Beware Potential Employment Successor Liability in Asset Transactions

With Labor Day in the rearview mirror and the fall M&A deal season now upon us it is important to remember that, while most liabilities can be extinguished in an Asset Purchase Transaction, there are a few liabilities that cannot. This post will focus on one such liability – Federal Employment Liability.

Last spring, the Seventh Circuit, in Teed v. Thomas & Betts Power Solutions, L.L.C., held that certain federal employment liabilities (e.g. ongoing Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) litigation) may flow from the seller through the asset purchase to the buyer despite language to the contrary in the purchase agreement.

In Teed, the seller was in receivership and embroiled in various FLSA litigation stemming from pre-sale activity. The buyer negotiated a clause in the asset purchase agreement absolving it of liability in this pending litigation and the state court approved the sale of the assets “free and clear of all liens, claims, encumbrances, and other interests of any kind.”

After the acquisition, the plaintiffs moved to substitute the seller for the buyer in their ongoing FLSA cases. The Seventh Circuit determined that because a federal law was at issue, federal common law applied. The federal common law regarding successor liability is not as limited as most state’s successor liability laws and, in Teed, the court held that the seller was liable under the doctrine of successor liability.

Successor liability is a complicated doctrine, particularly when federal laws are involved or the parties to a transaction are from more than one state. Not only do the successor liability laws vary from state to state, the Federal Circuits all have their own interpretations of it as well. Therefore, it is important to perform thorough due diligence of a target company and hire transactional attorneys who have employment law experience and are able to evaluate whether or not the liabilities can be contracted around or have the potential to attach to the buyer after the transaction is complete so that the proper indemnifications, escrow, or holdbacks can be negotiated into the purchase agreement.

As always, if you have any questions on this topic or employment law in general, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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