There is no doubt you are distracted by this coronavirus outbreak. Constant news alerts, supply shortages, government-mandated closures and cancellations make it all but impossible to also run your business. However, remember that your lawyers are available to assist you. For example, if you have questions about obligations to your employees, insurance coverage questions, contract responsibilities, or anything else related to your business, feel free to reach out. In the meantime, here are 5 legal tips to help your business through the crisis with minimal disruption:
- Review your existing contracts for a “force majeure” clause. Do you have a contract with a supplier, distributor, or vendor? Has the coronavirus outbreak affected performance under the contract – for example, are payments being delayed? Are shipments delayed? Has demand dropped to the level where you are having trouble paying normal operating expenses? The reality is that a lot contracts were negotiated in “good times” without the threat of external forces disrupting business operations. This means not all contracts provide for what happens in times of crisis, and if they do, they are often generic provisions that may not even be applicable to the current situation. Nevertheless, some contracts have standard terms — known as “force majeure” or “Act of God” clauses — that allow for contract termination, modification, or delay in performance under certain extraneous circumstances. Importantly, even if your contract does have such a clause, it often includes notice obligations to the other party – so if you suspect that contract performance may be disrupted (either on your end or on the part of the other party), contact a business attorney for guidance on your rights and obligations.
- Review your existing lease and make sure you know your rights and responsibilities. Leases are another type of contract that may be affected by the pandemic. In general, commercial leases are drafted in such a way that a tenant’s obligation to pay rent is absolute and non-excusable. If you are a business owner having trouble making rent payments due to decreased demand, you need to carefully review your lease for any possible options, including early termination. Alternatively, you should be prepared to discuss lease modifications with your landlord. If you are on the landlord side, reach out to your tenants and discuss any potential issues directly. While eviction is still available as a remedy, consider that finding a replacement tenant may be more difficult at this time, and you may want to conserve resources instead of spending money to evict someone. And as always, reach out to an attorney if you have any questions about your rights and obligations under any lease.
- Purchasing or selling a business? Adjust your expectations or consider termination. Uncertainty is high, which means that many business deals that seemed profitable a few months ago may no longer be attractive to potential buyers. Whether you signed a letter of intent and are conducting due diligence, or you are at the purchase agreement drafting or even closing stage of the transaction, make sure you know your rights and responsibilities. Is there a specific time for performance and what happens if there is a delay? Is “time of the essence” to this transaction? Particularly, be aware of any penalties or liabilities that may be attached to termination of the pending transaction before closing. There may be a liquidated damages provision involved, or perhaps something more onerous, like an “actual damages” clause, including attorney fees. You should have an attorney representing you in any buy-sell transaction, and in the current situation, it is especially important to retain advice about your options.
- Know that courts are still functioning, although in a diminished or delayed capacity. One of the reasons that it is critical to know your rights and responsibilities under your various contracts, is that you want to avoid business litigation. But you may think, aren’t courts closed? So how can I protect my rights? Most courts are actually operating in a “diminished” capacity, with civil litigation taking a back seat to criminal matters. However, a lawsuit can still be filed. And, if there is a need for emergency relief like an injunction against a former employee actively stealing customers, it is still available. Understand that even if the justice system is operating in a limited capacity, it is still operating. Litigation is a possibility – and expect that even when this pandemic is over, there will still be litigation fallout over breaches of contract and other business matters that arose due to business disruptions in this difficult time.
- This is a perfect opportunity for “corporate catch-up.” Even if your business is currently slow or completely shut down, this time may be a great opportunity to talk to your lawyer about some business matters that you have been putting off. For example, have you trademarked your logo, slogan, or business name? Do you have a new business idea and need to incorporate a new business? Or, do you need to update your LLC’s papers to reflect the fact that you hired your niece as your new CFO? Are there old corporate entities out there (after an acquisition or merger) that continue to exposre you to personal liability? And ask yourself, is your business prepared for the 4 Ds — divorce, death, disability, and debt? Now may be the perfect time for “corporate catch-up.”