Monday, March 23, 2009

The AIG Bonus Payments Controversy: Issues of Contract Law

There has been a significant outrage since the controversy over bonus payments to some AIG employees began about a week ago. One of the justifications of the AIG management for pressing on with the payments is that the company is legally obligated to pay their employees failing which it could be liable to suits for breach of contract. Although the controversy has taken a different shape owing to the U.S. Government’s decision to impose a punitive tax on those bonuses, it has given rise to interesting discussions on contract law and bankruptcy law, particularly in the context of employment contracts.

In a New York Times op-ed piece, Lawrence Cunningham, Professor at George Washington University Law School, notes the several possibilities in defence of a denial of payment of such bonuses:

There are numerous issues both sides must contend with to evaluate whether A.I.G. was bound to or excused from its payment duties. First, the specific promises that employees made or conditions stated in their agreements must be examined. Determining what promises exist requires only reading the contracts; identifying conditions (which will likely offer more wiggle room in A.I.G.’s duty to pay) requires both reading the contracts and understanding any negotiations that preceded them.

Apart from specific contractual terms, there are other reasons A.I.G. might rescind these bonuses. They include the nondisclosure of important material information — for instance, if an employee failed to be absolutely candid about the size and risk of trading positions taken on the company’s behalf.

Findings of fraud on the part of an employee would certainly also excuse A.I.G.’s duty to pay. This isn’t to say that any A.I.G. employee engaged in such activity. But given the scale of problems that A.I.G. has confronted, and credible allegations of serious misconduct within the organization, it’s worth investigating.

There is also at least some chance, given A.I.G.’s functional insolvency and the government takeover, that these agreements may be rescinded either on the basis of impracticability or by virtue of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances. A credible fact supporting both excuses is precisely the company’s huge loss last quarter. Courts excuse contract duties when governmental action essentially destroys the original purpose of a contract — and the taxpayers’ 80 percent stake in A.I.G. is a more extreme sort of governmental action than usually appears in such cases.

A final potential legal basis for rescinding these payments is fraudulent conveyance law. This generally limits the right of a financially troubled company to transfer property to favored claimants on sweetheart terms when doing so would hurt the interests of other claimants, like lenders and shareholders — in this case, perhaps even taxpayers. Again, this is not to say that these payments violate this doctrine, but it is a relevant question for the government to probe.

Another debate in the New York Times discusses other issues that could potentially be invoked in a contractual dispute between AIG and its employees over the bonus payments: changed circumstances, frustration of purposes, unconscionable terms, and the like.

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