Epic court battle could decide fate of Elon Musk-Twitter saga

Most legal experts say Twitter has the upper hand, in part because Mr Elon Musk attached few strings to his agreement. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Now that billionaire Elon Musk has signaled his intent to walk away from his US$44 billion (S$61.5 billion) offer to buy Twitter, the fate of the influential social media network will be determined by what may be an epic court battle, involving months of expensive litigation and high stakes negotiations by elite lawyers on both sides.

The question is whether Mr Musk will be legally compelled to stick with his agreed-upon acquisition or be allowed to back out, possibly by paying a 10-figure penalty.

Most legal experts say Twitter has the upper hand, in part because Mr Musk attached few strings to his agreement to buy the company, and the company is determined to force the deal through.

But Mr Musk revels in impulsiveness and brinkmanship and is backed by a fleet of top bankers and lawyers. Rather than engaging in a protracted public brawl with the world's richest man and his legions of die-hard followers, Twitter might come under pressure to find a swift and relatively peaceful resolution - one that could preserve the company's independence but leave it in a tenuous financial position.

Mr Mike Ringler, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, who is representing Mr Musk, informed Twitter late on Friday that his client was abandoning the takeover. Mr Ringler argued in his letter that Twitter had violated the agreement with Mr Musk by not providing him with detailed information about how it measures inauthentic accounts. He also said that Mr Musk did not believe the metrics that Twitter has publicly disclosed about how many of its users were fake.

Twitter's board responded by saying it intended to consummate the acquisition and would sue Mr Musk in a Delaware chancery court to force him to do so.

At the heart of the dispute are the terms of the merger agreement that Mr Musk reached with Twitter in April. His contract with Twitter allows him to break off his deal by paying a US$1 billion fee, but only under specific circumstances such as losing debt financing. The agreement also requires Twitter to provide data that Mr Musk may require to complete the transaction.

Mr Musk's cold feet about the Twitter deal coincided with a huge slide in the valuation of technology companies, including Tesla, the electric vehicle company he runs, which is also his main source of wealth.

Twitter maintains that its spam figures are accurate, but has refused to publicly detail how it detects and counts spam accounts because it uses private information, like users' phone numbers and other digital clues about their identities, to determine whether an account is inauthentic. A Twitter spokesman declined to comment on when Twitter planned to sue to enforce the merger agreement.

"The outcomes are: The court says Mr Musk can walk away," said Stanford University accounting and corporate governance professor David Larcker. "Another outcome is that he is forced to go through with the deal, and the court can enforce this. Or there might be some middle ground where there's a price renegotiation."

For Twitter, completing a sale to Mr Musk is vital. It struck its deal with Mr Musk as technology companies were enjoying optimistic valuations; some, like Snap and Meta, have now plummeted as they face advertising pressure, global economic upheaval and rising inflation. Twitter's stock has fallen about 30 per cent since the deal was announced and trades well under Mr Musk's offering price of US$54.20 a share.

Legal experts said Mr Musk's dispute over spam could be a ploy to force Twitter back to the bargaining table in hopes of securing a lower price.

During the deal making, no other potential buyer emerged as a white knight alternative to Mr Musk, making his offer the best that Twitter is likely to get.

Twitter's trump card is a "specific performance clause" that gives the company the right to sue Mr Musk and force him to complete or pay for the deal, so long as the debt financing he has corralled remains intact. Forced acquisitions have happened before: In 2001, Tyson Foods tried to back out of an acquisition of meatpacker IBP, pointing to IBP's financial troubles and accounting irregularities. A Delaware court vice-chancellor ruled that Tyson had to complete the acquisition.

But legal authority is different from practical reality. A lawsuit will probably cost millions in legal fees, take months to resolve and add further uncertainty to already jittery employees.

Deal disagreements have often ended in settlements or renegotiations on price. In 2020, luxury giant LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton attempted to break up its US$16 billion deal to acquire Tiffany & Co., ultimately securing a discount of about US$420 million.

"This stuff is a bargaining move in an economic transaction," said Mr Charles Elson, a recently retired professor of corporate governance at the University of Delaware. "It's all about money."

Mr Elon Musk's cold feet about the Twitter deal coincided with a huge slide in the valuation of technology companies. PHOTO: NYTIMES

A lower price would benefit Mr Musk and his financial backers, especially as Twitter faces financial headwinds. But Twitter has made clear that it wants to force Mr Musk to stick to his US$44 billion offer.

The most damaging outcome for Twitter would be for the deal to collapse. Mr Musk would need to show that Twitter materially and intentionally breached the terms of its contract, a high bar that acquirers have rarely met. Mr Musk has said that Twitter is withholding information necessary for him to close the deal. He has also argued that Twitter misreported its spam figures, and the misleading statistics concealed a serious problem with Twitter's business.

If Twitter renegotiates its acquisition price or accepts a break-up, it will probably face more legal problems. Shareholders would sue over either scenario, adding to several shareholder lawsuits Twitter is already facing over the acquisition.

A break-up could also bring added legal scrutiny to Mr Musk. The United States Securities and Exchange Commission revealed in May that it was examining Mr Musk's purchases of Twitter stock and whether he properly disclosed his stake and his intentions for the social media company.

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