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COVID-19 and Down-Round Financings

Although no one can predict the long-term economic impact of COVID-19, early indications show similarities to the last significant economic downturn that started in 2008. During that period, venture capital investment decreased significantly both domestically and abroad — in the first quarter of 2009, alone, there were double-digit declines in venture financings. The decrease in available capital during that time period led to a significant uptick in financing rounds at lower valuations than in previous rounds, or so-called “down-round financings.” Companies should be prepared for a similar occurrence, and be ready to take precautionary steps in order to minimize risks relating to a down-round financing.

A Down Round

If a company will need capital in the near future, it should be continuously searching for capital sources long before that need becomes dire. If after careful consideration a company believes that a down-round financing is the best (or only) available option to obtain necessary funding, it should be aware that the lower valuation and frequently onerous terms of a down-round financing — which can include tranched payments based on company milestones, pay-to-play provisions, forced conversion of non-participating current investors from preferred stock to common stock and loss of important rights by non-participating investors — could cause existing stockholders to engage in litigation. Generally, such claims will center on a breach of a fiduciary duty by the company’s directors, particularly when the down-round financing is led by existing stockholders of the company that have the ability to block other transactions or influence the board deliberations.

Fiduciary Duties

The vast majority of venture-backed companies are Delaware corporations, and under Delaware law, each director owes fiduciary duties of good faith, care and loyalty to the corporation and its stockholders. With respect to the fiduciary duty owed to stockholders, the Delaware courts made it clear in the Trados case that the fiduciary duty is owed to the common stockholders, not the preferred stockholders. In a down-round financing led by existing stockholders, a transaction approved by the majority of the disinterested directors or, where there is no controlling stockholder, a majority of the disinterested and informed stockholders, will receive the benefit of the business judgment rule, which directs a court to show deference to the decisions of the company and assume that the directors acted in accordance with their fiduciary duties. Where the business judgment rule applies, the burden to prove a breach of fiduciary duties is on the plaintiff. In contrast, where the business judgment rule does not apply, the Delaware courts will apply the onerous entire fairness standard of review, which places the burden on the defendant company to prove that the price and course of dealing between the parties were fair, a much more burdensome, onerous and ultimately expensive proposition for a company.

Further Precautionary Steps

Obtaining the approval of disinterested directors or the disinterested and informed stockholders is highly desirable, but Delaware courts have complicated the process by broadly construing the concept of a conflict of interest for directors and stockholders in financing transactions and have found a conflict of interest even when a director or stockholder is not affiliated with an investor. As such, it can be prudent to take further steps beyond obtaining such approval in order to minimize the litigation risk. One such step is for a company to appoint a special committee of the board comprised entirely of disinterested directors to make an independent determination with respect to the financing, which is good procedure and creates a good corporate record. A special committee is especially prudent in a case where existing investors, particularly those participating in the financing, hold a majority of the board seats or otherwise have the ability to block or influence a board decision.

In addition, a company should obtain the approval of as many of the directors or stockholders it believes to be disinterested as possible to protect against a subsequent determination by a court that certain of the directors or stockholders are not disinterested.

Another way to limit the risk of litigation in a down-round financing is by conducting a rights offering, whereby all current investors in a company are allowed to participate on a pro rata basis at the same price and on the same terms as the investors proposing the down-round financing. This mitigates the argument that the existing stockholders were unfairly diluted by an incorrectly priced financing because they have the opportunity to participate in the financing and benefit from the depressed valuation. However, rights offerings are imperfect solutions because not all existing investors will have the liquidity to be able to participate in the financing, and most rights offerings are limited to accredited investors to avoid securities law complications. Moreover, in a recent unpublished bench ruling, the Delaware Chancery Court found that a rights offering does not necessarily preclude all claims for breach of fiduciary duty.

Closing the Deal

While a down-round financing is not the ideal outcome for any company, obtaining funding to continue operations is generally better than the alternative of slashing or ceasing operations entirely. In a down economy, not all companies will be able to obtain funding, and receiving funding at a lower valuation than previous rounds is not necessarily indicative of the future value of a company. For a company looking to obtain funding through a down-round financing, we recommend the following steps be taken in order to minimize any potential liability to the company and its board of directors:

  • Appoint a special committee of disinterested board members to review, negotiate and approve the transaction;

  • Do not wait until the need for additional funds is dire. Rather, start looking for funding sources early, undertake a search for options outside of a down-round financing led by existing investors and carefully document those efforts;

  • Find an outside third-party investor to lead the round, but be mindful of the broad interpretation of conflicts of interest when determining if such outside third party is truly independent;

  • Engage in a rights offering whereby current investors are afforded the opportunity to participate in the current financing;

  • When feasible, obtain a third-party valuation or fairness opinion immediately prior the financing to show that the valuation utilized for the financing is reasonable and fair;

  • Disclose the terms of the financing to the stockholders as well as any potential conflicts of interest and obtain the approval of a majority of the disinterested stockholders;

  • Carefully document the deliberations of the special committee and the board with respect to valuation of the proposed transaction; and

  • Require or strongly encourage participating investors to seek their own counsel with respect to likelihood and scope of potential liability.

While following the recommendations discussed above can help minimize the risk of costly litigation and potential liability for breach of fiduciary duty, it is recommended that any company contemplating engaging in a down-round financing seek advice from experienced legal counsel prior to undertaking the process.

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TRENDING LEGAL ANALYSIS


About this Author

Jeremy D. Glaser, Mintz Levin Law Firm, Securities & Capital Markets Mergers & Acquisitions Venture Capital & Emerging Companies Investment Funds Israel
Member

Jeremy serves as Co-chair of the firm’s Venture Capital & Emerging Companies Practice. Jeremy regularly represents technology-based companies principally in the life sciences, software, mobile applications, and clean energy fields. He represents both issuers and underwriters in a wide variety of securities transactions, including IPOs, secondary offerings, and private placements, and represents venture capital firms, hedge funds and their portfolio companies in venture capital and PIPE financings. He has deep experience representing buyers and sellers in acquisitions and dispositions...

858-314-1515
Sebastian Lucier, SEC, Corporate, Attorney, Mintz Levin, Mergers & Acquisitions Investment Funds Private Equity Venture Capital & Emerging Companies Securities & Capital Markets
Member

Sebastian is a highly technical attorney who fully understands legal nuances and how to use the law to advance a company’s strategic plan. He has deep ties to San Diego’s start-up community and significant experience relating to financing, corporate formation and governance, and mergers and acquisitions. Sebastian is very active at his alma mater, the University of San Diego School of Law, where he teaches young lawyers to support entrepreneurs and the start-up community as an adjunct professor. Sebastian is also actively involved in the MintzEdge website, an online resource for entrepreneurs.

Sebastian Lucier is a Member in the Mintz Levin San Diego office. He is a seasoned practitioner focusing on start-ups, VC backed companies, and mid-market businesses. Although most of his clients rely on him to serve as their outside general counsel – providing support and guidance to the board and executive officers regarding a wide range of questions, and routing clients to the appropriate resources that a national firm can offer – he is equally adept at managing a fast-moving transaction for a client looking to get a deal done correctly, quickly, and efficiently.

Sebastian’s mergers and acquisitions practice provides practical solutions and guidance to founders and other stakeholders wishing to recognize the value they’ve built in their businesses. He is equally comfortable with large transactions, in which hundreds of millions of dollars are being paid, as with smaller transactions, in which the true value may be postponed in the form of earnout payments or future growth of the combined enterprise.

When a client needs to raise capital, Sebastian provides valuable assistance, not only with negotiating and implementing the financing, but also by explaining the consequences, positive and negative, of bringing in a new partner.  On the investor side, Sebastian represents VC funds and strategic investors, looking to build a portfolio or identify a blossoming opportunity.

In addition to familiarity with California and Delaware corporate entities, Sebastian has substantial experience with limited liability companies and limited partnerships. He can harness the inherent potential in a limited liability company to serve the needs of his clients, whether the need is for an operating business with the ability to allocate and distribute losses and profits among the members, a joint venture with a clear delineation of ownership and responsibilities, or as a vessel to hold and develop promising intellectual property for sale or license.

Experience with partnerships also dovetails with another element of Sebastian’s practice – fund formation and advice. He has formed and represents a variety of funds, including small, local investment vehicles, master-feeder funds with substantial offshore elements, and the more typical private equity shop.

858-314-1519
Sebastian A. Bacon Corporate Attorney Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo San Diego, CA
Associate

Sebastian is a corporate attorney who focuses his practice on venture capital and emerging companies, mergers and acquisitions, public company representation, capital markets, and additional corporate matters.

Prior to joining the firm, Sebastian worked for two years as a corporate associate in the San Diego office of a global law firm, where he represented clients from a variety of industries in financings, mergers and acquisitions, and other transactions. Earlier he was an associate in the Los Angeles office of another global firm.

Before he embarked on his legal career,...

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