Tuesday, August 18, 2015

LLCs, Freedom of Contract, Bankruptcy, and Planning Ahead

Over at the Kentucky Business Entity law blog, Thomas Rutledge discusses a recent decision from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, affirming a Bankruptcy Court decision that finding that when a member of an LLC with voting control personally files bankruptcy, that right to control the LLC became a vested in the trustee because the right was part of the bankruptcy estate. The case is In re Lester L. Lee, No. 4-15-cv-00009-RLY-WGH, Adv. Proc. No. 14-59011 (S.D. Ind. August 10, 2015) (PDF here).

A key issue was that the bankruptcy filer (Lester Lee) had 51% of the vote, but no shares. The court then explains:

7.  . . . [t]he Operating Agreement states . . .

(D) Each member shall have the voting power and a share of the Principal and income and profits and losses of the company as follows:

Member’s Name (Share) (Votes)

Debra Jo Brown (20%)  (10)

Brenda R. Lee (40%) (20)

Larry L. Lee (20%) (10)

Melinda Gabbard (20%) (10)

Lester L. Lee (0%) (51)

. . . .

8. . . . Trustee’s counsel became aware of the Debtor’s 51% voting rights as a member, and that pursuant to applicable law, “this noneconomic interest became property of the estate subject to control of the Trustee on the filing of the petition pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 541.”

Here's Rutledge's take: 

On appeal, the Court’s primary focus was upon whether the right to vote in an LLC constitutes “property of the estate,” defined by section 541(a)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code as “all legal or equitable interest of the Debtor in property as of the commencement of the case. After finding that Lee could be a “member” of the LLC notwithstanding the absence of any share in the company’s profits and losses or the distributions it should make, the Court was able to determine that Lee was a member. In a belt and suspenders analysis, the Court determined also that the voting rights themselves could constitute “economic rights in the company” affording him the opportunity to, for example, “ensure his continued employment as manager” thereof.

In a response to Rutledge's blog, Prof. Carter Bishop notes,

The court did not state the trustee could exercise those voting rights.  The next step is crucial. If the operating agreement is an executory contract of a multi-member LLC, BRC 365 will normally respect LLC state law restrictions as “applicable law” and deny the trustee the right to exercise the debtor’s voting rights (similar outcome to a non-delegable personal service contract).This was a managing member of a multi-member LLC, so I assume BRC 365 blocks the trustee’s exercise.

Rutledge notes that could be the case, but it's also possible the Lee court was saying we already decided that -- voting rights are part of the estate.  

I find all of this interesting and important to think about, especially given my limited bankruptcy knowledge. My main interest, though, is how might we plan around such a situation?  Many LLC statutes provide some options.  

For example, some states allow those forming an LLC to adopt a provision in the Operating Agreement that makes bankruptcy an event that triggers "an event of dissociation,” which would make the filer (or his or her successor in interest) no longer a member. See, e.g., Indiana Code sec. 23-18-6-5(b) ("A written operating agreement may provide for other events that result in a person ceasing to be a member of the limited liability company, including insolvency, bankruptcy, and adjudicated incompetency.").  This raises the question, then, of whether the bankruptcy code trumps this LLC code such that the bankruptcy filing creates an estate that makes it so the state LLC law cannot operate to eliminate the filer as a member. 

The answer is no, the state law doesn't trump the bankruptcy code, but the state provision can still have effect.  A recent Washington state decision (petition for review granted), relying on Virginia law, determined that where state law dissociates a member upon a bankruptcy filing, the trustee cannot be a member, and thus the trustee cannot exercise membership rights: 

[I]nstead of dissociating the debtor, Virginia law operated to dissociate the bankruptcy estate itself. The court concluded, “Consequently, unless precluded by § 365(c) or (e), his bankruptcy estate has only the rights of an assignee.
 
Given the similarities between Virginia's and Washington's treatment of LLC members who file for bankruptcy, we adopt the reasoning of Garrison–Ashburn [253 B.R. 700 (Bankr. E.D. Va. 2000)]. By applying Washington law, we conclude that RCW 25.15.130 dissociates a bankruptcy estate such that it retained the rights of an assignee under RCW 25.15.250(2), but not membership or management rights, despite the provisions of 11 U.S.C. § 541(c)(1).
Nw. Wholesale, Inc. v. PAC Organic Fruit, LLC, 183 Wash. App. 459, 485, 334 P.3d 63, 77 (2014) review granted sub nom. Nw. Wholesale, Inc. v. Ostenson, 182 Wash. 2d 1009, 343 P.3d 759 (2015).

The court then needed to decided whether § 365 allows a member to retain his or her membership. Under Washington partnership law, as applied to the bankruptcy code, the court explained:  

under § 365, the other partners are not obligated to accept an assumption of the partnership agreement. Partnerships are voluntary associations, and partners are not obligated to accept a substitution for their choice of partner. The restraint on assumability also makes the deemed rejection provision of § 365 inapplicable to the partnership agreement. Therefore, § 365(e)'s invalidation of ipso facto provisions does not apply, and state partnership law is not superseded. The debtor-partner's economic interest is protected by other sections of the bankruptcy code, but he no longer is entitled to membership. 

Nw. Wholesale, Inc. v. PAC Organic Fruit, LLC, 183 Wash. App. 459, 489, 334 P.3d 63, 79 (2014) review granted sub nom. Nw. Wholesale, Inc. v. Ostenson, 182 Wash. 2d 1009, 343 P.3d 759 (2015). The court then applied the same reasoning to LLC law, concluding "that that 11 U.S.C. § 541 and § 365 did not preempt Washington law that" removes members in the limited liability company upon a bankruptcy filing.  
 
The fact that Indiana law provides the option to make (instead of automatically making) bankruptcy a dissociating event, it seems to me, shouldn't change the outcome if Washington's analysis is right, and I think it is. LLC members be able to pick their members, and protecting that right even in the face of bankruptcy is important. 
 
In the Lee case, state LLC law did not provide that bankruptcy was a dissociating event and the parties did not choose to make that the case.  I am all for LLCs allowing the members to make such a decision (either way), but here, LLC members did not do so (at their own peril).  I agree with Prof. Bishop that an open question remains as to whether the trustee can vote, and I hope the answer is no. But one can make that outcome a lot more likely by planning ahead.  

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/business_law/2015/08/llcs-freedom-of-contract-bankruptcy-and-planning-ahead.html

Bankruptcy/Reorganizations, Business Associations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Partnership, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink

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