Financial Advisors & Investment Banking

Contract Interpretation Governs Success Fee Dispute

By: Nicolas Berg

St. John’s Law Student

American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review Staff

In certain instances, a professional, such as a financial advisor, may contract the right to receive a “success fee” from a debtor in bankruptcy.[1] The courts have established different tests for awarding a success fee.[2] In In re Valence Technology , the United States District Court in the Western District of Texas held that KPMG was entitled to a success fee from Valence Tech for closing a $50 million dollar debt-equity conversion, but it was not entitled to a similar fee for closing a $20 million capital loan.[3] After filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy, Valence Tech hired KPMG to assist with necessary financial restructuring advice.[4] Pursuant to their agreement, if KPMG’s work resulted in “any consideration” from Valence Tech’s primary financier, Berg & Berg, KPMG would be entitled to a “success fee” of 1.25% of the value of that consideration or no less than $500,000.[5] Valence Tech received two payments from Berg & Berg: (1) a $50 million debt-to-equity conversion and (2) a $20 million capital loan.[6] While KPMG contended that it was entitled to the 1.25% success fee for both payments, Valence Tech argued that it should not have to pay the success fee for either payment.[7] The bankruptcy court concluded that under the agreement KPMG was entitled to the success fee for the debt-to-equity conversion.[8] The court, however, denied KPMG’s request for the success fee for the capital loan.[9] Valence Tech appealed the bankruptcy court’s ruling to the district court maintaining that KPMG was not entitled to a success fee for either transaction while KPMG cross-appealed to argue for payment of the success fee in connection with the capital loan.[10] To settle the dispute, the district court analyzed the agreement to determine whether the capital loan should be included in the meaning of “any consideration.”[11] Noting the sophistication of the parties, the district court found the contract described two potential scenarios: (1) a “Private Placement” coming from any party other than Berg & Berg resulting in a 2.5% fee for KPMG, and (2) a “Private Placement” coming from Berg & Berg reducing KPMG’s fee to 1.25%.[12] The district court reasoned that either way the contract defined “Private Placement” as having “Private Placement Value,” which necessarily included equity linked financing.[13] Therefore, according to the district court, the $50 million debt-equity conversion qualified as a “Private Placement,” which entitled KPMG to the agreed upon 1.25% “success fee.”[14] The $20 million capital loan did not qualify because it was not linked to any equity.[15]