Be Right About Free Money: Potential Legal Risks of the Paycheck Protection Loan Program
One of the most important provisions of the CARES Act for small businesses is called the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The PPP is a $349 billion program designed to assist small businesses (fewer than 500 employees) facing financial difficulties as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic through specifically structured loans.
The loan program offers funding to cover payroll for up to eight weeks, with the intent of stemming from unemployment. These loans can be forgiven and essentially become a grant if your business meets certain criteria with no need to repay the money.
As the old saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch – or in this case, free government money. There are potential legal risks that could jeopardize the forgivability of the loan.
Another way to look at the PPP loans is as conditional grants. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) notes that loans will be forgiven in full if the funds are used for appropriate costs. Covered costs include payroll, mortgage interest, rent and utilities. Further, the payroll costs must account for at least 75 percent of the loan proceeds used. The employer needs to maintain or quickly rehire employees and maintain wage and salary levels in order to receive 100 percent forgiveness.
The Devil’s in the Certification Details
The loan application process requires certain certifications. Businesses that are still operating need to certify that the current economic uncertainty makes the loan necessary to keep operations going.
If this seems vague, it’s because it is. There probably isn’t a small business out there that is not facing significant uncertainty in the current climate. The problem is that the certification standard the PPP lays out is extremely subjective. As a result, with the encouragement for businesses to apply, many may do so under the impression that they will have their loan fully forgiven to only run into trouble later if they don’t meet the certification standards.
By not providing any definition about the nature or extent of the required impact to operations that would make the loan request “necessary to support ongoing operations,” the SBA is making both applicants and lenders apprehensive.
Some law firms are even warning clients via their newsletters about potential legal exposure under the False Claims Act (FCA). Legal counsels are cautioning that a misrepresentation included in an application could result in FCA liability. Businesses must navigate between being as aggressive as possible to bolster their application while staying within the rules of the program.
More Certification Guidance is Needed
The government agencies involved need to provide more clear and objective guidance on the conditions needed to meet the certification requirements of the loan application process. Without clear and definable guidance as to what constitutes facing economic uncertainty, small businesses could face problems in the future.
Objective criteria such as a percentage of revenue decline or order capacity would provide a rather bright-line test and give both guidance to businesses and confidence in the process.