The Capital Commitment

Proskauer on Private Equity Litigation

A significant ownership stake in a portfolio company has always raised the specter of claims against funds, sponsors, and sponsor-appointed board designees, if for no other reason than they are perceived by the plaintiffs’ bar to be deep pockets.  This risk has only increased in recent years, as it has become less taboo – indeed,

The regulatory and litigation risks for private funds are greater than at any time since the financial crisis in 2008. Just a few examples prove the point: the pandemic (which caused extraordinary volatility in revenues and valuations for most asset categories); a new administration in Washington D.C. (with a more muscular regulatory agenda); continued proliferation

COVID-19 continues to disrupt normal business operations, creating liquidity problems and negative working capital for many companies.  As fund sponsors take actions to help their portfolio companies navigate through this time, they should also sensitize directors to insolvency issues and the associated litigation risks.  As we have previously highlighted, both funds and fund managers may face increased risks of litigation exposure when a portfolio company is running low on cash and faces the possibility of restructuring or reorganizing.  The COVID-19 pandemic and the havoc it has wrought in its wake has amplified these risks, as companies scramble to shore up their cash positions.  These litigation risks are also magnified when fund managers serve as directors of the distressed portfolio company, given the heightened risk of conflicting fiduciary duties inherent in such dual roles.

Ransomware is a Serious and Growing Problem

In recent years, Ransomware has evolved from merely encrypting files/disabling networks in solicitation of ransom, to sophisticated attacks that often involve actual data access, theft and sometimes, the threat of publication. These sophisticated malware attacks frequently destroy backups and provide criminals even more leverage over their victims, coercing them to pay ransoms.  Ransomware does not just target businesses – it is often used to attack hospitals, research institutions, and other public services that are especially critical during this global pandemic.

On Monday the SEC announced its enforcement results for FY 2020, accompanied by a report from the Director of its Division of Enforcement. This report confirms what we have seen over the past year for private fund managers: although OCIE has been more active on adviser examinations, we’ve seen a bit less enforcement activity. Yet in spite of the headwinds posed by the global pandemic, the Commission brought 715 enforcement actions in FY 2020, representing only a 17% decrease from FY 2019. It also obtained record-breaking monetary remedies with total penalties and disgorgement reaching $4.68 billion, an 8% increase from 2019.

Proskauer partner Josh Newville discussed the SEC’s focus on valuation of private fund investments at the recent Securities Enforcement Forum West 2020. The global COVID-19 crisis has added a layer of complexity to the valuation process, requiring special care. As we predicted in our 2020 Top Ten Regulatory and Litigation Risks for Private

We have seen the SEC increase its focus on valuation of privately-held portfolio companies recently. The SEC’s increased focus is in line with our predication made in the Top Ten Regulatory and Litigation Risks for Private Funds in 2020 post from the start of this year, and we expect the trend to continue. The global COVID-19 crisis has added a layer of complexity to the valuation process, which for illiquid assets can be challenging during even calm economic conditions. While some companies have benefited from the changes brought on by COVID-19, the overall market conditions resulting from the crisis have led some to predict an increased likelihood of down rounds and a decrease in expected returns, potentially impacting small portfolio companies and large unicorns alike. In some cases, economic uncertainty already has taken a quantifiable toll on the businesses and prospects of portfolio companies. And the process of estimating fair value remains even more challenging because the full scope of the economic downturn remains as yet unknown. Overly optimistic valuations can lead to inflated expectations of fund investors, as well as regulatory risks if the SEC decides to take a closer look at a particular valuation.

Shareholder rights plans, commonly known as “poison pills,” are arrangements that can be used by companies to stave off hostile takeovers or activist investors seeking to exert control over a company without paying a control premium. A typical rights plan, if triggered, would allow all shareholders except the triggering person to purchase additional shares in the company at a substantial discount. The resulting share dilution makes it significantly more expensive for the triggering person to purchase a controlling stake in the company. Because of this, it is extremely rare for a rights plan to be triggered; instead, rights plans can have the effect of encouraging hostile bidders or activist investors to negotiate directly with a company’s board of directors.

Many portfolio companies continue to confront business disruptions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even prior to the pandemic, we were seeing an uptick in litigation claims against sponsors and funds arising out of portfolio companies. The liquidity challenges since March have increased those risks at some companies. For sponsors, many of these risks arise from director positions and conflicts of interest, whether real or alleged. Below we provide tangible ways for fund sponsors to identify risks, educate their directors, and mitigate risk.

With more people working remotely than ever before in light of COVID-19, firms in the private equity and hedge fund space should review their Regulation S-P privacy and information-safeguarding policies to ensure they are compliant and ready for a prolonged period of remote work. In particular, in view of SEC guidance, firms should focus on several key areas including personal devices and personally identifiable information.