Williams Companies, Inc. v. Energy Transfer Equity, L.P.Annotate this Case
This appeal arose from a merger agreement under which two companies involved in the gas pipeline business, Energy Transfer Equity, L.P. (“ETE”), agreed to acquire the assets of The Williams Companies, Inc., (“Williams”). The Merger Agreement signed by Williams and ETE contemplated two steps: (1) Williams would merge into a new entity, Energy Transfer Corp LP (“ETC”); and (2) the transfer of Williams’ assets to ETE in exchange for Class E partnership units “would” be a tax-free exchange of a partnership interest for assets under Section 721(a) of the Internal Revenue Code. After the parties entered into the Agreement, the energy market suffered a severe decline which caused a significant loss in the value of assets of the type held by Williams and ETE. This caused the transaction to become financially undesirable to ETE. This issue ultimately led to ETE’s tax counsel, Latham & Watkins, LLP (Latham) being unwilling to issue the 721 opinion. Since the 721 opinion was a condition of the transaction, ETE indicated that it would not proceed with the merger. Williams then sought to enjoin ETE from terminating the Merger Agreement. The Court of Chancery rejected Williams’ arguments. After review, the Supreme Court found the Court of Chancery adopted an unduly narrow view of the obligations imposed by the covenants in the Agreement. The Supreme Court agreed with Williams that if a proper analysis of ETE’s covenants led to a conclusion that ETE breached those covenants, the burden would have shifted to ETE to prove that its breaches did not materially contribute to the failure of the closing condition. Since the facts as found by the Court of Chancery were that ETE’s lack of conduct did not contribute to Latham’s decision not to issue the 721 opinion, the Supreme Court was satisfied that when the burden of proving that ETE’s alleged breach of covenants is properly placed on it, ETE did meet its burden of proving that any alleged breach of covenant did not materially contribute to the failure of the Latham condition. The Court also agrees with the Court of Chancery’s finding that ETE was not estopped from terminating the Agreement. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Chancery was affirmed.