Friday, April 10, 2020

Beware the Accidental Personal Guarantee

The SBA Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) is today’s rage among business owners fighting for survival in the Covid-19 environment. While the overall features and benefits of the program are excellent, a common misperception is making the rounds: business owners are not personally responsible for the SBA PPP debt.

As an advisor to financially challenged companies, I fully appreciate the popular appeal of this catch phrase. The danger, however, is that owners hear these words and fail to fully understand the broader context and the risks that could result in being on the hook to the federal government. While the legal documents are clear about “no personal guarantee,” they contain other provisions which could serve as a backdoor to personal liability.

Among possible triggers that could create an “accidental personal guarantee” and potential personal liability for the PPP debt:

Unauthorized Use of Funds: The guidelines published by the US Treasury include the statement, “If you knowingly use the funds for unauthorized purposes, you will be subject to additional liability, such as charges for fraud.” They continue: “If one of your shareholders, members, or partners uses PPP funds for unauthorized purposes, SBA will have recourse against the shareholder, member, or partner for the unauthorized use.” Unauthorized purposes are broadly characterized as any expenses other than what is permitted such as payroll, rent, utilities, and certain interest.

Business Determination of Necessity: The application for the PPP funds require the borrower to certify that “current economic uncertainty makes the loan request necessary to support the ongoing operation of the applicant” (italics added). While there is a big gray zone on whether the funds are “necessary,” the question of necessity paves the way for personal liability for those borrowers that flagrantly violate the spirit of the program.

Individual Certification Requirement: The US Treasury has set up the SBA to play hardball down the road by requiring the person signing the application to certify that it is true and accurate in all material respects, stating that “I understand that knowingly making a false statement to obtain a guaranteed loan from SBA is punishable under the law.” The guidelines require applicant’s signoff on understanding that the bank can share tax information with the SBA Office of Inspector General for the purpose of compliance with the SBA Loan Program Requirements. These provisions give the SBA flexibility and authority to pursue personal liability cases without actual personal guarantees.

Business owners of companies that were financially “treading water” before the outbreak of Covid-19 should understand that there does not have to be a signed personal guarantee to become personally liable for a debt. There are often additional landmines where a misstep can result in accidental personal liability.

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