Understanding Sandbagging in M&A Transactions
In the context of buying a business, a “sandbagging” Buyer is one who is (or becomes) aware that a specific representation or warranty made by the Seller is false—but instead of telling the Seller this fact, the Buyer completes the transaction. The Buyer then seeks post-closing damages against the Seller for the breach.
Sandbagging is a frequent occurrence in acquisitions. It happens so often that transactional planners have made a “sandbagging playbook” that tells people how to handle the issue, depending on which side of the deal they’re on and whether the state law governing the agreement is “pro-sandbagging” or “anti-sandbagging.”
Competing Interests When it Comes to Sandbagging Clauses
More importantly, the Buyer and Seller in a deal have different competing interests, and so each has their ideas on handling the sandbagging clause.
So, while there are many different ways to prepare for sandbagging, most strategies boil down to three essential elements:
- Including a clause in the acquisition agreement that says the Buyer can seek a claim even if the Buyer knew ahead of time that the Seller’s representations and warranties were false (i.e., sandbagging is permitted)..
- Including a clause in the acquisition agreement that says the Buyer can’t seek compensation for a breach of the Seller’s representations and warranties if the Buyer knew the representations and warranties were false ahead of time (i.e., sandbagging is explicitly forbidden).
- Saying nothing about the issue. In this case, the contract defaults to whatever state law says.
When the Buyer wants a sandbagging clause, and the Seller wants an anti-sanding clause, a typical compromise is to leave both clauses out of the purchase agreement. However, in certain states, if the agreement makes no mention of a sandbagging clause, sandbagging is permitted. So from the Seller’s perspective, mentioning the clause is only sometimes considered an equal compromise.
As seen in Arwood v. AW Site Services, LLC In the Court of Chancery of Delaware, the state respects contracting parties’ right to enter into good and bad contracts. The Delaware Supreme Court has yet to decide if a party can win a settlement for a broken promise if both parties knew some of the promises weren’t true at the time of signing.
Sandbagging in the Context of Due Diligence
Due diligence is expensive, so parties to contracts in mergers and acquisitions often try to ensure a Buyer doesn’t have to check every detail of a Seller’s business.
A pro-sandbagging clause enables a buyer to pursue compensation for a violation of a representation or warranty even if the Buyer had previous knowledge that the statement was untrue. The right to a remedy, for instance, is not affected by any knowledge acquired (or capable of being acquired) before or after the execution and delivery of the agreement or the closing date with respect to the accuracy or inaccuracy of such representation [or] warranty.
In the Buyer’s eyes, a pro-sandbagging clause helps assure that it will benefit from its bargain. Based on the Seller’s promises and warranties, the Buyer assumed that its target had a particular worth. Buyers claim that if the statements are untrue, they overpaid and should receive compensation. Additionally, buyers contend that pro-sandbagging agreements give the parties more assurance. They eliminate obstacles to recovery, for instance, a protracted and expensive argument over the Buyer’s prior knowledge during the indemnification process.
An anti-sandbagging clause would prevent a buyer from pursuing reimbursement in cases where the Buyer knew (or, depending on the clause’s scope, had cause to know) that a representation was untrue before closing. The contract can provide, for instance, that the Seller is not responsible for “any Losses originating from or attributable to any inaccuracy in or warranty in this agreement if the party claiming indemnification for such Losses had Knowledge of such breach before Closing.”
The parties may restrict the scope of the agreement to knowledge received by a particular group of people or to knowledge obtained before a particular date.
These days, anti-sandbagging clauses are rare. However, sellers contend that these clauses may encourage collaboration between the sale parties in specific situations. If, for instance, an executive or owner plans to stay with the acquiring company after the acquisition, the persistent danger that the Buyer may sandbag the Seller may result in conflict and distraction. Sellers might also contend that they should be allowed to fix any problems the Buyer learns about before closing.
By getting the Seller’s promises, the Buyer puts some risks on the Seller. As a practical matter of business, a Buyer doesn’t have to check and make a provision for every aspect of the company’s finances because it knows it can take legal action against the Seller if the claims turn out to be false. For example, false or misleading statements about the company’s financial health or expectations of future performance.
A Seller can’t go back on the promises it made because the Buyer’s due diligence didn’t find out they were false. Since the Seller promised in the contract that the Buyer could depend on certain statements, the Seller can’t say that the Buyer was wrong to trust the Seller’s own binding words.
Two General Rules Governing Sandbagging
In general, courts have established two separate rules—the so-called “Modern Rule” and the “Traditional Rule”— In the absence of a sandbagging clause in the M&A agreement, parties to M&A transactions and their counsel should be aware of how various states handle a buyer’s indemnity rights.
The Modern Rule
The modern rule refers to a legal principle that guides the interpretation and application of law in contemporary society. It is based on the principle that laws should evolve and adapt to changing circumstances and new situations. In other words, the modern rule emphasizes the need for a flexible and dynamic approach to law rather than a strict and rigid interpretation of outdated legal principles.
According to “Modern Rule” courts, the Buyer had the right to rely on the representations and warranties because they were negotiated contractual duties. Delaware and, generally speaking, New York are two states that adhere to the Modern Rule (as well as Illinois, Florida, Connecticut, and Indiana).
The Modern Rule is a “pro-sandbagging” rule and is thus in the best interest of the Buyer. Because purchasers are typically not required to demonstrate reliance in those jurisdictions to pursue an indemnity claim for a seller’s breach of a representation or warranty, buyers are likely to prefer the controlling law of an M&A agreement to be a state that adheres to the Modern Rule.
The Traditional Rule
According to the Traditional Rule, a buyer’s indemnification claim requires that it be proven that they relied on the representation or warranty in some way.
Most states have adopted this approach, which calls on purchasers to demonstrate that they relied on the representation or warranty that the Seller broke.
The Traditional Rule is seller-friendly since it prohibits “sandbagging.” Because a buyer would have to demonstrate that they relied on the Seller’s false representation or warranty to succeed in a claim for breach of representation or warranty against the Seller, a seller will likely prefer that a state that adheres to the Traditional Rule serve as the governing law of an M&A agreement.
The Bottom Line
Some people who disagree with modern rules think sandbagging is bad economics because it makes bargaining more like a punishment. Others believe that sandbagging is unfair or questionable from an ethical point of view. Even though it might be unsettling to let a Buyer wait until after closing to bring a breach claim against the Seller that it knew about before closing, the risk of this kind of litigation can be managed just like any other risk in the deal that the parties make.
A rule that supports sandbagging backs up the idea that representations and warranties are an essential way to share risks.
When the parties to a contract choose not to (or don’t) divide the risk of sandbagging, the Buyer can rest assured that, as part of the deal, the Seller has implicitly promised to be honest in what it says. This view of “reliance”—that is, it requires nothing more than relying on the express warranty as part of the deal between the parties—reflects the common belief that an action for breach of an express warranty is no longer based on tort but mainly on the contract.
In other words, the fact that the Buyer questioned whether the Seller would honor their promises should not free the Seller from his obligations when it agrees to do what it said it would do. Reliance, whether a good idea or not, is not a part of breaking a contract.
During the due diligence, you should keep in mind the Seller’s promises and any facts you find that goes against the promises. It is best to seek legal advice before entering into any contract.
Contact Swiecicki & Muskett, LLC for practical solutions to your business and legal issues.