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Cigna Health & Life Insurance Company v. Audax Health Solutions, Inc.: Court of Chancery Invalidates Claims Release and Indemnification Provisions in Private Company Merger

February 17, 2015

In Cigna Health & Life Insurance Company v. Audax Health Solutions, Inc., 2014 WL 6784491 (Del. Ch. Nov. 26, 2014), the Delaware Court of Chancery found invalid features of a private company merger agreement that required stockholders, as a condition to receiving their merger consideration, to submit a letter of transmittal agreeing to provide a release of all claims against the acquirer and that further required stockholders to indemnify, for an indefinite period of time, the acquirer for claims arising from the seller's breach of representations and warranties.

The opinion arose from the acquisition of Audax Health Solutions, Inc. ("Audax") by Optum Services, Inc. ("Optum"). In connection with the merger, certain stockholders of Audax executed support agreements that included: (i) a release of all claims against Optum and its affiliates, (ii) an agreement to be bound by the terms of the merger agreement, specifically including the provisions indemnifying Optum and its affiliates for any breaches of the representations and warranties, and (iii) an appointment of a stockholder representative. In order to receive the merger consideration under the merger agreement, stockholders who did not execute the support agreements were required to execute the letter of transmittal containing the release. Following the merger, Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company ("Cigna"), a holder of preferred stock of Audax who did not execute a support agreement and refused to execute the letter of transmittal, challenged, among other things, the validity of the release in the letter of transmittal and the indemnification provisions of the merger agreement.

On Cigna’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, the Court held that the purported release in the letter of transmittal was unenforceable due to a lack of consideration. In so holding, the Court rejected the defendants' argument that the release was integral to the overall transaction, noting that provisions in the merger agreement that required the letter of transmittal to be in form and substance reasonably acceptable to the acquirer did not indicate that the stockholders would be required to agree to the release. The Court further explained that endorsing the defendants' position would permit buyers to force post-closing conditions or obligations not referenced in the merger agreement on the stockholders in a letter of transmittal. Accordingly, the Court found that the release constituted a new obligation that was unenforceable absent consideration. The Court held that the merger consideration could not constitute consideration for the release because the stockholders had already become entitled to it by operation of law upon the closing of the merger.

The Court also held that the indemnification provisions were unenforceable against stockholders who had not executed the support agreements. In response to Cigna's challenges to the indemnification provisions, the defendants argued that the indemnification obligation was substantively no different from an escrow arrangement, which is common in private company mergers and has previously been recognized by the Delaware courts as enforceable. Despite noting the economic similarities between the indemnification provisions and an escrow arrangement, the Court found that "the merger consideration here more aptly can be described as cash, subject to an open-ended post-closing price adjustment." In this connection, the Court explained that such price adjustments are permissible under Delaware law if they comply with Section 251 of the General Corporation Law of the State of Delaware (the "DGCL"), which requires a merger agreement to set forth a determinable merger consideration by stating the cash, property, rights or securities which the stockholders are entitled to receive in the merger.

In determining whether the indemnification provisions violated Section 251 of the DGCL, the Court distinguished the facts at hand from those in Aveta, Inc. v. Cavallieri, 23 A.3d 157 (Del. Ch. 2010). In Aveta, the Court of Chancery found that the post-closing price-adjustment procedures in a merger agreement (which included an earn-out, adjustments based on the company's financial statements, and a potential claw-back) were permissible under Section 251 of the DGCL. The Court noted that, unlike the merger agreement in Aveta, the indemnification provisions in the Audax-Optum merger agreement were not limited in terms of the amount of money that might be subject to a claw-back or the time period during which Optum could potentially bring a claim for indemnification. Rather, the indemnification structure in the Audax-Optum merger agreement continued indefinitely and made the value of the merger consideration indeterminable. Accordingly, the Court held that the merger agreement failed to set forth the value of the merger consideration as required by Section 251 of the DGCL because of the open-ended and unlimited indemnification provisions. The Court further held that the indemnification provisions were unenforceable against stockholders who did not specifically agree to such obligations by executing the support agreements or the merger agreement itself.

The Court specifically noted the narrow scope of the opinion and clarified that it was not deciding issues relating to (i) escrow agreements generally, (ii) the general validity of post-closing price adjustments requiring direct repayment from stockholders, (iii) whether a time-limited price adjustment that covers all of the merger consideration may be valid, or (iv) whether an indefinite adjustment period as to a portion of the merger consideration may be valid. Instead, the Court explained that it was the combination of the indefinite and contingent nature of the entirety of the consideration payable under the Audax-Optum merger agreement that resulted in the violation of Section 251 of the DGCL.