The First Department, in a full-fledged opinion by Justice Friedman, over a full-fledged dissenting opinion by Justice Manzanet-Daniels, determined that the buyer of a business (TBA Buyer) did not assume the seller’s (TBA Seller’s) obligation to pay a financial advisor (Fidus) hired by TBA Seller to find a buyer and facilitate a sale. The opinion focused on the precise language of the asset purchase agreement (APA) and held that any monies owed by TBA Seller to Fidus were excluded, by the terms of the APA, from the assets and liabilities TBA Buyer purchased. Much of the opinion addresses the arguments made by the dissent. With respect to the dissent’s argument that TBA Buyer assumed TBA Seller’s obligation to pay Fidus under the “de facto merger” doctrine, the majority wrote:
While the general rule is that, absent a merger or consolidation, an entity purchasing the assets of another entity does not thereby acquire liabilities of the seller not expressly transferred in the sale …, a purchase-of-assets transaction may be deemed to constitute a de facto merger between seller and buyer, even if not formally structured as such, under certain conditions … . We have recognized, however, that “the essence of a merger” … is the element of continuity of ownership, which
“exists where the shareholders of the predecessor corporation become direct or indirect shareholders of the successor corporation as the result of the successor’s purchase of the predecessor’s assets, as occurs in a stock-for-assets transaction. Stated otherwise, continuity of ownership describes a situation where the parties to the transaction become owners together of what formerly belonged to each'” … . * * *
… [U]nder New York law, continuity of ownership is “the touchstone of the [de facto merger] concept” and “thus a necessary predicate to a finding of de facto merger” … . The purpose of requiring continuity of ownership is “to identify situations where the shareholders of a seller corporation retain some ownership interest in their assets after cleansing those assets of liability” … . Stated otherwise, “[t]he fact that the seller’s owners retain their interest in the supposedly sold assets (through their ownership interest in the purchaser) is the substance’ which makes the transaction inequitable” … . By contrast, where a “buyer pays a bona fide, arms-length price for the assets, there is no unfairness to creditors in . . . limiting recovery to the proceeds of the sale — cash or other consideration roughly equal to the value of the purchased assets would take the place of the purchased assets as a resource for satisfying the seller’s debts” … . Thus, “allowing creditors to collect against the purchasers of insolvent debtors’ assets would give the creditors a windfall by increasing the funds available compared to what would have been available if no sale had taken place” … .
In this case, there is no continuity of ownership between TBA Seller and TBA Buyer because, as the record establishes (and Fidus does not dispute), none of TBA Seller’s owners acquired a direct or indirect interest in TBA Buyer (and thus in the transferred assets) as a result of the asset purchase transaction … . Matter of TBA Global, LLC v Fidus Partners, LLC, 2015 NY Slip Op 06698, 1st Dept 9-1-15