The Curious Case of Jefferies LLC v. Banro Corp.

In many respects the restructuring industry benefits from an information dislocation. Management teams thrust into stressed or distressed territory are dealing with different subgroups of investment banks and law firms than they're accustomed to. The professionals are different, the terminology is different, and the terms of engagement are different. On the flip side, sometimes the terms SHOULD be different, but aren't.

A fee tail is a great example of that. We've seen a variety of investment banker engagement letters that include a one year tail. Boiled down to its simplest form, this generally means that an investment banker is entitled to its fee (or a pre-negotiated portion thereof) if the company consummates a "transaction," as defined, within 12-months of the bankers engagement - regardless of whether THAT banker got the transaction to the finish line.

In the compressed timeline of a distressed issuer, a year is like a decade. Given that, we would argue, as a general matter, that a 12-month tail is absurd in the restructuring context. There are so many externalities that could come into play during that time that might require a change of strategy. A 6-month tail strikes us as far more reasonable. After all, we've heard of instances where a company considered filing for bankruptcy merely to be in position to reject a retention agreement and avoid the potential duplicative and monstrous fee. That's ridiculous. 

Now you're probably expecting us to shred some banker for a specific (ridiculous) provision. We hate to disappoint. Notwithstanding the above, we're actually of the view that tails serve a critical function. Why should an investment banker roll up sleeves and go to bat for a client if the client can cut ties at any moment and transfer all of that work over to an execution banker for a fraction of the cost? 

Jefferies LLC is asking precisely that question. In Jefferies LLC vBanro Corp. (1:17-cv-05490), Jefferies is asking the New York Southern District Court to enforce the terms of its engagement letter with the once-bankrupt gold-miner, Banro Corp.(and, in turn, Banro is attempting to transfer the litigation to federal court.). Jefferies alleges that it is contractually owed approximately $3.7mm in fees and expenses on account of a $175mm note exchange that is, according to Jefferies, expressly contemplated in its retention. The company purportedly terminated its relationship with Jefferies mere days before announcing that very transaction. Call us crazy but a tail of a few days strikes us as eminently reasonable. Professionals across the board ought to watch this case with great interest.