under the merger agreement. Hexion argued that the phrase “knowing and intentional” requires that a party (i) know of its actions, (ii) know that they breached the contract, and (iii) intend for them to breach of contract. (57). VC Lamb rejects this view as “simply wrong.” (57). He rather holds that a “knowing and intentional” breach is “a deliberate one — a breach that is a direct consequence of a deliberate act undertaken by the breaching party, rather than one which results indirectly, or as a result of the breaching party’s negligence or unforeseeable misadventure.” (59). It thus simply requires “a deliberate act, which act constitutes in and of itself a breach of the merger agreement, even if breaching was not the conscious object of the act.” (60).
Having interpreted “knowing and intentional breach” in this fashion, VC Lamb turns to Hexion’s actions over the past few months, during which Hexion identified a concern about the combined entity’s solvency, retained Duff & Phelps to analyze the issue, obtained an “insolvency” opinion, and then went public with its insolvency contentions and filed a lawsuit in Delaware. VC Lamb holds that this course of conduct breached (i) Hexion’s covenant to use its reasonable best efforts to consummate the financing and (ii) Hexion’s obligation to keep Huntsman informed about the status of the financing and to notify Huntsman if Hexion believed the financing was no longer available.
VC Lamb notes that “[s]ometime in May, Hexion apparently became concerned that the combined entity … would be insolvent.” (62). He remarks that a “reasonable response” at that time would have been to contact Huntsman and discuss the issue. But rather than doing that, Hexion hired counsel and began analyzing alternatives. At this stage, however, he observes that was not Hexion “definitively” in breach of its obligations. (63). But Hexion and its counsel then hired Duff & Phelps, which developed an insolvency analysis. At that point, “Hexion was … clearly obligated to approach Huntsman management to discuss the appropriate course to take to mitigate these concerns.” (63). Hexion’s failure to do so “alone would be sufficient to find that Hexion had knowingly and intentionally breached.” (64). Rather than doing so, Hexion obtained an insolvency opinion from Duff & Phelps and delivered it to the banks, which VC Lamb regarded as a clear, knowing and intentional breach. (67-68).
Vice Chancellor Lamb then wraps up by writing that “In the face of this overwhelming evidence, it is the court’s firm conclusion that by June 19, 2008 Hexion had knowingly and intentionally breached its covenants and obligations under the merger agreement.” (77). He holds that if it is later necessary to determine damages, “any damages which were proximately caused by that knowing and intentional breach will be uncapped and determined on the basis of standard contract damages or any special provision in the merger agreement.” (77). The merger agreement in fact contains a provision contemplating damages based on the lost value of the merger for stockholders. VC Lamb also rules that Hexion will have the burden to prove that any damages were not caused by its knowing and intentional breach.
After addressing two major issues, VC Lamb declines to make any ruling on the solvency of the combined entity, which was the issue that consumed the bulk of the parties’ litigation efforts at trial. VC Lamb holds that the question of the solvency of the combined company is not ripe “because that issue will not arise unless and until a solvency opinion is delivered to the lending banks and those banks either fund or refuse to fund the transaction.” (78). He notes that solvency of the combined entity “is not a condition precedent to Hexion’s obligations under the merger agreement,” and the lack of a solvency opinion “does not negate [Hexion’s] obligation to close.” (79). The issue is only relevant to the obligation of the lending banks. (79). He therefore leaves it for another day.
Finally, VC Lamb holds that Hexion must specifically perform its obligations under the merger agreement, while noting that the merger agreement specifically exempts Hexion from having the obligated to close. He finds the specific performance provision of the merger agreement to be “virtually impenetrable” and ambiguous, and he therefore resorts to extrinsic evidence, including the testimony of Hexion’s counsel, to interpret its meaning. He concludes that the Court can require Hexion to comply with all of its obligations short of consummation, but cannot order Hexion to consummate. “[I]f all other conditions precedent to closing are met, Hexion will remain free to choose to refuse to close. Of course, if Hexion’s refusal to close results in a breach of contract, it will remain liable to Huntsman in damages.” (87).
The Hexion decision joins IBP and Frontier as the major guideposts for MAE analysis. Hexion applies and elaborates on IBP and Frontier; it does not appear to open up any inconsistencies in Delaware’s approach. The opinion rather tends towards greater clarity in MAE application by establishing a rubric for interpreting carveouts, putting projections off limits when reliance on them has been disclaimed, and establishing a securities law-based standard for evaluating past performance. It is not readily apparent to me what the long-term impact of this greater clarity will be. Some MAE threats will likely not be made and others may be more readily rejected. But since part of the leverage to recut deals and resolve MAE issues flows from uncertainty over how the MAE issues will play out, the existence of more defined judicial standards could result in parties being more aggressive in their MAE positions and less willing to compromise. This ironically could lead to more MAE litigation.
The Hexion opinion is also a reminder of the importance Delaware places on contracts and contractual obligations. Both the URI decision from December 2007 and the Hexion ruling provide examples of Delaware courts enforcing bargained-for contractual provisions. In URI, those provisions favored the acquiror. In Hexion, they favored the target.
The Rise of Sovereign Fund Investing
Tune in tomorrow for this webcast – “The Rise of Sovereign Fund Investing” – and hear about the role of sovereign wealth funds in this crisis marketplace and more:
– G. Christopher Griner, Partner, Kaye Scholer
– Michael Hagan, Partner, Morrison & Foerster
– Jerry Walter, Partner, Fried Frank Harris, Shriver & Jacobson
– Steven Wilner, Partner, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton