Published on July 15th, 2008 by Alan L Sklover
“Carelessness is worse than theft.”
- Gaelic Proverb
ACTUAL CASE HISTORY: Shortly after college, at age 23, Simon was hired by a family-owned real estate development firm as a Project Manager. At first he was given rather simple tasks, like making sure that “punch list” items – those last, small items on every job, such as replacing cracked windows and burned-out light bulbs – were attended to. With his attention to detail and rare perseverance, Simon’s reputation as a good employee blossomed. By age 29, he was supervising construction crews and overseeing condo sales teams. And as his responsibilities grew, so did his compensation. By age 31, Simon’s annual salary and bonus exceeded $200,000.
To keep Simon motivated, each year he was awarded bonuses of $100,000, to be paid to him $25,000 per year, for four years, in the last week of December. To discourage Simon from going into business for himself, the company’s owners promised him he would be an owner of at least 20% if he stayed another five years. A written employment contract was prepared for Simon to sign. It was to last 5 years. After his cousin Barbara, an immigration attorney, reviewed and approved the contract, Simon signed it.
Two years later the family that owned the company was offered $25 million for it by a publicly-traded REIT (shorthand for real estate investment trust.) The REIT was going to do an “asset purchase,” which means that Simon’s company would be selling its assets, not the stock of the company, itself, a common way to buy a business. The family members were elated. Simon was concerned; he wanted to know what this meant for him. After all, he wasn’t really “family.” He was assured that this would be a great thing for him, too. He even met with his new bosses, and they seemed to be true professionals.
After the sale of the business’s assets, Simon was given greater responsibilities, and oversight, as the old crew became a new division of the REIT. He was confident that things would go quite well. When Christmas time came around, Simon was waiting for word regarding when he would receive the “first” $25,000 installment he was owed for last year’s bonus, and the “second” $25,000 installment he was due from the bonus of the year before. When he was told “There must be some mistake, because we don’t give bonuses,” his heart sank. Then Simon inquired about the 20% of the company that he was to receive in two years. When he was told “You must be confused,” his heart skipped a few beats. He was crestfallen.
After “the lawyers did their thing,” Simon learned that those two big promises in his employment contract – for his $100,000 bonuses, and for his 20% business ownership – were promises of the “old” company, not the “new” company he now worked for. If he was to collect on those promises, he had to collect from the old company. Problem was, there was no more “old” company to collect from. The company, itself, had no more assets; all had been sold. The monies derived from the sale of the company’s assets were divided up among the 23 family members, who lived in states from Maine to California. While each family member he spoke with was sympathetic, none was willing to pay him from their own pockets. Instead, each suggested “Speak to your lawyer.”
While his lawyer, Cousin Barbara, couldn’t seem to explain what had happened, she sure seemed upset. Simon had lost $175,000 in bonuses, but far, far worse, 20% of a $25 million company, worth $5 million. A big loss, and an easily avoidable one, at that. All because one single, simple sentence was missing from his contract: the “Successors and Assigns” clause.
If only they’d added a sentence that read something like this: “The rights and obligations of the parties to this agreement will be binding on, and will be of benefit to, each of the parties’ successors, assigns, heirs and estates.” That would have made the “successor” REIT bound to the agreement (and benefit Simon’s estate, if he passed on.) One simple sentence can be worth so very much.
LESSON TO LEARN: An agreement binds only the parties to that agreement. Most agreements are between two parties: in sales agreements, they are the (a) buyer and (b) seller; in lease agreements, they are the (a) landlord and (b) tenant; in employment agreements, they are the (a) employer and (b) employee. No one else is bound. Most importantly, anyone who later “takes the place:” of one of the parties is not bound. That’s usually a problem. The solution? It is a “successors-and-assigns clause.”
Imagine the following: You rent an office from the owner of an office building. You paint, put down carpet, install lighting, buy custom-fit furniture, have stationery printed with your new address on it, and move in. The next month someone new buys the building. The new owner stops by and says, “Nice to meet you. Your rent has been tripled.” You say, “But I have a signed lease.” He says, “Not with me, you don’t.” That’s what a “successors-and-assigns” clause is meant to prevent.
A standard “successors-and-assigns” clause reads like this: “This Agreement is binding upon, and will inure to the benefit of, the parties to this agreement, and their respective successors and/or assigns.” (A slightly more comprehensive variation would be this: “This Agreement is binding upon, and shall inure to the benefit of the parties themselves, as well as their respective representatives, successors, permitted assigns, heirs and estates.”)
[A “successor” is a person who steps in to the shoes of a party, that is, “succeeds” to the interests of a former owner. An “assign” is the recipient of the property of a party, who has been given the assets of a predecessor owner by “assignment.” Generally, a “successor” buys a whole company; an “assign” just buys its assets.]
In employment agreements, and all employment-related agreements that give you something (including stock option agreements, commission agreements, and deferred compensation agreements) it is essential that you have a “successors-and-assigns” clause. (On the other hand, any agreements that “take” something from you – such as a non-compete agreement, that takes your freedom from you – is better for you if it fails to have such a clause.)
Any employer could be merged or acquired out of existence. Any employer could decide to sell its assets, divvy up the sale proceeds, and then simply go out of legal existence. Any employer could find other ways, too, to deny you what you have been promised, and have earned. The key to preventing this is simple: make sure you have a “successors-and-assigns clause” in your agreement. Otherwise, all you’ve worked so hard for could be lost, without a chance of getting it back.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: This is how you can protect yourself:
1. In Every Agreement, Always Look for the “Successors-and-Assigns” Clause: No matter what type of agreement you are looking at, always look for the “successor-and-assigns” clause. As a matter of customary contract drafting, if it’s there you will usually find it among the last four or five sections in an agreement. It might be labeled “Parties Bound,” “Binding Upon” or “Successors and Assigns,” or any number of other titles. It might also be “buried” among other provisions, with a totally unrelated title. (That’s why we read every word.) Such a clause should be present in every employment agreement, stock option agreement, restricted stock agreement, commission agreement, indemnity agreement, retention agreement, and everything “in between.”
2. If It’s Not There, Always Ask for It: There is nothing improper, impolite or aggressive in asking that a “successors-and-assigns” clause be added to your agreement. It’s “standard” language in business agreements, and employment agreements are a type of business agreement. It could be said that the absence of a “successors-and-assigns” clause in an employment agreement (or one related to employment), in and of itself, has profound consequences, because it suggests the parties did not intend that the successor employer should provide to the employee what the original employer did not. Think about it: if you work for a small accounting firm, and you are promised a bonus of $10,000 if you stay for two years; if your accounting firm is merged with a larger one, and you stay the two years, what was intended: that you’d get paid the bonus, or that you would not? The absence of a “successors-and-assigns” clause says, simply, “It was intended you would not.” If you ask for a “successors-and-assigns” clause, and are turned down, you can safely assume there is a reason for that denial, and that the reason is not a good one for you.
3. The Two Exceptions: When It’s Truly Not Intended, and When It Makes No Sense: There are two circumstances in which we do not expect a “successors-and-assigns” clause. First, in some circumstances it is not intended that a “successor” or “assignee” be obligated to the “other side.” For example, if you were promised a bonus that was to be paid to you only if the company was not sold; then in the event of a sale, it was not intended you would receive a bonus. In that case, the successor paying you a bonus was not intended. Second, for the employee, it would not make sense to ask for a “successors-and-assigns” clause in a non-compete agreement, because then it is not in his or her interests; in that case, asking for one to be put in makes no sense. If the employer did not have the sense to insert it, don’t wave flags.
4. Watch Out for the “Old One-Way Trick”: Occasionally we see what we view to be dishonest lawyering by attempted trickery, most commonly by those in large law firms who have been told and taught they are “the cleverest.” This is what we call the “Old One-Way Trick”: “The obligations and interests of the parties under this agreement shall inure to the benefit of the employer, and its representatives, successors and assigns, and be binding upon the employee, his/her representatives, successors and assigns.” Read the words carefully: notice that the way it is worded, (a) the employer (and its successors and assigns) enjoys the benefits of the agreement, but not its burdens, and (b) the employee (and his/her successors and assigns) suffers the agreements burdens, but fail to enjoy its benefits. The first time I saw this I was upset; the tenth time, I was surprised; now I simply send an email to the senior partner of the opposing firm reminding him that this is not how law used to be practiced.
5. It’s Especially Important When Working for a Smaller “LLC” and “INC.”: As in our case history above, it is most important to have a “successors-and-assigns” clause when working for a smaller limited liability company or corporation. Why? Because they are more likely to be purchased, merged or dissolved. In each instance, you want the party who takes over or receives the remaining assets to be liable to you. In companies owned by the grandchildren of the founder, it is essential, as they are notorious for not getting along with each other, “running down” the company, and wanting to “cash out” the company.
6. Your Employer Being Sold or Merged? Send an Email Reminder: Surprises in business are usually not fun. If the company that acquired your employer is not aware that you are owed a $50,000 retention bonus, or eighty-two accrued vacation days, you might engender ill will when you ask for payment. Instead, send an email to General Counsel of your own employer, not the other side, and write “It is my expectation that the new acquirer is aware of my rights and interests, which are binding on successors and assigns. If not, please ensure that they are.” That will place your company’s primary attorney in a place where he or she will either (a) let the acquirer know, or (b) likely be later accused of fraud. Let him or her do your duty.
7. Sound Like a “Hassle?” Remember You Are Doing This for Your Loved Ones, and Heirs: Sure, looking for, and asking for, a “successors-and-assigns” clause in your employment-related agreements may sound like a hassle, and today is not the day you needed more hassles in your life. However, the absence of such a clause may deny what you’ve earned today to you and your family another day. And don’t forget: in the event of your passing, your heirs are your successors, will be without you being there for them, and so will have a greater need for what you’ve earned.
SkloverWorkingWisdom™ emphasizes smart negotiating – and navigating – for yourself at work. Negotiation of work and career issues requires that you be aware, alert and assertive regarding words, phrases, clauses and sentences that appear – or do not appear – in your employment-related agreements. Without a “successor-and-assigns” clause, all you’ve earned could end up lost.
Always be proactive. Always be creative. Always be persistent. And always do what you can to achieve for yourself, your family, and your career. Take all available steps to increase and secure employment “rewards” and eliminate or reduce employment “risks.” That’s what SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is all about.
A note about our Actual Case Histories: In order to preserve client confidences, and protect client identities, we alter certain facts, including the name, age, gender, position, date, geographical location, and industry of our clients. The essential facts, the point illustrated and the lesson to be learned, remain actual.