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Maxwell v. KPMG

July 19, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan B. Gottschall


On March 1, 2000, Whittman-Hart, Inc. ("Whittman-Hart"), an information technology consulting company, and USWeb/CKS Corporation ("USWeb"), an internet professional services firm, merged to form marchFIRST, Inc. ("marchFIRST"), an information technology consulting company. After the merger, the technology bubble burst and marchFIRST filed for bankruptcy just one year later, on April 12, 2001. Andrew J. Maxwell, the Chapter 7 Trustee for the bankruptcy estates of marchFIRST, Inc. (the "Trustee"), has sued KPMG LLP ("KPMG"), Whittman-Hart's independent auditor. Specifically, the Trustee alleges that KPMG breached its professional responsibilities by failing to inform Whittman-Hart's board of directors, its audit committee, and others, that its 1999 net income and fourth quarter results were overstated in an unaudited Earnings Release prior to the closing of the merger. The Trustee claims that absent these breaches, marchFIRST would either have avoided insolvency altogether or would not have become as deeply insolvent as it is now because had USWeb known about this overstatement, it would have backed out of the merger. Had the merger not gone through, Whittman-Hart-unburdened by USWeb-would have survived the technology crash. Therefore, the Trustee seeks to hold KPMG liable for not saving Whittman-Hart from the disastrous consequences of the Whittman-Hart/USWeb merger.

KPMG has moved for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, KPMG's motion is granted.


Whittman-Hart was engaged in the business of providing information technology ("IT") consulting services primarily to middle-market and Fortune 500 companies. Those services included, among other things, systems integration, strategic planning, business process improvement, and design and electronic commerce solutions. In the late 1990's, more than half of Whittman-Hart's clients were demanding digital communications and/or Internet expertise. As part of a five-year strategic plan to expand its range of IT services and its geographic presence, Whittman-Hart sought acquisition opportunities or potential merger partners to increase its size and competitive position, and to gain access to the Internet and e-commerce sectors. During 1998 and 1999, Whittman-Hart acquired a number of IT consulting companies such as Four Points Digital, L.L.C., a company that had digital communications and Internet expertise. In the fall of 1999, Whittman-Hart identified USWeb as a potential merger candidate. The merger came together quickly and was "enthusiastically endorsed" by Whittman-Hart's management. Compl. ¶¶ 11-12.

On November 21, Whittman-Hart retained KPMG to perform an audit of its consolidated financial statements for the year ended December 31, 1999.

On December 12, 1999, the Whittman-Hart Board unanimously adopted resolutions approving the Merger Agreement and authorizing its corporate officers to execute, deliver and perform the Merger Agreement. Whittman-Hart subsequently entered into a written Agreement and Plan of Merger with USWeb (the "Merger Agreement"). According to the terms of the Merger Agreement, the merger was a stock-for-stock exchange. The stockholders of USWeb received .865 shares of Whittman-Hart for each share of USWeb common stock. After the merger, Whittman-Hart would be the surviving corporation.

On or about January 13, 2000, Whittman-Hart filed its Form S-4 Registration Statement, including a joint proxy statement, with the Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC"). One of the purposes of this filing was to register the shares of common stock to be issued in connection with the Merger Agreement. The S-4 Statement announced "the signing of a definitive agreement to merge" with USWeb, touting the anticipated strategic benefits of the merger. The S-4 Statement also included extensive risk disclosures, such as: (1) "The market for Internet professional services is relatively new, intensely competitive, rapidly evolving and subject to rapid technological change"; (2) "If the market for such services does not continue to develop or develops more slowly than expected, or if the combined company's services do not achieve market acceptance, its business will be negatively affected"; and (3) "[A] significant shortfall in demand for services could have an immediate and a significant negative effect on the combined company's business and results of operations." Ex. 18 to Def.'s Statement of Facts (Form S-4).

The stock market reacted negatively to the proposed merger. On the day it was announced, Whittman-Hart's stock price fell 31% and USWeb's stock price fell 14%. Despite this reaction, Whittman-Hart and USWeb pressed on to complete the merger. On January 21, 2000, KPMG met with Whittman-Hart's audit committee and reported on the status of its work auditing the company's 1999 financial statements, stating that it expected to substantially complete its fieldwork by January 24, 2000.

On January 24, 2000, Whittman-Hart issued an unaudited earnings release reporting its earnings for the fourth quarter of 1999, and the year ended December 31, 1999 ("1999 Earnings Release"). According to this earnings release, Whittman-Hart reported revenues of $133 million and net income of $8.4 million. For the year ended December 31, 1999, Whittman-Hart reported revenues of $480.9 million and net income of $30.3 million. The financial statements attached to the 1999 Earnings Release were identified as "unaudited." On January 26, Whittman-Hart filed a Form 8-K ("January 26 8-K") with the SEC, attaching a copy of the text of the 1999 Earnings Release. The January 26 8-K did not contain the unaudited Balance Sheet or the unaudited Income Statement from the 1999 Earnings Release.

On January 27, 2000, Whittman-Hart filed an amendment to its Form S-4 Statement related to the merger. Though KPMG consented to the use of WhittmanHart's 1998 Financial Statements and its Audit Report for 1998 in connection with the S-4 Filings, KPMG did not consent to the use of any audit report on Whittman-Hart's 1999 Financial Statements in connection with the S-4 Filings.

On February 28, 2000, the shareholders of Whittman-Hart and USWeb voted to approve the merger. Following the meeting at which the merger was approved, KPMG met with Whittman-Hart's audit committee to present the results of the 1999 audit. KPMG informed the committee it expected to deliver an unqualified audit report. The merger closed on March 1, 2000, and Whittman-Hart subsequently changed its name to marchFIRST.

There is no statement by KPMG associated with the financial information contained in the unaudited 1999 Earnings Release. Indeed, KPMG did not issue its audit report on Whittman-Hart's 1999 financial statements until March 27, 2000, well after the merger had closed. Further, Whittman-Hart did not file its Form 10-K for the period ended December 31, 1999, until March 30, 2000.

Following the merger, the technology market underwent a major economic crisis, often referred to as the bursting of the technology bubble. In the third quarter of 2000, marchFIRST announced earnings that badly missed analysts' expectations. The company's fortunes thereafter declined at a rapid rate, and on February 12, 2001, it announced a $6.8 billion loss for the year 2000. On April 12, 2001, marchFIRST filed voluntary petitions for relief under Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy ...

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