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When Is a Benefit Not a Benefit?

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April 20, 2017 | Barbara Baksa

When Is a Benefit Not a Benefit?

Riddle me this: when is a benefit not a benefit? The answer: when that benefit results in a change to the terms and conditions of an ISO. Making changes to ISO can have the unfortunate effect of disqualifying the options from ISO treatment, which might make the optionees less than enthusiastic about the new "benefit."

The Uber Case

This was highlighted in a recent class-action lawsuit brought by an Uber employee (McElrath v. Uber Technologies). McElrath, an employee of Uber and the plaintiff in the suit, was promised an ISO that vested over four years in his offer letter.  But, when the ISO was granted, the vesting schedule was shortened to just six months. This caused a much greater portion of the ISO to exceed the $100,000 limitation. The plaintiff contends that Uber changed the vesting schedule to ensure a corporate tax deduction for the option.

There could be any number of legitimate reasons for Uber to grant the options with a shorter vesting schedule than stated in the offer letter.  Additionally, shorter vesting periods certainly offer benefits to employees. I suspect that many companies consider acceleration of vesting to be a change they can make without an award holder's consent. But this illustrates that, when it comes to ISOs, it is important to consider the tax consequences to the optionee before making any changes.

Modifications, Too

The Uber case doesn't involve a modification, just a discrepancy between what was granted and what was promised in the offer letter. But this concept also applies any time an ISO is modified. Any change that confers additional benefits on the optionee (other than acceleration of exercisability and conversion of the option in the event of a change-in-control) is consider to be the cancellation of the existing ISO and the grant of a new option. If the new option doesn't meet all of the ISO requirements (option price at least equal to the current FMV, granted to an employee, $100,000 limitation, etc.), the option is disqualified from ISO treatment.

And, while acceleration of exercisability (which most practitioners interpret to mean vesting) doesn't result in a new grant, there is still the pesky $100,000 limitation to worry about.  In many cases, acceleration of exercisability will cause an ISO to exceed this limitation.

Where a modification disqualifies all or a portion of an option from ISO treatment, it is important to consider whether it is necessary for the optionee to consent to the modification. Most option agreements stipulate that any changes that adversely impact the optionee cannot be executed without the optionee's consent. Keep this in mind the next time your compensation committee has a bright idea about making existing ISOs better.

- Barbara

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