Spotting issues with assignment clauses in M&A Due Diligence

Written by: Kira Systems

January 19, 2016

6 minute read

Although not nearly as complex as change of control provisions, assignment provisions may still present a challenge in due diligence projects. We hope this blog post will help you navigate the ambiguities of assignment clauses with greater ease by explaining some of the common variations. (And, if you like it, please check out our full guide on Reviewing Change of Control and Assignment Provisions in Due Diligence.)

What is an Assignment Clause?

First, the basics:

Anti-assignment clauses are common because without them, generally, contracts are freely assignable. (The exceptions are (i) contracts that are subject to statutes or public policies prohibiting their assignment, such as intellectual property contracts, or (ii) contracts where an assignment without consent would cause material and adverse consequences to non-assigning counterparties, such as employment agreements and consulting agreements.) For all other contracts, parties may want an anti-assignment clause that allows them the opportunity to review and understand the impact of an assignment (or change of control) before deciding whether to continue or terminate the relationship.

In the mergers and acquisitions context, an assignment of a contract from a target company entity to the relevant acquirer entity is needed whenever a contract has to be placed in the name of an entity other than the existing target company entity after consummation of a transaction. This is why reviewing contracts for assignment clauses is so critical.

A simple anti-assignment provision provides that a party may not assign the agreement without the consent of the other party. Assignment provisions may also provide specific exclusions or inclusions to a counterparty’s right to consent to the assignment of a contract. Below are five common occurrences in which assignment provisions may provide exclusions or inclusions.

Common Exclusions and Inclusions

Exclusion for Change of Control Transactions

In negotiating an anti-assignment clause, a company would typically seek the exclusion of assignments undertaken in connection with change of control transactions, including mergers and sales of all or substantially all of the assets of the company. This allows a company to undertake a strategic transaction without worry. If an anti-assignment clause doesn’t exclude change of control transactions, a counterparty might materially affect a strategic transaction through delay and/or refusal of consent. Because there are many types of change of control transactions, there is no standard language for these. An example might be:

In the event of the sale or transfer by [Party B] of all or substantially all of its assets related to this Agreement to an Affiliate or to a third party, whether by sale, merger, or change of control, [Party B] would have the right to assign any or all rights and obligations contained herein and the Agreement to such Affiliate or third party without the consent of [Party A] and the Agreement shall be binding upon such acquirer and would remain in full force and effect, at least until the expiration of the then current Term.

Exclusion for Affiliate Transactions

A typical exclusion is one that allows a target company to assign a contract to an affiliate without needing the consent of the contract counterparty. This is much like an exclusion with respect to change of control, since in affiliate transfers or assignments, the ultimate actors and responsible parties under the contract remain essentially the same even though the nominal parties may change. For example:

Either party may assign its rights under this Agreement, including its right to receive payments hereunder, to a subsidiary, affiliate or any financial institution, but in such case the assigning party shall remain liable to the other party for the assigning party’s obligations hereunder. All or any portion of the rights and obligations of [Party A] under this Agreement may be transferred by [Party A] to any of its Affiliates without the consent of [Party B].

Assignment by Operation of Law

Assignments by operation of law typically occur in the context of transfers of rights and obligations in accordance with merger statutes and can be specifically included in or excluded from assignment provisions. An inclusion could be negotiated by the parties to broaden the anti-assignment clause and to ensure that an assignment occurring by operation of law requires counterparty approval:

[Party A] agrees that it will not assign, sublet or otherwise transfer its rights hereunder, either voluntarily or by operations of law, without the prior written consent of [Party B].

while an exclusion could be negotiated by a target company to make it clear that it has the right to assign the contract even though it might otherwise have that right as a matter of law:

This Guaranty shall be binding upon the successors and assigns of [Party A]; provided, that no transfer, assignment or delegation by [Party A], other than a transfer, assignment or delegation by operation of law, without the consent of [Party B], shall release [Party A] from its liabilities hereunder.

This helps settle any ambiguity regarding assignments and their effects under mergers statutes (particularly in forward triangular mergers and forward mergers since the target company ceases to exist upon consummation of the merger).

Direct or Indirect Assignment

More ambiguity can arise regarding which actions or transactions require a counterparty’s consent when assignment clauses prohibit both direct and indirect assignments without the consent of a counterparty. Transaction parties will typically choose to err on the side of over-inclusiveness in determining which contracts will require consent when dealing with material contracts. An example clause prohibiting direct or indirect assignment might be:

Except as provided hereunder or under the Merger Agreement, such Shareholder shall not, directly or indirectly, (i) transfer (which term shall include any sale, assignment, gift, pledge, hypothecation or other disposition), or consent to or permit any such transfer of, any or all of its Subject Shares, or any interest therein.

“Transfer” of Agreement vs. “Assignment” of Agreement

In some instances, assignment provisions prohibit “transfers” of agreements in addition to, or instead of, explicitly prohibiting “assignments”. Often, the word “transfer” is not defined in the agreement, in which case the governing law of the contract will determine the meaning of the term and whether prohibition on transfers are meant to prohibit a broader or narrower range of transactions than prohibitions on assignments. Note that the current jurisprudence on the meaning of an assignment is broader and deeper than it is on the meaning of a transfer. In the rarer case where “transfer” is defined, it might look like this:

As used in this Agreement, the term “transfer” includes the Franchisee’s voluntary, involuntary, direct or indirect assignment, sale, gift or other disposition of any interest in…

The examples listed above are only of five common occurrences in which an assignment provision may provide exclusions or inclusions. As you continue with due diligence review, you may find that assignment provisions offer greater variety beyond the factors discussed in this blog post. However, you now have a basic understand of the possible variations of assignment clauses. For a more in-depth discussion of reviewing change of control and assignment provisions in due diligence, please download our full guide on Reviewing Change of Control and Assignment Provisions in Due Diligence.