The long answer is perhaps not best for a blog entry but some additional color here may be of use. Founders and executives often ask us what real consequences a company might face if it fails to comply with Section 409A.
Common Forms of Non-Compliance in Section 409A
Failing to nail Section 409A compliance can take many forms but we generally see it in two flavors: ineffective 409A valuation reports from third parties (work that fails to meet the standards set for in the AICPA Practice Guide or work performed by non-independent parties) and companies decided to not have the 409A valuation analysis performed at all.
The Real Impact on Employees: A Case Study of Wilson v. Safelite Group Inc.
But who suffers if the proverbial 409A ball is dropped? Interestingly, it is not necessarily the company nor the company’s board but the employees—the recipients of the nonqualifed deferred compensation covered by Section 409A (e.g., stock options)—that must face the pain. The recent case of Wilson v. Safelite Group Inc. shows who took it in the rear and how that person responded (in, I think, a very predictable fashion).
In an oversimplified nutshell, failing to comply with Section 409A happens when a company issues deferred compensation (of course what we are really talking about in the context of venture-backed startups is stock options, which are a form of “deferred compensation”) at less than fair market value.
Dan Wilson, Safelite Group, and a Cautionary Tale of 409A Missteps
So, back to Wilson v. Safelite Group. Dan Wilson was President and Chief Executive Officer of Safelite Group, Inc. Dan chose to defer compensation worth more than $9 million. The IRS audited Dan and took the position that some of Wilson’s deferrals under Section 409A were defective! Because of that, Dan owed taxes of $2,630,000, excise taxes of $1,470,000 (20% penalty), interest of $150,000 and any investment gains that had accrued. Ouch!
So Dan did what I think every former CEO would do, he sued Safelite for money damages! Of course, he did—his wallet was approximately $4,000,000 lighter without accounting for his own attorneys’ fees. Dan sought damages from his former employer on the basis of breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation. In his complaint, Wilson asserted that Safelite’s failure to comply with Section 409A constituted a breach of contract and that Safelite negligently misrepresented to him that they had taken care of Section 409A matters. Turns out, they muffed it!
The Legal Outcome and Lessons Learned From Failing on 409A Compliance
In the end, Dan lost his suit against his former employer. But the important as it relates to stock options is that complying with Section 409A is not difficult to do. Hire an independent valuation firm and make sure they reasonably apply and reasonable methodology!
The Importance of Independent and Compliant Valuations
Don’t let your company and employees suffer the consequences of non-compliance with Section 409A. Trust Eton Venture Services to ensure accurate, independent, and compliant valuations that protect your employees from undue financial burdens and potential legal disputes. Our team of experts is dedicated to providing meticulous and reliable valuations, while adhering to the highest industry standards as set forth in the AICPA Practice Guide.
Partner with Eton for 409A Compliance and Peace of Mind
Take action now to safeguard your company and employees from the risks associated with Section 409A non-compliance. Contact Eton today to learn more about how we can assist you in maintaining compliance and avoiding costly pitfalls. Let us be your trusted partner in navigating the complexities of Section 409A and ensuring the financial well-being of your business and its valued employees.
The decision at the appellate level can be found here: https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/ca6/18-3408/18-3408-2019-07-10.html