How Do You Review Assignment Clauses in Contracts?
After locating all the assignment language in each agreement, the following variables should be noted as part of the review: (1) Scope of assignment provision, (2) Consequences of failure to obtain consent, (3) Standard for refusing consent, and (4) Differences among counterparties in rights to assign.
1. Scope. Assignment provisions may provide exclusions or inclusions to a counterparty’s right to approve an assignment of a contract. See the examples in the following section below.
2. Consequences of Failure to Obtain Consent. Assignment provisions may specify that, if one party attempts to assign the agreement without the required consent of the counterparty:
- The purported assignment is null and void; and/or
- The applicable contract is void and terminated.
Contracts should be carefully reviewed to determine which of the foregoing scenarios may apply.
3. Standard for Refusing Consent. Assignment provisions frequently include limitations stating that any counterparty’s consent that is required shall not be “unreasonably withheld,” although the reasonableness standard is rarely defined more specifically in the contract.
In an M&A context, the effect of this language is that it provides a target company with some opportunity to challenge a counterparty that withholds its consent to an assignment. Winning this challenge is far from guaranteed, and this opportunity generally comes at a cost of time and expense since it usually involves a legal challenge to the counterparty’s refusal to grant a consent. Consequently, a target company is incentivized to undertake this challenge only when the applicable contract is material to its post-acquisition business or to the consummation of its proposed transaction. Still, undertaking such a challenge may buy the target company time and provide it with some negotiating leverage in seeking a reversal of a counterparty’s refusal to consent to an assignment.
Determining whether consent has been unreasonably withheld is specific to the facts and circumstances underlying each request for consent. For example, in Athar v. Hudson Serv. Mgmt., Inc., 853 N.Y.S.2d 170 (N.Y. App. Div. 2008), a New York appellate court held that this standard requires the non-consenting party to show some reasonable and objective basis for withholding consent. The withholding of consent cannot be arbitrary or based on unique and personal preferences of the non-consenting party. Generally, the burden of proof to show an unreasonable withholding of consent is on the party requesting consent. Also, the party requesting consent is responsible for providing all information required or necessary to determine whether consent should be granted.
4. Differences Among Counterparties in Rights to Assign. It is important to note any differences in assignment rights between and among contracting parties and the consequences of those differences, as parties with greater negotiating power often have broader assignment rights. These differences can become important if there is a lag of time between signing and closing an M&A transaction. If a target company is required to obtain consent in order to assign an agreement, but the counterparty has rights to freely assign, care should be taken to ensure that any consent granted to a target company to assign a contract does not become subject to review or alteration by any parties to whom the counterparty may freely assign its rights after it has granted its consent to assignment. This is particularly relevant to consents that may lapse or lose their effectiveness if transactions do not close within a certain period of time. For example, if (i) a landlord or licensor subsequently transfers the contract after granting its initial consent, and (ii) such consent lapses pursuant to its terms, the target company might have to re-submit consent requests to completely different parties.
Software that uses AI to identify and extract Assignment clauses can accelerate the work of finding these clauses, and enables a more comprehensive review than can otherwise be done manually.
Examples of Common Exclusions and Inclusions in Assignment Clauses
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.
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 …