Private Equity Litigation

Economic headwinds and the interest rate environment that developed over the course of 2023 increased financial stress on portfolio companies and portend heightened litigation risk in 2024 for portfolio companies and their private fund sponsors. Specifically, interest rate increases that accelerated through 2022 continued in 2023, and compounded existing economic stressors including tight liquidity and inflation coming out of 2020 and 2021, as well as increased cost and other burdens related to ESG and regulatory compliance. These pressures put portfolio companies in often unsustainable financial positions, causing them to prematurely seek liquidity events, violate debt covenants with lenders, and resort to bankruptcy, all of which has led to an increase in disputes and litigation, which we expect to continue in 2024.

In a wave of SEC rulemaking this past year, representing a “new world order” event akin to Dodd-Frank, the SEC has provided itself with a fresh set of tools to increase regulatory and enforcement scrutiny on private funds. Among other things, certain of the rules could result in fundamental changes to market practices and greater disclosure to LPs. While ongoing litigation will determine the fates of the Private Fund Adviser Rules, the Short Sale Disclosure Rule, and the Securities Lending Rule, and while other rules are awaiting final adoption, the SEC concerns underlying the rulemaking will continue regardless.   

On November 4, 2022, compliance with amended Rule 206(4)-1 (the “Marketing Rule”) became mandatory for all investment advisers registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”).[1] Seven months since the compliance date, SEC-registered investment advisers continue to discover and adapt to challenges in applying the Marketing Rule. Newly formed advisers also face significant obstacles to marketing with a predecessor-firm track record. It has also impacted advisers’ interaction with placement agents and solicitors. And finally, the SEC has begun assessing advisers’ adherence to the rule through routine compliance examinations. All parties involved continue to adapt to the new environment.

Recent enforcement actions highlight the increased regulatory scrutiny that private funds may face with respect to internal cybersecurity protocols and responses to cyber-crimes and cyber incidents under new and updated cybersecurity laws. 

As IPOs and other traditional paths to liquidity for private assets have become more challenging, GP-led secondary transactions have emerged as a powerful and popular tool across closed-end private funds, leading to explosive growth over the last five years. And while macro factors influence their prevalence year over year, these transactions remain broadly popular across the various stakeholders in these transactions, facilitating different goals for different parties: 

  • Existing Investors (LPs):  Near-term liquidity in a liquidity-constrained market, typically with an option to continue participation if desired
  • New Investors (Buyers):  Access to a mature portfolio with unrealized upside
  • Fund Adviser (GP):  Extended duration to capture future upside of well-performing assets, additional capital to support existing portfolio, and reset economics aligning with longer-term outlook

On October 7th, 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced the rescheduled date of its 2020 national compliance outreach seminar for investment companies and investment advisers.  This program is intended to help Chief Compliance Officers and other senior personnel at investment companies and investment advisory firms enhance their compliance programs.  The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE), Division of Investment Management (IM), and the Asset Management Unit (AMU) of the Division of Enforcement jointly sponsor the compliance outreach program.  The national seminar will be held virtually on the afternoon of Thursday, November 19th, 2020 via a live webcast from the SEC’s Washington, D.C., headquarters from noon until 4:50 p.m. EST.

The SEC has been active in the private equity space recently after being relatively quiet for some time. A recent enforcement action serves as a reminder for fund sponsors that regulators are continuing to look at fund sponsors’ practices relating to “operating partners,” particularly in the context of disclosures to limited partners.

The impact of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has been rapidly evolving, causing disruption in global commerce across a wide range of industries. Private fund managers are not immune to the disruption. According to PitchBook’s latest analysis, private equity and venture ­­capital still have record amounts of dry powder ($2.4 trillion) to weather the storm and step in to provide liquidity to businesses. However, operations, fundraising, deal sourcing, and performance will likely be negatively affected, at least in the near-term, by the economic deterioration caused by COVID-19.

Under rule 206(4)-2 of the Advisers Act, otherwise known as the Custody Rule, it is a fraudulent practice for a registered investment adviser to have custody of client funds or securities, unless the adviser takes certain required steps to protect the assets.  Over the past year the SEC’s Enforcement division has been relatively active investigating and enforcing the rule – which, at most, requires a showing of negligence – with a number of complicated provisions that can trip up the uninformed.

Recently, the SEC brought enforcement actions that highlight two key areas under the Custody Rule that can result in liability. First, in addition to maintaining client funds and securities with a “qualified custodian,” advisers with custody of the funds and securities must obtain either (i) a “surprise examination” of those assets annually from an independent public accountant or (ii)  an annual audit of its financial statements by an independent public accounting firm that is registered with (and is subject to regular inspection by) the PCAOB and distribute the financial statements prepared in accordance with GAAP to each investor in the fund within 120 days of the fund’s fiscal year end (180 days for fund of funds).  Most registered private fund advisers rely on the annual audit approach.

Last Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that two co-investing Sun Capital private equity funds had not created an implied “partnership-in-fact” for purposes of determining whether the Sun Funds were under “common control” with their portfolio company, Scott Brass, Inc. (SBI) – resulting in a