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Operation of Law (Best Overview: Definition And Examples)

operation of law assignment

What is operation of law ?

How do you define operation of law?

Can the law create rights or obligations automatically and by default?

In this article, we will break down the notion of “ operation of law ” so you know all there is to know about it.

We will look at the operation of law definition , how it works , how the law can operate a termination of rights, assignment or transfer , we’ll look at an agency by operation of law example , operation of law in real estate and more.

Be sure to read this entire post as we have amazing content for you!

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Table of Contents

Operation of law definition

According to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, operation of law is defined as:

A way in which someone gets certain rights (or sometimes responsibilities) automatically under the law without taking action, requiring cooperation from another person, or being the subject of a court order.  Author

What is notable with this definition is that certain “ rights ” or “ responsibilities ” will apply to a situation by default or automatically by applying the legal regime or statute.

What does operation of law mean

Operation of law or by operation of law means that a person’s rights and obligations are created by the application of the law, statute or regulation regardless of the person’s desire or intention.

In other words, a person may acquire certain rights or become liable for certain obligations through the application of legal rules without consideration of his or her intention .

The law can grant rights, impose restrictions or prohibitions on a person by operation of law or determine what a person can or cannot do.

For example:

If two people own a property as joint tenants with right of survivorship, in the event one dies, the other will acquire full title to the property by operation of law Author

In this example, the law operates a transfer of title of the property by the application of the joint tenancy rules.

Agency by operation of law

The rights, responsibilities and obligations of parties to an agency contract may be affected by the operation of law.

For instance, termination of agency by operation of law occurs when:

  • The parties expressly provide for termination by operation of law 
  • For defined cause
  • The agent’s performance is partially or fully executed

In a contract of agency , the principal does not have an obligation to remain in the contract and can terminate the agency by giving reasonable notice to the agent at any time.

This termination right is granted to the principal by ‘operation of law’.

Assignment by operation of law

Assignment by operation of law is when certain rights are assigned to another.

Title to a patent can be assigned in a financial transaction such as a merger or as a result of operation of law in the event of bankruptcy Author

Termination by operation of law

In contract law , a contract may be terminated by operation of law.

In the following situations, a contract may be terminated without consideration of the intention of the parties:

  • An offer may become null and void if the person dies
  • A contract may be terminated (or voided) if it was formed based on fraudulent acts
  • A contract may be terminated if a person did not have the capacity to sign
  • A contract may be deemed unenforceable and voided in full by operation of law

Discharge by operation of law 

Discharge by operation of the law is when a person is freed or liberated from certain obligations by operation of law.

When a person goes bankrupt, the person’s debts are discharged. This means that the person is no longer legally bound to make any payments to his or her creditors. Author

Reset by operation of law

Reset by operation of law is when a court resets the case for a legal reason that it has identified.

When a case is reset, it means that the litigants will need to start the case from the beginning.

Typically, a case is reset by a judge exercising its judicial powers . 

Power of attorney operation of law

In a power of attorney, the person appointing an attorney can define that by operation of law, the power of attorney may lapse or not .

KNOW ALL PERSONS BY THESE PRESENTS that the undersigned hereby appoint John Doe as my attorney-in-fact. My attorney-in-fact shall have the power to act hereunder. The duration of such powers shall not be affected by the lapse of time, and all such powers shall remain in effect until express revocation of the present power of attorney, the execution of these same powers to any other individual, or expiration by operation of law. Author

Transfer by operation of law

What’s common is the transfer of property by operation of law.

In other words, by applying certain laws, statutes or rules, an asset will be transferred or titled conveyed by operation of law.

The common example is with respect to the following ownership rights :

  • Joint tenants with right of survivorship
  • Joint tenants in common
  • Intestate death

If two people own a property together as joint tenants with right of survivorship , in the event of the death of one, the survivor becomes the full owner of the property. 

In this case, the title to the property is transferred by operation of law.

Similarly, if a property is held by two people as tenants in common , in the event one dies, the deceased share in the property will be transferred to his or her estate.

In a case when a person dies without a will ( intestate death ), the law will determine the heirs and have the person’s assets transferred to those heirs.

Operation of law real estate

A typical example of how the operation of law works in real estate is with regard to the doctrine of adverse possession .

A non-owner of a property , by “operation of law”, may get title to land, property or real estate as he or she has been occupying the same for a certain period of time .

The rights granted to a non-owner of a property are granted regardless of the intention of the property owner or the non-owner.

Operation of law clause

The parties to a contract can include an operation of law clause where they define certain events to trigger certain legal consequences without the need of a party to act in any way.

“Operation of law” means the assignment of Party A’s assets by the court order in the context of a merger. Author

Operation of law examples

There are many examples where, by operation of law, a person acquires certain rights or obligations.

Here are examples of how a person may be impacted by the operation of the law:

  • If a person passes away without a will, the heirs will be determined by the operation of law
  • A person’s assets may be transferred upon death to his or her heirs without a will through the operation of law
  • The title of land can pass to a non-owner by operation of law through adverse possession
  • The title to a property or asset held by joint tenants with right of survivorship will be transferred to the survivor in the event one dies by operation of law
  • An easement by prescription rights occurs by operation of law
  • When a party fails to pursue a complaint will lead to its dismissal by operation of law
  • The assets of a bankrupt person or entity will be transferred to the trustee or bankruptcy estate by operation of law through the application of the bankruptcy laws
  • When a child turns 18 , by operation of law the guardianship ends
  • Operation of law discharge happens when a person’s debt is discharged by filing for bankruptcy 
  • Operation of law agency occurs when the law creates a principal and agent relationship not because of an agreement but by application of the law

Operation of law FAQ

Operation of Law FAQ

What does operation of law mean?

The operation of law legal definition is when a person acquires legal rights or obligations automatically through the application of the law.

A contract may be void by operation of law if the person did not have the capacity to sign.  In this example, for a contract to be legally formed in compliance with contract laws, you must strictly observe the contract formation elements which include capacity.  Without capacity, by operation of law, the contract is void. Author

What does assignment by operation of law mean?

Assignment by operation of law means when certain rights, property or assets are assigned or transferred to another legally without the need of the property owner to act in any way.

In the event of bankruptcy, the assets of the bankrupt are assigned to the bankruptcy trustee by operation of law Author
In the event of a person’s death without a will, the assets of a person are assigned, by operation of law, to the heirs designated by law Author

Can a corporation be created by operation of law?

A de facto corporation or de jure corporation is an enterprise recognized by operation of law although it did not comply with every aspect of the law in regards to its formation.

The law creates a corporation or enterprise by operation of law to provide some protection against third parties.

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Do Change of Control Transactions Constitute an Assignment by Operation of Law?

Commercial landlords often rely on anti-assignment provisions to restrict the ability of tenants to assign their interest in a lease to a third party. Such provisions often restrict assignments by “operation of law,” which are generally considered involuntary assignments mandated via a court order. Commercial landlords may assume that a change of control transaction violates a basic anti–assignment clause. Landlords wishing to restrict change of control of a tenant entity, however, should have clear anti-assignment provisions in their leases that expressly restrict such transactions and characterize such “changes of control” as assignments.  

A change of control is a significant change in the equity, ownership, or management of a business entity. This can occur through a merger, consolidation or acquisition.  

The general rule is that change of control of a corporate entity is not an assignment by operation of law, and therefore does not violate a basic anti-assignment provision. Courts have reasoned that a landlord entering into a lease with a corporate tenant should be aware that a corporation, or limited liability company, is an entity which exists separate and apart from its ownership, and that a change in ownership of the corporate entity does not change the tenant entity under the lease.  

Courts in many states including Florida, New York and Delaware have held that a change of control is not an assignment by operation of law. In  Sears Termite & Pest Control, Inc. v. Arnold , a Florida court held, “[t]he fact that there is a change in the ownership of corporate stock does not affect the corporation’s existence or its contract rights, or liabilities.” Further, in  Meso Scale Diagnostics LLC v. Roche Diagnostics GMBH , a Delaware court ruled, “[g]enerally mergers do not result in an assignment by operation of law of assets that began as property of the surviving entity and continued to be such after the merger.” 

Importantly, the rule is different if the tenant entity does not survive the transaction. In  MTA Canada Royalty Corp. v.  Compania  Minera Pangea , a Delaware Superior Court held that a merger in which the contracting entity does not survive may be held to be an assignment by operation of law.  

If a landlord intends for a change of control of a tenant to violate the anti-assignment clause in its lease, the landlord should ensure that its lease expressly states that a change of control constitutes an assignment.

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“By Operation of Law” (Including Draft No-Assignment Language)

30 September 2021 23 June 2011 | Ken Adams

In Meso Scale Diagnostics, LLC v. Roche Diagnostics GMBH (go here for a PDF copy), the Delaware Court of Chancery held that it’s not clear whether for purposes of a no-assignment provision a reverse triangular merger constitutes an assignment “by operation of law.” (A reverse triangular merger is when Sub merges into Target.)

I’m not going to go into any detail regarding the case, as that information is readily available elsewhere. (Plucking a couple of examples at random, go here for Milbank’s analysis and go here for Shearman & Sterling’s analysis.)

Transfers by operation of law are generally considered involuntary transfers. They include court-ordered property transfers, bankruptcy-related transfers, and transfers to or from an executor or an administrator. Whether mergers and consolidations are transfers by operation of law is an open question. The cases reach inconsistent results.

That suggests that if you use the phrase by operation of law , you run the risk of getting into a fight over exactly what it means. And the Meso Scale Diagnostics case provides a great example of exactly that.

So what should you do instead? Koncision’s confidentiality-agreement template uses a bare-bones no-assignment provision that doesn’t get into by-operation-of-law territory, so here’s a more detailed version that I’ve just come up with:

Without the prior written consent of the other party, neither party may voluntarily or by court order (1) assign any of its rights under this agreement, whether by contract or by merger (whether that party is the surviving or disappearing entity), consolidation, dissolution, or otherwise, or (2) delegate any of its obligations under this agreement or its performance in satisfaction of any conditions to any obligations of the other party under this agreement. Any assignment or delegation in breach of this section X will be void.

Some observations:

  • I’m aware it doesn’t read very easily.
  • If you provide for the possibility of consent, it would be safest to assume that consent can’t be unreasonably withheld. If you have a problem with that, omit any mention of consent.
  • I think it’s helpful to distinguish the issue of volition (voluntary or or by court order) from the mechanism of assignment (by contract or something else).
  • I suggest that “by court order” is what’s left if you eliminate mergers, consolidations, and dissolution from by operation of law .
  • The reference to “the surviving or disappearing entity” covers both direct mergers, triangular mergers, and reverse triangular mergers.
  • Don’t simply prohibit assigning the entire contract—a court might construe that as prohibiting just delegation of duties.
  • The reference to “performance in satisfaction of any conditions” acknowledges that if you promise to pay me $50 if I mow your lawn, I might want to delegate the task of mowing your lawn to someone else. If I do so, I’m not delegating an obligation, I’m delegating performance aimed at satisfying a condition. I got this idea from  Negotiating and Drafting Contract Boilerplate , but I’ve chosen to articulate it differently.
  • Saying that any assignment or delegation in breach will be void might be enough by itself. But including a prohibition too would provide a remedy if the other party nevertheless tries to assign or delegate, thereby causing you to incur legal fees.
  • Saying that a court-ordered assignment will be void won’t work if the law overrides any restriction on assignment. See this August 2006 post on AdamsDrafting on how that plays out in bankruptcy.
  • If you’re worried about a change of control, you might want to handle that by means of an event-of-default provision rather than a no-assignment provision: it’s a bit of a stretch to consider a change in Acme’s ownership as constituting assignment by Acme of its rights under a contract.

But once you have your broad no-assignment wording, you have to determine whether for a given transaction you need the full monty , something less, nothing at all, or a provision authorizing assignment. I won’t get into that here.

operation of law assignment

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of  A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting , and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

9 thoughts on ““By Operation of Law” (Including Draft No-Assignment Language)”

Ken, thanks for the mention of the book.  Language involving “by operation of law”, seems a bit specialist for a confidentiality agreement.  As to what it means, I think it is a sweep-up that may cover oddities, eg:

– contracts with an individual that may continue when he dies, eg copyright licence agreements? – contracts that become contracts with a new entity by virtue of a law.

In the latter category, I can cite my former client Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, which was dissolved and whose assets transferred to University College London under the University College London Act 1996 (see section 5 which deals with automatic transfer of property without any assignment).  See http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukla/1996/3/contents/enacted 

To tee up a potential Plan B, counsel for a non-assigning party might ask for a termination right — if the other party engages in a merger that the non-assigning party doesn’t like, and the merger would not be considered an “assignment” under applicable law, then the non-assigning party can terminate the agreement.[1] [2]

[1] Of course, the consequences of termination would have to be thought through and suitably addressed.

[2] I’ve never been 100% comfortable with the concept of terminating the Agreement.  My late partner and mentor Tom Arnold was of the school of thought that contracts per se are historical facts and can never be terminated – only specific rights and duties can be terminated.

I have some nitpicks.

The Texas statute on the effect of a merger (section 10.008 at http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/BO/pdf/BO.10.pdf ) specifically says that a merger vests rights in property in the successor organization without any assignment or transfer having occurred. Someone who knows this law better than me might be able to comment on whether that would include, for example, a lease to either real property or capital equipment. If you nonetheless want to prohibit the lease vesting int he successor, i think your language will have to use a word other than “assign.”

Along the same lines, the statute makes the successor entity be the primary obligor without calling it a delegation, so the non-delegation language might not be effective. The statute does allow a contract to specify additional obligors.

The two points above are important mainly because Texas law allows a merger to have multiple surviving or new entities result from the merger. So, your valuable lease might end up being held by a much less creditworthy entity. I don’t have a solution for this problem that would be generally applicable. I think instead, the drafter will have to look towards protections elsewhere, like warranties that the lessee would breach by becoming less creditworthy or a termination right that kicks in on any organic event.

You might want to change “court order” to “government action” to handle situations where regulatory bodies take control of a company (e.g. banks, insurers) and also have statutory, quasi-judicial power to transfer obligations to successors.

Finally, your construction of “neither party may” seems to run afoul of the guidance in MSCD 2.150. But the meaning of “may” in the construction remains consistent with MCSD and the alternative construction — each party shall not — is a clunky here, so I see why you chose the alternative.

Chris: Hmm. Regarding your first two points, I’ll have to put on my thinking cap. I might take a while to respond.

Yes, I will change “court order” to something that refers to “Government Body” or some such. I did something similar for purposes of Koncision’s confidentiality-agreement template.

I periodically fall foul of my own guidelines, and I’m delighted when people point that out. But regarding “neither party may,” have a look at MSCD 2.152.

“By operation of law” could also cover death, if one of the parties is an individual.  I doubt it would be any more effective than trying to prohibit assignment by court order.  There are, of course, ways of addressing the effect of death directly, if it’s a real issue.

  • Pingback: Koncision » Rethinking the “No Assignment” Provision

One senior lawyer advised me a one-sided transfer of shares from A to B under “operation of law” without any transfer deed or court order. He explained the following: 1. A breached the shareholders agreement. The agreement said that in case any shareholder breaches, his shares will be bought by other shareholders. 2. Since the agreement was breached, hence the shares were transferred to other shareholders under “operation of law”. 3. Since it came under operation of law, hence the transfer of shares became “transmission of shares” which needs no court order or transfer deed. I was shocked to listen this approach. Can you comment.

so does permanent disability fall under operation of the law and therefore Transmission applies?

Your page is very useful for us mortals to understand some technical language. I am grateful indeed.

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operation of law assignment

Spotting issues with assignment clauses in M&A Due Diligence

Written by: Kira Systems

January 19, 2016

6 minute read

Although not nearly as complex as change of control provisions , assignment provisions may still present a challenge in due diligence projects. We hope this blog post will help you navigate the ambiguities of assignment clauses with greater ease by explaining some of the common variations. (And, if you like it, please check out our full guide on Reviewing Change of Control and Assignment Provisions in Due Diligence. )

What is an Assignment Clause?

First, the basics:

Anti-assignment clauses are common because without them, generally, contracts are freely assignable. (The exceptions are (i) contracts that are subject to statutes or public policies prohibiting their assignment, such as intellectual property contracts, or (ii) contracts where an assignment without consent would cause material and adverse consequences to non-assigning counterparties, such as employment agreements and consulting agreements.) For all other contracts, parties may want an anti-assignment clause that allows them the opportunity to review and understand the impact of an assignment (or change of control) before deciding whether to continue or terminate the relationship.

In the mergers and acquisitions context, an assignment of a contract from a target company entity to the relevant acquirer entity is needed whenever a contract has to be placed in the name of an entity other than the existing target company entity after consummation of a transaction. This is why reviewing contracts for assignment clauses is so critical.

A simple anti-assignment provision provides that a party may not assign the agreement without the consent of the other party. Assignment provisions may also provide specific exclusions or inclusions to a counterparty’s right to consent to the assignment of a contract. Below are five common occurrences in which assignment provisions may provide exclusions or inclusions.

Common Exclusions and Inclusions

Exclusion for change of control transactions.

In negotiating an anti-assignment clause, a company would typically seek the exclusion of assignments undertaken in connection with change of control transactions, including mergers and sales of all or substantially all of the assets of the company. This allows a company to undertake a strategic transaction without worry. If an anti-assignment clause doesn’t exclude change of control transactions, a counterparty might materially affect a strategic transaction through delay and/or refusal of consent. Because there are many types of change of control transactions, there is no standard language for these. An example might be:

In the event of the sale or transfer by [Party B] of all or substantially all of its assets related to this Agreement to an Affiliate or to a third party, whether by sale, merger, or change of control, [Party B] would have the right to assign any or all rights and obligations contained herein and the Agreement to such Affiliate or third party without the consent of [Party A] and the Agreement shall be binding upon such acquirer and would remain in full force and effect, at least until the expiration of the then current Term.

Exclusion for Affiliate Transactions

A typical exclusion is one that allows a target company to assign a contract to an affiliate without needing the consent of the contract counterparty. This is much like an exclusion with respect to change of control, since in affiliate transfers or assignments, the ultimate actors and responsible parties under the contract remain essentially the same even though the nominal parties may change. For example:

Either party may assign its rights under this Agreement, including its right to receive payments hereunder, to a subsidiary, affiliate or any financial institution, but in such case the assigning party shall remain liable to the other party for the assigning party’s obligations hereunder. All or any portion of the rights and obligations of [Party A] under this Agreement may be transferred by [Party A] to any of its Affiliates without the consent of [Party B].

Assignment by Operation of Law

Assignments by operation of law typically occur in the context of transfers of rights and obligations in accordance with merger statutes and can be specifically included in or excluded from assignment provisions. An inclusion could be negotiated by the parties to broaden the anti-assignment clause and to ensure that an assignment occurring by operation of law requires counterparty approval:

[Party A] agrees that it will not assign, sublet or otherwise transfer its rights hereunder, either voluntarily or by operations of law, without the prior written consent of [Party B].

while an exclusion could be negotiated by a target company to make it clear that it has the right to assign the contract even though it might otherwise have that right as a matter of law:

This Guaranty shall be binding upon the successors and assigns of [Party A]; provided, that no transfer, assignment or delegation by [Party A], other than a transfer, assignment or delegation by operation of law, without the consent of [Party B], shall release [Party A] from its liabilities hereunder.

This helps settle any ambiguity regarding assignments and their effects under mergers statutes (particularly in forward triangular mergers and forward mergers since the target company ceases to exist upon consummation of the merger).

Direct or Indirect Assignment

More ambiguity can arise regarding which actions or transactions require a counterparty’s consent when assignment clauses prohibit both direct and indirect assignments without the consent of a counterparty. Transaction parties will typically choose to err on the side of over-inclusiveness in determining which contracts will require consent when dealing with material contracts. An example clause prohibiting direct or indirect assignment might be:

Except as provided hereunder or under the Merger Agreement, such Shareholder shall not, directly or indirectly, (i) transfer (which term shall include any sale, assignment, gift, pledge, hypothecation or other disposition), or consent to or permit any such transfer of, any or all of its Subject Shares, or any interest therein.

“Transfer” of Agreement vs. “Assignment” of Agreement

In some instances, assignment provisions prohibit “transfers” of agreements in addition to, or instead of, explicitly prohibiting “assignments”. Often, the word “transfer” is not defined in the agreement, in which case the governing law of the contract will determine the meaning of the term and whether prohibition on transfers are meant to prohibit a broader or narrower range of transactions than prohibitions on assignments. Note that the current jurisprudence on the meaning of an assignment is broader and deeper than it is on the meaning of a transfer. In the rarer case where “transfer” is defined, it might look like this:

As used in this Agreement, the term “transfer” includes the Franchisee’s voluntary, involuntary, direct or indirect assignment, sale, gift or other disposition of any interest in…

The examples listed above are only of five common occurrences in which an assignment provision may provide exclusions or inclusions. As you continue with due diligence review, you may find that assignment provisions offer greater variety beyond the factors discussed in this blog post. However, you now have a basic understand of the possible variations of assignment clauses. For a more in-depth discussion of reviewing change of control and assignment provisions in due diligence, please download our full guide on Reviewing Change of Control and Assignment Provisions in Due Diligence.

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Do Change of Control Transactions Constitute an Assignment by Operation of Law?

Commercial l andlords  often  rely on  anti-assignment provisions  to  restrict the ability of tenants to assign their interest in  a  lease to a third party .  Such provisions will often explicitly restrict assignments by  “ operation of law, ”  which are generally considered involuntary assignments  mandated via a  court order. Commercial landlords may assume that a change of control transaction violates a basic anti – assignment cla use, but clear drafting is necessary for Landlords to protect their interests .  Landlords  wishing to restrict change of control of a tenant entity ,  should  have clear  anti-assignment provision s in their leases that   expressly restrict such transaction s  and characterize such “changes of control” as assignments .   

A change of control is a significant change in the equity, ownership, or management of a business entity. This can occur through a merger, consolidation or acquisition.   

The general rule is that change of control of a corporate entity  is  not  an assignment by operation of law ,  and therefore  does not violate a basic  anti- assignment provision. Courts have reasoned that a landlord entering into a lease with a corporate tenant should be aware that a corporation, or limited liability company, is an entity which exists separate and apart from its ownership, and that a change in ownership of the corporate entity does not change the tenant entity under the lease.   

Courts in many states including Florida, New York and Delaware have held that a change of control is not an assignment by operation of law. I n  Sears Termite & Pest Control, Inc. v. Arnold ,  a Florida court held ,  “ [t] he fact that there is a change in the ownership of corporate stock does not affect the corporation’s existence or its contract rights, or liabilities. ”  Further,   i n  Meso Scale Diagnostics LLC v. Roche Diagnostics GMBH , a Delaware court ruled, “ [ g ] enerally  mergers do not result in an assignment by operation of law of assets that began as property of the surviving entity and continued to be such after the merger.”  

Importantly,  the rule is different if the tenant entity does not survive the transaction.   In  MTA Canada Royalty Corp. v.  Compania  Minera Pangea , a  Delaware Superior Court held that a  merger in which the contracting entity does not survive may be held to be an assignment by operation of law.   

If  a  l andlord inten d s for a change of control of a tenant to violate the anti-assignment clause  in its lease, the landlord should ensure that its  lease expressly state s   that a change of control constitutes an assignment .

This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide legal advice. Please do not act or refrain from acting based on anything you read here. Please review the full disclaimer for more information. Relying on the information provided in this article or communicating with Lowndes through our website does not create an attorney/client relationship.

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A way in which someone gets certain rights (or sometimes responsibilities) automatically under the law without taking action, requiring cooperation from another person, or being the subject of a court order .  This situation usually arises from the happening of an event, such as a death, that triggers a change in human affairs as created by functions of the law.  Some examples of such actions by operation of law include a joint tenancy where any surviving joint tenants get title to the jointly owned property automatically when one joint tenant dies; asset transfers when someone dies without a will and that person's legal heirs automatically inherit property from their estate ; or the transfer of property from the debtor to a bankruptcy estate pursuant to the Bankruptcy Code . Just as the death in the first two examples automatically triggers the transfer of property title or assets, in the third example the mere commencement of the bankruptcy case triggers the transfer without the need for any transfer-related activity by the debtor.

Operation of law can also describe what a person can or cannot do, or what rights or interests a person has.  For example, a prohibition created by statute , a business license granted by an agency , or a property rights determined by the judicial interpretation of a will.  In each case, the outcome or effect is created by operation of law.

[Last updated in August of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team ]

  • property & real estate law
  • THE LEGAL PROCESS
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138. Assignment by operation of law.

The rights and liabilities 1 of either party to a contract may in certain circumstances be assigned by operation of law, as, for example, when a party

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Del. Court Says Merger is Assignment “By Operation of Law”

A recent Delaware Superior Court decision serves as a reminder that, under Delaware law, a merger may well involve an assignment by operation of law — even if the contract itself doesn’t specifically use the term “merger” in the language defining assignments. In MTA Canada Royalty Corp. v. Compania Minera Pangea , (Del. Super.; 9/20), the Delaware Superior Court held that a merger involved an impermissible assignment of rights under a mineral rights royalty agreement.

The Court rejected the plaintiff MTA’s argument that the anti-assignment clause did not extend to an “amalgamation” effected under Canadian law because the agreement did not expressly include mergers or amalgamations within the agreement’s non-assignment clause, and because the defendant did not suffer any unreasonable risk of harm as a result of the merger.

Instead, the Court determined that, under Delaware law, language in the contract prohibiting assignments “by operation of law” covered a merger in which the party in question did not survive. The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s contention that customary language allowing the agreement to be enforced by “successors and assigns” created an ambiguity as to whether the non-assignment clause was intended to cover successorship situations. To the contrary, it found that the defendant’s interpretation of the non-assignment clause’s successorship language was the only reasonable one: “successors and assignees can enforce the contract if they are valid successors or assignees.”

MTA also attempted to raise the unfairness of the result — it would let CMP off the hook for a payment that it would have otherwise been required to make. The Court wasn’t sympathetic:

In sum, CMP’s motion raises a straightforward issue of contract interpretation. Section 6.12 plainly prohibits assignments, including by operation of law, and that phrase unambiguously includes assignment through merger. MTA’s convoluted analysis does not create an ambiguity. Faced with this plain language that its predecessor voluntarily negotiated, MTA’s only “hook” is the apparent unfairness of allowing CMP to avoid making a payment it allegedly owes. But it is not this Court’s function to save sophisticated contracting parties from an unfair or unanticipated result of their own corporate transactions.

The Court said the parties could have avoided this result through careful drafting during the negotiating process or by using a different structure for the amalgamation. They didn’t, so the court held MTA to its bargain.

-John Jenkins, DealLawyers.com September 24, 2020

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  • assignments basic law

Assignments: The Basic Law

The assignment of a right or obligation is a common contractual event under the law and the right to assign (or prohibition against assignments) is found in the majority of agreements, leases and business structural documents created in the United States.

As with many terms commonly used, people are familiar with the term but often are not aware or fully aware of what the terms entail. The concept of assignment of rights and obligations is one of those simple concepts with wide ranging ramifications in the contractual and business context and the law imposes severe restrictions on the validity and effect of assignment in many instances. Clear contractual provisions concerning assignments and rights should be in every document and structure created and this article will outline why such drafting is essential for the creation of appropriate and effective contracts and structures.

The reader should first read the article on Limited Liability Entities in the United States and Contracts since the information in those articles will be assumed in this article.

Basic Definitions and Concepts:

An assignment is the transfer of rights held by one party called the “assignor” to another party called the “assignee.” The legal nature of the assignment and the contractual terms of the agreement between the parties determines some additional rights and liabilities that accompany the assignment. The assignment of rights under a contract usually completely transfers the rights to the assignee to receive the benefits accruing under the contract. Ordinarily, the term assignment is limited to the transfer of rights that are intangible, like contractual rights and rights connected with property. Merchants Service Co. v. Small Claims Court , 35 Cal. 2d 109, 113-114 (Cal. 1950).

An assignment will generally be permitted under the law unless there is an express prohibition against assignment in the underlying contract or lease. Where assignments are permitted, the assignor need not consult the other party to the contract but may merely assign the rights at that time. However, an assignment cannot have any adverse effect on the duties of the other party to the contract, nor can it diminish the chance of the other party receiving complete performance. The assignor normally remains liable unless there is an agreement to the contrary by the other party to the contract.

The effect of a valid assignment is to remove privity between the assignor and the obligor and create privity between the obligor and the assignee. Privity is usually defined as a direct and immediate contractual relationship. See Merchants case above.

Further, for the assignment to be effective in most jurisdictions, it must occur in the present. One does not normally assign a future right; the assignment vests immediate rights and obligations.

No specific language is required to create an assignment so long as the assignor makes clear his/her intent to assign identified contractual rights to the assignee. Since expensive litigation can erupt from ambiguous or vague language, obtaining the correct verbiage is vital. An agreement must manifest the intent to transfer rights and can either be oral or in writing and the rights assigned must be certain.

Note that an assignment of an interest is the transfer of some identifiable property, claim, or right from the assignor to the assignee. The assignment operates to transfer to the assignee all of the rights, title, or interest of the assignor in the thing assigned. A transfer of all rights, title, and interests conveys everything that the assignor owned in the thing assigned and the assignee stands in the shoes of the assignor. Knott v. McDonald’s Corp ., 985 F. Supp. 1222 (N.D. Cal. 1997)

The parties must intend to effectuate an assignment at the time of the transfer, although no particular language or procedure is necessary. As long ago as the case of National Reserve Co. v. Metropolitan Trust Co ., 17 Cal. 2d 827 (Cal. 1941), the court held that in determining what rights or interests pass under an assignment, the intention of the parties as manifested in the instrument is controlling.

The intent of the parties to an assignment is a question of fact to be derived not only from the instrument executed by the parties but also from the surrounding circumstances. When there is no writing to evidence the intention to transfer some identifiable property, claim, or right, it is necessary to scrutinize the surrounding circumstances and parties’ acts to ascertain their intentions. Strosberg v. Brauvin Realty Servs., 295 Ill. App. 3d 17 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 1998)

The general rule applicable to assignments of choses in action is that an assignment, unless there is a contract to the contrary, carries with it all securities held by the assignor as collateral to the claim and all rights incidental thereto and vests in the assignee the equitable title to such collateral securities and incidental rights. An unqualified assignment of a contract or chose in action, however, with no indication of the intent of the parties, vests in the assignee the assigned contract or chose and all rights and remedies incidental thereto.

More examples: In Strosberg v. Brauvin Realty Servs ., 295 Ill. App. 3d 17 (Ill. App. Ct. 1st Dist. 1998), the court held that the assignee of a party to a subordination agreement is entitled to the benefits and is subject to the burdens of the agreement. In Florida E. C. R. Co. v. Eno , 99 Fla. 887 (Fla. 1930), the court held that the mere assignment of all sums due in and of itself creates no different or other liability of the owner to the assignee than that which existed from the owner to the assignor.

And note that even though an assignment vests in the assignee all rights, remedies, and contingent benefits which are incidental to the thing assigned, those which are personal to the assignor and for his sole benefit are not assigned. Rasp v. Hidden Valley Lake, Inc ., 519 N.E.2d 153, 158 (Ind. Ct. App. 1988). Thus, if the underlying agreement provides that a service can only be provided to X, X cannot assign that right to Y.

Novation Compared to Assignment:

Although the difference between a novation and an assignment may appear narrow, it is an essential one. “Novation is a act whereby one party transfers all its obligations and benefits under a contract to a third party.” In a novation, a third party successfully substitutes the original party as a party to the contract. “When a contract is novated, the other contracting party must be left in the same position he was in prior to the novation being made.”

A sublease is the transfer when a tenant retains some right of reentry onto the leased premises. However, if the tenant transfers the entire leasehold estate, retaining no right of reentry or other reversionary interest, then the transfer is an assignment. The assignor is normally also removed from liability to the landlord only if the landlord consents or allowed that right in the lease. In a sublease, the original tenant is not released from the obligations of the original lease.

Equitable Assignments:

An equitable assignment is one in which one has a future interest and is not valid at law but valid in a court of equity. In National Bank of Republic v. United Sec. Life Ins. & Trust Co. , 17 App. D.C. 112 (D.C. Cir. 1900), the court held that to constitute an equitable assignment of a chose in action, the following has to occur generally: anything said written or done, in pursuance of an agreement and for valuable consideration, or in consideration of an antecedent debt, to place a chose in action or fund out of the control of the owner, and appropriate it to or in favor of another person, amounts to an equitable assignment. Thus, an agreement, between a debtor and a creditor, that the debt shall be paid out of a specific fund going to the debtor may operate as an equitable assignment.

In Egyptian Navigation Co. v. Baker Invs. Corp. , 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30804 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 14, 2008), the court stated that an equitable assignment occurs under English law when an assignor, with an intent to transfer his/her right to a chose in action, informs the assignee about the right so transferred.

An executory agreement or a declaration of trust are also equitable assignments if unenforceable as assignments by a court of law but enforceable by a court of equity exercising sound discretion according to the circumstances of the case. Since California combines courts of equity and courts of law, the same court would hear arguments as to whether an equitable assignment had occurred. Quite often, such relief is granted to avoid fraud or unjust enrichment.

Note that obtaining an assignment through fraudulent means invalidates the assignment. Fraud destroys the validity of everything into which it enters. It vitiates the most solemn contracts, documents, and even judgments. Walker v. Rich , 79 Cal. App. 139 (Cal. App. 1926). If an assignment is made with the fraudulent intent to delay, hinder, and defraud creditors, then it is void as fraudulent in fact. See our article on Transfers to Defraud Creditors .

But note that the motives that prompted an assignor to make the transfer will be considered as immaterial and will constitute no defense to an action by the assignee, if an assignment is considered as valid in all other respects.

Enforceability of Assignments:

Whether a right under a contract is capable of being transferred is determined by the law of the place where the contract was entered into. The validity and effect of an assignment is determined by the law of the place of assignment. The validity of an assignment of a contractual right is governed by the law of the state with the most significant relationship to the assignment and the parties.

In some jurisdictions, the traditional conflict of laws rules governing assignments has been rejected and the law of the place having the most significant contacts with the assignment applies. In Downs v. American Mut. Liability Ins. Co ., 14 N.Y.2d 266 (N.Y. 1964), a wife and her husband separated and the wife obtained a judgment of separation from the husband in New York. The judgment required the husband to pay a certain yearly sum to the wife. The husband assigned 50 percent of his future salary, wages, and earnings to the wife. The agreement authorized the employer to make such payments to the wife.

After the husband moved from New York, the wife learned that he was employed by an employer in Massachusetts. She sent the proper notice and demanded payment under the agreement. The employer refused and the wife brought an action for enforcement. The court observed that Massachusetts did not prohibit assignment of the husband’s wages. Moreover, Massachusetts law was not controlling because New York had the most significant relationship with the assignment. Therefore, the court ruled in favor of the wife.

Therefore, the validity of an assignment is determined by looking to the law of the forum with the most significant relationship to the assignment itself. To determine the applicable law of assignments, the court must look to the law of the state which is most significantly related to the principal issue before it.

Assignment of Contractual Rights:

Generally, the law allows the assignment of a contractual right unless the substitution of rights would materially change the duty of the obligor, materially increase the burden or risk imposed on the obligor by the contract, materially impair the chance of obtaining return performance, or materially reduce the value of the performance to the obligor. Restat 2d of Contracts, § 317(2)(a). This presumes that the underlying agreement is silent on the right to assign.

If the contract specifically precludes assignment, the contractual right is not assignable. Whether a contract is assignable is a matter of contractual intent and one must look to the language used by the parties to discern that intent.

In the absence of an express provision to the contrary, the rights and duties under a bilateral executory contract that does not involve personal skill, trust, or confidence may be assigned without the consent of the other party. But note that an assignment is invalid if it would materially alter the other party’s duties and responsibilities. Once an assignment is effective, the assignee stands in the shoes of the assignor and assumes all of assignor’s rights. Hence, after a valid assignment, the assignor’s right to performance is extinguished, transferred to assignee, and the assignee possesses the same rights, benefits, and remedies assignor once possessed. Robert Lamb Hart Planners & Architects v. Evergreen, Ltd. , 787 F. Supp. 753 (S.D. Ohio 1992).

On the other hand, an assignee’s right against the obligor is subject to “all of the limitations of the assignor’s right, all defenses thereto, and all set-offs and counterclaims which would have been available against the assignor had there been no assignment, provided that these defenses and set-offs are based on facts existing at the time of the assignment.” See Robert Lamb , case, above.

The power of the contract to restrict assignment is broad. Usually, contractual provisions that restrict assignment of the contract without the consent of the obligor are valid and enforceable, even when there is statutory authorization for the assignment. The restriction of the power to assign is often ineffective unless the restriction is expressly and precisely stated. Anti-assignment clauses are effective only if they contain clear, unambiguous language of prohibition. Anti-assignment clauses protect only the obligor and do not affect the transaction between the assignee and assignor.

Usually, a prohibition against the assignment of a contract does not prevent an assignment of the right to receive payments due, unless circumstances indicate the contrary. Moreover, the contracting parties cannot, by a mere non-assignment provision, prevent the effectual alienation of the right to money which becomes due under the contract.

A contract provision prohibiting or restricting an assignment may be waived, or a party may so act as to be estopped from objecting to the assignment, such as by effectively ratifying the assignment. The power to void an assignment made in violation of an anti-assignment clause may be waived either before or after the assignment. See our article on Contracts.

Noncompete Clauses and Assignments:

Of critical import to most buyers of businesses is the ability to ensure that key employees of the business being purchased cannot start a competing company. Some states strictly limit such clauses, some do allow them. California does restrict noncompete clauses, only allowing them under certain circumstances. A common question in those states that do allow them is whether such rights can be assigned to a new party, such as the buyer of the buyer.

A covenant not to compete, also called a non-competitive clause, is a formal agreement prohibiting one party from performing similar work or business within a designated area for a specified amount of time. This type of clause is generally included in contracts between employer and employee and contracts between buyer and seller of a business.

Many workers sign a covenant not to compete as part of the paperwork required for employment. It may be a separate document similar to a non-disclosure agreement, or buried within a number of other clauses in a contract. A covenant not to compete is generally legal and enforceable, although there are some exceptions and restrictions.

Whenever a company recruits skilled employees, it invests a significant amount of time and training. For example, it often takes years before a research chemist or a design engineer develops a workable knowledge of a company’s product line, including trade secrets and highly sensitive information. Once an employee gains this knowledge and experience, however, all sorts of things can happen. The employee could work for the company until retirement, accept a better offer from a competing company or start up his or her own business.

A covenant not to compete may cover a number of potential issues between employers and former employees. Many companies spend years developing a local base of customers or clients. It is important that this customer base not fall into the hands of local competitors. When an employee signs a covenant not to compete, he or she usually agrees not to use insider knowledge of the company’s customer base to disadvantage the company. The covenant not to compete often defines a broad geographical area considered off-limits to former employees, possibly tens or hundreds of miles.

Another area of concern covered by a covenant not to compete is a potential ‘brain drain’. Some high-level former employees may seek to recruit others from the same company to create new competition. Retention of employees, especially those with unique skills or proprietary knowledge, is vital for most companies, so a covenant not to compete may spell out definite restrictions on the hiring or recruiting of employees.

A covenant not to compete may also define a specific amount of time before a former employee can seek employment in a similar field. Many companies offer a substantial severance package to make sure former employees are financially solvent until the terms of the covenant not to compete have been met.

Because the use of a covenant not to compete can be controversial, a handful of states, including California, have largely banned this type of contractual language. The legal enforcement of these agreements falls on individual states, and many have sided with the employee during arbitration or litigation. A covenant not to compete must be reasonable and specific, with defined time periods and coverage areas. If the agreement gives the company too much power over former employees or is ambiguous, state courts may declare it to be overbroad and therefore unenforceable. In such case, the employee would be free to pursue any employment opportunity, including working for a direct competitor or starting up a new company of his or her own.

It has been held that an employee’s covenant not to compete is assignable where one business is transferred to another, that a merger does not constitute an assignment of a covenant not to compete, and that a covenant not to compete is enforceable by a successor to the employer where the assignment does not create an added burden of employment or other disadvantage to the employee. However, in some states such as Hawaii, it has also been held that a covenant not to compete is not assignable and under various statutes for various reasons that such covenants are not enforceable against an employee by a successor to the employer. Hawaii v. Gannett Pac. Corp. , 99 F. Supp. 2d 1241 (D. Haw. 1999)

It is vital to obtain the relevant law of the applicable state before drafting or attempting to enforce assignment rights in this particular area.

Conclusion:

In the current business world of fast changing structures, agreements, employees and projects, the ability to assign rights and obligations is essential to allow flexibility and adjustment to new situations. Conversely, the ability to hold a contracting party into the deal may be essential for the future of a party. Thus, the law of assignments and the restriction on same is a critical aspect of every agreement and every structure. This basic provision is often glanced at by the contracting parties, or scribbled into the deal at the last minute but can easily become the most vital part of the transaction.

As an example, one client of ours came into the office outraged that his co venturer on a sizable exporting agreement, who had excellent connections in Brazil, had elected to pursue another venture instead and assigned the agreement to a party unknown to our client and without the business contacts our client considered vital. When we examined the handwritten agreement our client had drafted in a restaurant in Sao Paolo, we discovered there was no restriction on assignment whatsoever…our client had not even considered that right when drafting the agreement after a full day of work.

One choses who one does business with carefully…to ensure that one’s choice remains the party on the other side of the contract, one must master the ability to negotiate proper assignment provisions.

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What is an Assignment Clause?

Jennifer Tsai • January 12, 2023 • 8 minute read

Anti-assignment clauses are common because without them, generally, contracts are freely assignable. (The exceptions are (i) contracts that are subject to statutes or public policies prohibiting their assignment, such as intellectual property contracts, or (ii) contracts where an assignment without consent would cause material and adverse consequences to non-assigning counterparties, such as employment agreements and consulting agreements.) For all other contracts, parties may want an anti-assignment clause that allows them the opportunity to review and understand the impact of an assignment (or change of control) before deciding whether to continue or terminate the relationship.

In the mergers and acquisitions context, an assignment of a contract from a target company entity to the relevant acquirer entity is needed whenever a contract has to be placed in the name of an entity other than the existing target company entity after consummation of a transaction. This is why reviewing contracts for assignment clauses is so critical.

Why Do Assignment Clauses Matter?

How do you review assignment clauses in contracts.

After locating all the assignment language in each agreement, the following variables should be noted as part of the review: (1) Scope of assignment provision, (2) Consequences of failure to obtain consent, (3) Standard for refusing consent, and (4) Differences among counterparties in rights to assign.

1. Scope. Assignment provisions may provide exclusions or inclusions to a counterparty’s right to approve an assignment of a contract. See the examples in the following section below.

2. Consequences of Failure to Obtain Consent. Assignment provisions may specify that, if one party attempts to assign the agreement without the required consent of the counterparty:

  • The purported assignment is null and void; and/or
  • The applicable contract is void and terminated.

Contracts should be carefully reviewed to determine which of the foregoing scenarios may apply.

3. Standard for Refusing Consent. Assignment provisions frequently include limitations stating that any counterparty’s consent that is required shall not be “unreasonably withheld,” although the reasonableness standard is rarely defined more specifically in the contract.

In an M&A context, the effect of this language is that it provides a target company with some opportunity to challenge a counterparty that withholds its consent to an assignment. Winning this challenge is far from guaranteed, and this opportunity generally comes at a cost of time and expense since it usually involves a legal challenge to the counterparty’s refusal to grant a consent. Consequently, a target company is incentivized to undertake this challenge only when the applicable contract is material to its post-acquisition business or to the consummation of its proposed transaction. Still, undertaking such a challenge may buy the target company time and provide it with some negotiating leverage in seeking a reversal of a counterparty’s refusal to consent to an assignment.

Determining whether consent has been unreasonably withheld is specific to the facts and circumstances underlying each request for consent. For example, in Athar v. Hudson Serv. Mgmt., Inc., 853 N.Y.S.2d 170 (N.Y. App. Div. 2008), a New York appellate court held that this standard requires the non-consenting party to show some reasonable and objective basis for withholding consent. The withholding of consent cannot be arbitrary or based on unique and personal preferences of the non-consenting party. Generally, the burden of proof to show an unreasonable withholding of consent is on the party requesting consent. Also, the party requesting consent is responsible for providing all information required or necessary to determine whether consent should be granted.

4. Differences Among Counterparties in Rights to Assign. It is important to note any differences in assignment rights between and among contracting parties and the consequences of those differences, as parties with greater negotiating power often have broader assignment rights. These differences can become important if there is a lag of time between signing and closing an M&A transaction. If a target company is required to obtain consent in order to assign an agreement, but the counterparty has rights to freely assign, care should be taken to ensure that any consent granted to a target company to assign a contract does not become subject to review or alteration by any parties to whom the counterparty may freely assign its rights after it has granted its consent to assignment. This is particularly relevant to consents that may lapse or lose their effectiveness if transactions do not close within a certain period of time. For example, if (i) a landlord or licensor subsequently transfers the contract after granting its initial consent, and (ii) such consent lapses pursuant to its terms, the target company might have to re-submit consent requests to completely different parties.

Software that uses AI to identify and extract Assignment clauses can accelerate the work of finding these clauses, and enables a more comprehensive review than can otherwise be done manually.

Examples of Common Exclusions and Inclusions in Assignment Clauses

A simple anti-assignment provision provides that a party may not assign the agreement without the consent of the other party. Assignment provisions may also provide specific exclusions or inclusions to a counterparty’s right to consent to the assignment of a contract. Below are five common occurrences in which assignment provisions may provide exclusions or inclusions.

Exclusion for Change of Control Transactions

In negotiating an anti-assignment clause, a company would typically seek the exclusion of assignments undertaken in connection with change of control transactions, including mergers and sales of all or substantially all of the assets of the company. This allows a company to undertake a strategic transaction without worry. If an anti-assignment clause doesn’t exclude change of control transactions, a counterparty might materially affect a strategic transaction through delay and/or refusal of consent. Because there are many types of change of control transactions, there is no standard language for these. An example might be:

In the event of the sale or transfer by [Party B] of all or substantially all of its assets related to this Agreement to an Affiliate or to a third party, whether by sale, merger, or change of control, [Party B] would have the right to assign any or all rights and obligations contained herein and the Agreement to such Affiliate or third party without the consent of [Party A] and the Agreement shall be binding upon such acquirer and would remain in full force and effect, at least until the expiration of the then current Term.

Exclusion for Affiliate Transactions

A typical exclusion is one that allows a target company to assign a contract to an affiliate without needing the consent of the contract counterparty. This is much like an exclusion with respect to change of control, since in affiliate transfers or assignments, the ultimate actors and responsible parties under the contract remain essentially the same even though the nominal parties may change. For example:

Either party may assign its rights under this Agreement, including its right to receive payments hereunder, to a subsidiary, affiliate or any financial institution, but in such case the assigning party shall remain liable to the other party for the assigning party’s obligations hereunder. All or any portion of the rights and obligations of [Party A] under this Agreement may be transferred by [Party A] to any of its Affiliates without the consent of [Party B].

Assignment by Operation of Law

Assignments by operation of law typically occur in the context of transfers of rights and obligations in accordance with merger statutes and can be specifically included in or excluded from assignment provisions. An inclusion could be negotiated by the parties to broaden the anti-assignment clause and to ensure that an assignment occurring by operation of law requires counterparty approval:

[Party A] agrees that it will not assign, sublet or otherwise transfer its rights hereunder, either voluntarily or by operations of law, without the prior written consent of [Party B].

while an exclusion could be negotiated by a target company to make it clear that it has the right to assign the contract even though it might otherwise have that right as a matter of law:

This Guaranty shall be binding upon the successors and assigns of [Party A]; provided, that no transfer, assignment or delegation by [Party A], other than a transfer, assignment or delegation by operation of law, without the consent of [Party B], shall release [Party A] from its liabilities hereunder.

This helps settle any ambiguity regarding assignments and their effects under mergers statutes (particularly in forward triangular mergers and forward mergers since the target company ceases to exist upon consummation of the merger).

Direct or Indirect Assignment

More ambiguity can arise regarding which actions or transactions require a counterparty’s consent when assignment clauses prohibit both direct and indirect assignments without the consent of a counterparty. Transaction parties will typically choose to err on the side of over-inclusiveness in determining which contracts will require consent when dealing with material contracts. An example clause prohibiting direct or indirect assignment might be:

Except as provided hereunder or under the Merger Agreement, such Shareholder shall not, directly or indirectly, (i) transfer (which term shall include any sale, assignment, gift, pledge, hypothecation or other disposition), or consent to or permit any such transfer of, any or all of its Subject Shares, or any interest therein.

“Transfer” of Agreement vs. “Assignment” of Agreement

In some instances, assignment provisions prohibit “transfers” of agreements in addition to, or instead of, explicitly prohibiting “assignments”. Often, the word “transfer” is not defined in the agreement, in which case the governing law of the contract will determine the meaning of the term and whether prohibition on transfers are meant to prohibit a broader or narrower range of transactions than prohibitions on assignments. Note that the current jurisprudence on the meaning of an assignment is broader and deeper than it is on the meaning of a transfer. In the rarer case where “transfer” is defined, it might look like this:

As used in this Agreement, the term “transfer” includes the Franchisee’s voluntary, involuntary, direct or indirect assignment, sale, gift or other disposition of any interest in …

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Delaware Court holds anti-assignment clause prevents enforcement of contract after merger

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On September 16, 2020, the Superior Court of Delaware issued an order with potential implications for companies contemplating acquisitions of businesses or assets.  In MTA Can. Royalty Corp. v. Compania Minera Pangea , S.A. De C.V. , No. N19C-11-228 AML CCLD, 2020 Del. Super. LEXIS 2780 (Sept. 16, 2020), Judge Abigail M. LeGrow held that, following a merger,[1] the surviving company lacked standing to enforce a contract entered into by its predecessor (the non-surviving company in the merger) because the contract’s anti-assignment clause prohibited assignment “by operation of law”. 

Companies considering acquisitions should carefully review their target’s contracts for anti-assignment clauses that prohibit assignment “by operation of law”, which Delaware courts interpret to include certain mergers.  In addition, where a target’s key contracts contain anti-assignment clauses with such language, companies should carefully consider the preferred transaction structure.  In a reverse triangular merger, the acquirer’s newly formed subsidiary is merged into the target, with the result being that the target survives and becomes the acquirer’s subsidiary.  By contrast, in a forward triangular merger, the target does not “survive” and its rights are transferred to the existing subsidiary, which may implicate anti-assignment clauses.  Reverse triangular mergers do not face the same issue because the target continues its corporate existence as a subsidiary of the acquirer.

Background of the contract and subsequent merger

In 2016, Compania Minera Pangea, S.A. de C.V. (“CMP”) purchased mineral rights in the El Gallo Mine from 1570926 Alberta Ltd. (“Alberta”).  In exchange, CMP paid Alberta $5.25m in cash at closing and agreed to pay Alberta an additional $1m in 2018 subject to certain conditions.  Of note, the agreement contained the following anti-assignment clause (the “Anti-Assignment Clause”):

Neither this Agreement nor any of the rights, interests or obligations under this Agreement may be assigned or delegated, in whole or in part, by operation of law or otherwise, by [Alberta] without the prior written consent of each other party, and any such assignment without such prior written consent shall be null and void. . . . [T]his Agreement will be binding upon, inure to the benefit of, and be enforceable by, the parties and their respective successors and assigns.

In July 2017, Alberta merged with Global Royalty Corp. (“Global”), a subsidiary of Metalla Royalty & Streaming Ltd., and Global was the surviving entity.  Following that transaction, Global changed its name to MTA Canada Royalty Corp. (“MTA”).  In November 2019, MTA brought a breach of contract claim against CMP based on CMP’s alleged failure to pay the $1m in consideration due in 2018.

Superior Court holds that anti-assignment clause extends to certain mergers

CMP argued that MTA lacked standing to enforce Alberta’s contract with CMP because, per the Anti-Assignment Clause, Alberta was required to obtain CMP’s written consent before assigning its rights to MTA.  MTA argued that the Anti-Assignment Clause was meant to prevent third-party assignments, not “successor assignments” like Alberta’s merger.   Id. at *11-12.  To make this argument, it relied on a 1993 Chancery decision, in which then-Vice Chancellor Jacobs had held that, subject to certain conditions, anti-assignment clauses do not apply to mergers unless mergers are explicitly prohibited.   Star Cellular Tel. Co. v. Baton Rouge CGSA ., 1993 Del. Ch. LEXIS 158, at *25 (July 30, 1993).  According to MTA, because the last sentence of the Anti-Assignment Clause referred to “successors”, it was clearly not intended to extend to mergers.

The Superior Court disagreed.  It explained that, as a result of the merger, Alberta had ceased to exist, so MTA could only enforce the contract if it showed that the Anti-Assignment Clause did not apply.   MTA , at *6.  It then held that the Anti-Assignment Clause clearly barred Alberta’s transfer of rights through a merger because the clause prevented assignment “by operation of law”, which Delaware case law had interpreted as referring to forward triangular mergers.   Id.  at *7-14.  In light of what it regarded as a straightforward application of the Anti-Assignment Clause, the Superior Court did not engage in the  Star Cellular analysis.  The Superior Court found that the reference to “successors” in the Anti-Assignment Clause meant only that “valid successors” had the right to enforce the contract.   Id. at *13.

Potentially at odds with Chancery precedent?

Of special relevance is the Superior Court’s treatment of existing Delaware case law on anti-assignment clauses and forward triangular mergers.  Existing precedent from the Court of Chancery held that anti-assignment clauses containing both a prohibition on assignment “by operation of law” and a reference to “successors” were ambiguous.  Under the Star Cellular test, this ambiguity was construed against the application of the anti-assignment clause. 

Specifically, MTA  appears at odds with the Chancery ruling in Tenneco Auto. Inc. v. El Paso Corp. , which also involved the impact of an anti-assignment clause following a forward triangular merger.  C.A. No. 18810-NC, 2002 Del. Ch. LEXIS 26 (Mar. 20, 2002).  The language of the anti-assignment clause in Tenneco  was similar to that in MTA :  both clauses prohibited assignment “by operation of law” while also referencing “successors”.  In Tenneco , Vice Chancellor Noble found that those conflicting references made the anti-assignment clause ambiguous, meaning that, under the Star Cellular test, the successor company could enforce the contract.   Id. at *7-10.  The MTA Court did not explain why it reached the opposite result.

Similarly, in ClubCorp, Inc. v. Pinehurst, LLC , Vice Chancellor Parsons held that, following a forward triangular merger, an anti-assignment clause with language like that in Tenneco was ambiguous because the agreement both referenced “successors” and prohibited assignment “by operation of law”.  No. 5120-VCP, 2011 Del. Ch. LEXIS 176, at *26-29 (Nov. 15, 2011).  Again, the ambiguity militated in favor of finding that the anti-assignment clauses did not apply to the merger.   MTA did not address Pinehurst.

Insights from MTA

MTA has several significant implications for practitioners.  The first is a reminder to carefully review a target’s contracts for anti-assignment clauses.  Such clauses in important contracts should be flagged and thoughtfully evaluated. 

In addition, practitioners should remain aware that Delaware courts interpret the phrase “by operation of law” in assignment clauses to refer to mergers in which the target company does not survive.  The presence of this language in anti-assignment clauses in a target’s important contracts (if those contracts are governed by Delaware law) should prompt a discussion about the appropriate transaction structure.  For example, in MTA , the Court suggested that MTA would have had standing to enforce the contract with CMP if it had been merged through a reverse triangular merger rather than a forward triangular merger.  The Superior Court cited a 2013 Chancery decision, Meso Scale Diagnostics, LLC v. Roche Diagnostics GmbH , in which Vice Chancellor Parsons found that “a reverse triangular merger does not constitute an assignment by operation of law”.  62 A.3d 62, 83 (Del. Ch. 2013). 

If dealing with similar language in anti-assignment clauses in important agreements, practitioners should consider alternative transaction structures that would allow the target to retain its corporate existence.  According to MTA , such alternatives should allow successor companies to enforce agreements without running afoul of anti-assignment clauses prohibiting “assignment by operation of law”.[2]

[1] The transaction was an amalgamation under Canadian law, which the parties and the Court agreed was the equivalent of a merger under Delaware law.  The transaction structure was equivalent to a forward triangular merger. 

[2] This may not be true in other jurisdictions.  For example, under California law, a reverse triangular merger has been found to be a transfer of rights by operation of law .  See SQL Sols. v. Oracle Corp. , 1991 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21097, at *8-12 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 18, 1991). 

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Courts Consider Anti-Assignment Clauses And Reverse Triangular Mergers

In a reverse triangular merger, the acquiring company forms a subsidiary that merges with and into the target with the outstanding shares of the target being converted into securities of the acquiring corporation or some other consideration.  Does a reverse triangular merger constitute an assignment of a target corporation's contracts?  Because the reverse triangular merger is an exceedingly common acquisition technique, one would expect that this question was answered long ago.  Surprisingly, however, this isn't the case.

Earlier this year, Vice Chancellor Donald F. Parsons  analyzed whether a reverse triangular merger violated an anti-assignment clause that read as follows: "Neither this Agreement nor any of the rights, interests or obligations under this Agreement shall be assigned, in whole or in part, by operation of law or otherwise by any of the parties without the prior written consent of the other parties . . .".  He concluded:

In sum, Meso could have negotiated for a "change of control provision."  They did  not.  Instead, they negotiated for a term that prohibits "assignments by  operation of law or otherwise." Roche has provided a reasonable interpretation of Section 5.08 that is consistent with the general understanding that a reverse triangular merger is not an assignment by operation of law. On the other hand, I  find Meso's arguments as to why language that prohibits "assignments by  operation of law or otherwise" should be construed to encompass reverse  triangular mergers unpersuasive and its related construction of Section 5.08 to  be unreasonable.

Meso Scale Diagnostics, LLC v. Roche Diagnostics GmbH , 62 A.3d 62, 88 (Del. Ch. 2013).  See I’ve Been Thinking About Conversion, But I Haven’t Decided To Convert .

Here in California, U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti recently addressed the issue even more recently as follows:

No California state court has resolved this matter, and the Court is not inclined to guess at possible conclusions.  The Court therefore begins from the presumption that a reverse triangular merger, which leaves intact the acquired corporation, does not effect a transfer of rights from the wholly owned subsidiary to its acquirer as a matter of law. What little applicable law there is could be analogized from California cases on stock sales, like Farmland Irrigation Co. v. Dopplmaier , 48 Cal. 2d 208, 223, 308 P.2d 732 (Cal. 1957), which suggested that if a plaintiff had sold all of his stock in a corporation, there could be no contention that the corporation's licenses would be extinguished as a matter of law, since the two contracting parties were still extant and in privity.

Florey Inst. of Neuroscience & Mental Health v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 138904 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 26, 2013).

Both jurists confronted, and declined to follow, Judge Marilyn Hall Patel's earlier decision in SQL Solutions v. Oracle Corp. , 1991 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21097 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 18, 1991) with Vice Chancellor Parsons saying: "I decline to adopt the approach outlined in SQL Solutions , however, because doing so would conflict with Delaware's jurisprudence surrounding stock acquisitions, among other things.  Under Delaware law, stock purchase transactions, by themselves, do not result in an assignment by operation of law."  Judge Conti said "Plaintiff relies solely on SQL Solutions to argue that assignment occurred as a matter of law when an acquired corporation became another corporation's wholly owned subsidiary.  That case did not analyze nonassignment clauses and also found that federal copyright law forbid transfer."

Hollywood, Somali Pirates and Homer

Over the weekend, I saw the recently released film,  Captain Phillips .  The movie tells the story of the takeover of the MV Maersk by Somali pirates.  When the Navy uses a Somali speaker to communicate with the pirates, one of the pirates asks "Who's this?".  The translator answers "nemo", the Latin word for "no one".  The interchange, of course, is an echo of the famous encounter of Odysseus and the Cyclops, Polyphemus in Homer's Odyssey :

Κύκλωψ, εἰρωτᾷς μ᾽ ὄνομα κλυτόν, αὐτὰρ ἐγώ τοι ἐξερέω: σὺ δέ μοι δὸς ξείνιον, ὥς περ ὑπέστης. Οὖτις ἐμοί γ᾽ ὄνομα: Οὖτιν δέ με κικλήσκουσι μήτηρ ἠδὲ πατὴρ ἠδ᾽ ἄλλοι πάντες ἑταῖροι. Cyclops, you are asking my renowned name, nevertheless I will declare: "Give to me the hospitality, you were promising.  My name is no one: no one is what my mother, father and all my comrades call me."

Homer,  Odyssey Book 9, lines 364 -367 (my translation). Matters went downhill from there for both Polyphemus and the pirates.

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Introduction

With the increasing trend of globalization in the business world, Israeli companies and investors are commonly entering into agreements with U.S.-based entities. One of the most frequently found clauses in U.S. commercial agreements is an anti-assignment provision that prevents either or both of the parties from assigning the agreement to a third party prior to receiving the consent of the non-assigning party. Many transactions will also require the due diligence review of a large number of U.S. commercial agreements that the target has entered into. The following post will provide an overview and general guidance on the proper analysis of anti-assignment clauses.

Silent Provision and Change of Control Provision

In the event that an agreement does not contain an anti-assignment provision, a contract is generally assignable without the consent of the non-assigning party. See Peterson v. District of Columbia Lottery and Charitable Games Control Board , 673 A.2d 664 (D.C. 1996) (“The right to assign is presumed, based upon principles of unhampered transferability of property rights and of business convenience.”) Exceptions include where the assignment affects the duties of the other party to the contract, where the contract is considered to be a personal contract and when the assignment violates public policy (i.e. tort liability).

On the other hand, many contracts contain provisions that not only prevent the assignment of the contract, but also state that a change of control of the target is deemed an assignment or the contract contains a separate clause requiring consent in the event of a change of control. This type of provision will often be triggered in transactions in which a buyer is acquiring the target company. A careful review of change of control clauses is thus especially imperative and often very fact specific to the deal at hand.

Deal Structures

One of the commonly used anti-assignment provisions reads as follows: “No party may assign any of its rights under this Agreement, by operation of law or otherwise, to a third party without the prior written consent of the non-assigning party.” In the situation where the target has entered into agreements that contain this clause, whether or not an assignment is considered to have taken place in the event of the acquisition of the target will largely depend on the specific deal structure of the transaction.

The commonly used deal structures are an asset acquisition, a stock acquisition and a merger.

Asset Acquisition : In an asset acquisition the buyer only acquires those assets and liabilities of a target that are specifically listed in the Asset Purchase Agreement. Any agreement that has an anti-assignment clause will be triggered in the event of an asset acquisition. Indeed, one of the disadvantages of structuring a corporate acquisition as an asset acquisition is that contracts that will be transferred must be assigned

Stock Acquisition : In a stock acquisition, a buyer acquires a target’s stock directly from the selling shareholders. After the closing of the Stock Purchase Agreement, the target will continue as it existed prior to the acquisition with respect to its ownership of asset and liabilities. Thus, in essence, the anti-assignment clause was never triggered in the first place. See Baxter Pharm. v. ESI Lederle , 1999 WL 160148 (Del. Ch. 1999).

Mergers : Mergers differ from both asset acquisitions and stock acquisitions in that a merger is considered a creature of law, and the specific type of merger that is used will have a direct impact on whether the anti-assignment clause is triggered

A direct merger occurs when the target merges with and into the buyer, and the buyer continues as the surviving entity. In a similar fashion to an asset acquisition, this type of merger will trigger the anti-assignment clause

A forward triangular merger occurs when the target merges with and into the buyer’s merger subsidiary, with the merger subsidiary surviving the merger. This type of merger will trigger the anti-assignment clause. See Tenneco Automotive Inc. v. El Paso Corporation , 2002 WL 45930 (Del. Ch. 2002) and Star Cellular Telephone Company, Inc. v. Baton Rouge CGSA, Inc., 19 Del.  J.  Corp. L. 875 (Del. Ch. 1993).

A reverse triangular merger occurs when the buyer’s subsidiary merges with and into the target, with the target surviving as a wholly owned subsidiary of the buyer. In effect, the target continues to exist after the closing. The Delaware Chancery Court in Meso Scale Diagnostics, LLC v. Roche Diagnostics GmbH, 2013 WL 655021 (Del. Ch. Feb. 22, 2013) held that the acquisition of a target in a reverse triangular merger did not violate an existing agreement of the target that prohibited assignments by operation of law. The court noted that generally, mergers do not result in an assignment by operation of law of assets that began as property of the surviving entity and continued to be such after the merger. Thus there is a significant difference between a reverse triangular merger and both a direct merger and forward triangular merger, as in those cases the target was not the surviving company of the merger. Note, however, that the matter is not uniformly resolved. In SQL Solutions, Inc. v. Oracle Corp. (N.D. Cal. 1991), a United States District Court in the Northern District of California applied California law and federal IP principles to hold that a reverse triangular merger constitutes an assignment by operation of law.

Additional Considerations

Damages and Termination : Some courts have held that a contractual provision prohibiting assignment operates only to limit the parties’ right to assign the contract (for which the remedy would be damages for breach of a covenant not to assign) but the provision does not limit the power to actually assign the contract (which would invalidate the assignment), unless the contract explicitly states that a non-conforming assignment shall be “void” or “invalid.” See, e.g., Bel-Ray Co v. Chemrite (Pty.) Ltd ., 181 F. 3d 435 (3d Cir. 1999).  It is also imperative to review the termination section of an agreement, as certain agreements contain a provision by which the non-assigning party has the right to terminate the agreement in the event of an assignment.

As described above, any review of U.S. commercial agreements is highly dependent on the structure of the deal and at times, the specific jurisdiction governing the agreement. With offices across the United States, and specifically in Delaware, New York, and California, all states with highly sophisticated and oft-invoked commercial laws, Greenberg Traurig is uniquely situated in a position to offer high value legal services to Israeli clients.

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