ARTICLE
26 March 2024

Anti-Assignment Provisions And Assignments By 'Operation Of Law': What Do I Have To Do? What Should I Do?

AB
Aird & Berlis LLP

Contributor

Aird & Berlis LLP is a leading Canadian law firm, serving clients across Canada and globally. With strong national and international expertise, the firm’s lawyers and business advisors provide strategic legal advice across all areas of business law to clients ranging from entrepreneurs to multinational corporations.
One of the key roles of legal due diligence in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) is to assist in the efficient and successful completion of any proposed M&A transaction.
Canada Corporate/Commercial Law
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Introduction

One of the key roles of legal due diligence in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) is to assist in the efficient and successful completion of any proposed M&A transaction. Due diligence is not merely a procedural formality but can serve as a proactive shield against unforeseen challenges and risks. One essential aspect of the legal due diligence process is reviewing third-party contracts to which the target entity is party, in order to better understand the scope of its commercial relationships and to anticipate any issues that may arise via the underlying contractual relationships as a result of completing the proposed M&A transaction.

A frequent reality in many M&A transactions is the requirement to obtain consents from third parties upon the "change of control" of the target entity and/or the transfer or assignment of a third-party contract to which the target is party. Notwithstanding the wording of such contracts, in many instances, the business team from the purchaser will often ask the question: "When is consent actually required?" While anti-assignment and change of control provisions are fairly ubiquitous in commercial contracts, the same cannot be said for when the requirement to obtain consent is actually triggered. The specifics of the proposed transaction's structure will often dictate the purchaser's next steps when deciding whether the sometimes-cumbersome process of obtaining consents with one or multiple third parties is actually needed.

This article examines what anti-assignment provisionsare and how to approach them, depending on the situation at hand, including in the context of transactions where a change of control event may be triggered. This article also discusses how to interpret whether consent is required when faced with an anti-assignment provision which states that an assignment, including an assignment by operation of law, requires consent from the non-assigning party.

Understanding Anti-Assignment Provisions

Generally, an anti-assignment provision prohibits the transfer or assignment of some or all of the assigning party's rights and obligations under the contract in question to another person without the non-assigning party's prior written consent. By way of example, a standard anti-assignment provision in a contract may read as follows:

Company ABC shall not assign or transfer this agreement, in whole or in part, without the prior written consent of Company XYZ.

In this case, Company ABC requires Company XYZ's prior written consent to assign the contract. Seems simple enough. However, not all anti-assignment provisions are cut from the same cloth. For example, some anti-assignment provisions expand on the prohibition against general contractual assignment by including a prohibition against assignment by operation of law or otherwise. As is discussed in greater detail below, the nuanced meaning of this phrase can capture transactions that typically would not trigger a general anti-assignment provision and can also trigger the requirement to get consent from the non-assigning party for practical business reasons.

To explore this further, it is helpful to consider anti-assignment provisions in the two main structures of M&A transactions: (i) asset purchases and (ii) share purchases.

Context of M&A Transactions: Asset Purchases and Share Purchases

There are key differences between what triggers an anti-assignment provision in an asset purchase transaction versus a share purchase transaction.

i) Asset Purchases

An anti-assignment provision in a contract that forms part of the "purchased assets" in an asset deal will normally be triggered in an asset purchase transaction pursuant to which the purchaser acquires some or all of the assets of the target entity, including some or all of its contracts. Because the target entity is no longer the contracting party once the transaction ultimately closes (since it is assigning its rights and obligations under the contract to the purchaser), consent from the non-assigning party will be required to avoid any potential liability, recourse or termination of said contract as a result of the completion of the transaction.

ii) Share Purchases

Provisions which prohibit the assignment or transfer of a contract without the prior approval of the non-assigning party will not normally, under Canadian law, be captured in a share purchase transaction pursuant to which the purchaser acquires a portion or all of the shares of the target entity. In other words, no new entity is becoming party to that same contract. General anti-assignment provisions are not typically triggered by a share purchase because the contracts are not assigned or transferred to another entity and instead there is usually a "change of control" of the target entity. In such cases, the target entity remains the contracting party under the contract and the consent analysis will be premised on whether the contract requires consent of the third party for a "direct" or "indirect" change of control of the target entity and not the assignment of the contract.

Importantly, some anti-assignment provisions include prohibitions against change of control without prior written consent. For example, the provision might state the following:

Company ABC shall not assign or transfer this agreement, in whole or in part, without the prior written approval of Company XYZ. For the purposes of this agreement, any change of control of Company ABC resulting from an amalgamation, corporate reorganization, arrangement, business sale or asset shall be deemed an assignment or transfer.

In that case, a change of control as a result of a share purchase will be deemed an assignment or transfer, and prior written consent will be required.

A step in many share purchase transactions where the target is a Canadian corporation that often occurs on or soon after closing is the amalgamation of the purchasing entity and the target entity. So, what about anti-assignment provisions containing by operation of law language – do amalgamations trigger an assignment by operation of law? The short answer: It depends on the jurisdiction in which the anti-assignment provision is being scrutinized (typically, the governing law of the contract in question).

Assignments by Operation of Law

In Canada, the assignment of a contract as part of an asset sale, or the change of control of a party to a contract pursuant to a share sale – situations not normally effected via legal statute or court-ordered proceeding in M&A transactions – will not in and of itself effect an assignment of that contract by operation of law.1

Still, one must consider the implications of amalgamations, especially in the context of a proposed transaction when interpreting whether consent is required when an anti-assignment provision contains by operation of law language. Under Canadian law, where nuances often blur the lines within the jurisprudence, an amalgamation will not normally effect the assignment of a contract by operation of law. The same does not necessarily hold true for a Canadian amalgamation scrutinized under U.S. legal doctrines or interpreted by U.S. courts.2

Difference Between Mergers and Amalgamations

As noted above, after the closing of a share purchase transaction, the purchasing entity will often amalgamate with the target entity (click here to read more about amalgamations generally). When two companies "merge" in the U.S., we understand that one corporation survives the merger and one ceases to exist which is why, under U.S. law, a merger can result in an assignment by operation of law. While the "merger" concept is commonly used in the U.S., Canadian corporations combine through a process called "amalgamation," a situation where two corporations amalgamate and combine with neither corporation ceasing to exist. For all of our Canadian lawyer readers, you will remember the Supreme Court of Canada's description of an amalgamation as "a river formed by the confluence of two streams, or the creation of a single rope through the intertwining of strands."3 Generally, each entity survives and shares the pre-existing rights and liabilities of the other, including contractual relationships, as one corporation.4

MTA Canada Royalty Corp. v. Compania Minera Pangea, S.A. de C.V.

As a practical note and for the reasons below, particularly in cross-border M&A transactions, it would be wise to consider seeking consent where a contract prohibits assignment by operation of law without the prior consent of the other contracting party when your proposed transaction contemplates an amalgamation.

In MTA Canada Royalty Corp. v. Compania Minera Pangea, S.A. de C.V. (a Superior Court of Delaware decision), the court interpreted a Canadian (British Columbia) amalgamation as an assignment by operation of law, irrespective of the fact that the amalgamation was effected via Canadian governing legislation. In essence, the Delaware court applied U.S. merger jurisprudence to a contract involving a Canadian amalgamation because the contract in question was governed by Delaware law. This is despite the fact that, generally, an amalgamation effected under Canadian common law jurisdictions would not constitute an assignment by operation of law if considered by a Canadian court. As previously mentioned, under Canadian law, unlike in Delaware, neither of the amalgamating entities cease to exist and, technically, there is no "surviving" entity as there would be with a U.S.-style merger. That being said, we bring this to your attention to show that it is possible that a U.S. court (if the applicable third-party contract is governed by U.S. law or other foreign laws) or other U.S. counterparties could interpret a Canadian amalgamation to effect an assignment by operation of law. In this case, as prior consent was not obtained as required by the anti-assignment provision of the contract in question, the Delaware court held that the parties to that agreement were bound by the anti-assignment provision's express prohibition against all assignments without the other side's consent.5

To avoid the same circumstances that resulted from the decision in MTA Canada Royalty Corp., seeking consent where an anti-assignment provision includes a prohibition against assignment by operation of law without prior consent can be a practical and strategic option when considering transactions involving amalgamations. It is generally further recommended to do so in order to avoid any confusion for all contracting parties post-closing.

Practical Considerations

The consequences of violating anti-assignment provisions can vary. In some cases, the party attempting to complete the assignment is simply required to continue its obligations under the contract but, in others, assignment without prior consent constitutes default under the contract resulting in significant liability for the defaulting party, including potential termination of the contract. This is especially noteworthy for contracts with third parties that are essential to the target entity's revenue and general business functions, as the purchaser would run the risk of losing key contractual relationships that contributed to the success of the target business. As such, identifying assignment provisions and considering whether they are triggered by a change of control and require consent is an important element when reviewing the contracts of a target entity and completing legal due diligence as part of an M&A transaction.

Conclusion

There can be a strategic and/or legal imperative to seek consent in many situations when confronted with contractual clauses that prohibit an assignment, either by operation of law or through other means, absent the explicit approval of the non-assigning party. However, the structure of the proposed transaction will often dictate whether consent is even required in the first place. Without considering this nuanced area of M&A transactions, purchasers not only potentially expose themselves to liability but also risk losing key contractual relationships that significantly drive the value of the transaction.

Footnotes

1. An assignment by operation of law can be interpreted as an involuntary assignment required by legal statute or certain court-ordered proceedings. For instance, an assignment of a contract by operation of law may occur in, among other situations: (i) testamentary dispositions; (ii) court-ordered asset transfers in bankruptcy proceedings; or (iii) court-ordered asset transfers in divorce proceedings.

2. MTA Canada Royalty Corp. v. Compania Minera Pangea, S.A. de C.V., C. A. No. N19C-11-228 AML, 2020 WL 5554161 (Del. Super. Sept. 16, 2020) [MTA Canada Royalty Corp.].

3. R. v. Black & Decker Manufacturing Co., [1975] 1 S.C.R. 411.

4. Certain Canadian jurisdictions, such as the Business Corporations Act (British Columbia), explicitly state that an amalgamation does not constitute an assignment by operation of law (subsection 282(2)).

5. MTA Canada Royalty Corp.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

ARTICLE
26 March 2024

Anti-Assignment Provisions And Assignments By 'Operation Of Law': What Do I Have To Do? What Should I Do?

Canada Corporate/Commercial Law

Contributor

Aird & Berlis LLP is a leading Canadian law firm, serving clients across Canada and globally. With strong national and international expertise, the firm’s lawyers and business advisors provide strategic legal advice across all areas of business law to clients ranging from entrepreneurs to multinational corporations.
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