– by John Jenkins, Calfee Halter & Griswold
Investment banks spend a lot of time tailoring their M&A engagement letters to address the perceived risks involved in advising widely-held public companies. Those engagements are often perceived as presenting greater liability risks than M&A advisory engagements for private companies, and that’s probably true most of the time, but a recent Massachusetts federal court decision provides a sobering reminder to investment banks that this isn’t always the case.
What’s more, the Baker v. Goldman Sachs case – here is the opinion – also shows how some of the provisions of an engagement letter designed to protect bankers in public company deals can under certain circumstances have the opposite effect in a private company transaction.
The Baker case arose out of Goldman’s service as a financial advisor to Dragon Systems, Inc. in connection with its ill-fated sale to Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products, a Nasdaq-listed Belgian company that collapsed in the aftermath of an accounting scandal that surfaced shortly after the deal was completed. L&H acquired Dragon in an all stock deal, and the buyer’s subsequent collapse resulted in a loss to Dragon’s controlling shareholders of approximately $300 million.
Dragon’s two controlling shareholders filed a lawsuit against Goldman Sachs and related entities. The plaintiffs alleged that Goldman Sachs negligently advised Dragon to merge with L & H without adequately investigating the buyer’s value. The plaintiffs made a variety of contractual and other common law claims, including breach of fiduciary duty and negligent misrepresentation, and also alleged that Goldman’s conduct violated the Massachusetts Unfair Trade Practices statute.
With the exception of the novel statutory claim, most of the plaintiffs’ claims were consistent with what you typically see in investment banker liability cases. The most common legal theories used to sue bankers are the tort of negligent misrepresentation, and breach of contract claims premised on agency or third-party beneficiary principles. More recently, breach of fiduciary duty claims have become more prominently featured as well. With some high profile exceptions, investment bankers have generally been pretty successful in defending against these claims.
Plaintiffs relying on negligent misrepresentation or contract law principles premise their claims on allegations that they were intended beneficiaries of the contractual relationship between the banker and the company, and were thus entitled to rely upon the banker’s efforts. Since these claims depend on the contractual relationship between the bank and its client, investment bankers’ engagement letters have played a prominent role in their efforts to fend off such claims. Those letters typically include very specific statements about the parties to whom the investment bank is providing its services, together with broad disclaimers of liability to corporate shareholders or other third parties.
Interestingly, Goldman’s engagement letter with Dragon included customary language intended to accomplish this objective. The letter explicitly stated that “any written or oral advice provided by Goldman Sachs in connection with our engagement is exclusively for the information of the Board of Directors and senior management of the Company.” What’s even more interesting, however, is that the plaintiffs were able to use this language as the basis for their third party beneficiary and negligent misrepresentation claims.
What the plaintiffs did was to simply point out to the court that one of the two controlling shareholder-plaintiffs was a member of the Board, and was thus within the group entitled to the benefits of the agreement. Goldman argued that in using the quoted language, it was referring to the board in its representative capacity. However, the court looked at some other potentially ambiguous phrasing in the engagement letter, including the fact that the letter was addressed to the shareholder-director and the letter’s use of the personal pronoun “you” instead of “the company” in describing the persons to whom it was providing its services, to justify its conclusion that Goldman appreciated that others aside from the board in its representative capacity would benefit from its advice.
The treatment of the plaintiffs’ fiduciary duty claim is another area where the Company’s closely-held nature appears to have played a significant role in the court’s analysis. While the fact that the engagement letter did not include a disclaimer of fiduciary duties played an important role in the court’s decision not to dismiss these claims, the close contact that Goldman allegedly had with the plaintiffs throughout the course of the engagement was another important factor in leading the court to conclude that the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged that “special circumstances existed to create a fiduciary relationship apart from the terms of the contract.”
It is important to keep in mind that Baker involved a motion to dismiss, so this litigation is at a very preliminary stage and it is inappropriate to draw broad conclusions from it. Nevertheless, the Baker case drives home the point that although the risk profile in engagements involving widely-held public companies may generally be higher than private company engagements, private companies (and public companies with controlling shareholders) present distinct risks of their own that banks may want to take into account in drafting and negotiating engagement letters.