Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Poor LLC Language Leads to Poor LLC Doctrine (And Unnecessary Veil Piercing)

Earlier this week, Professor Bainbridge posted California court completely bollixes up business law nomenclature, discussing Keith Paul Bishop's post on Curci Investments, LLC v. Baldwin, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. G052764 (Aug. 10, 2017).  The good professor, noting (with approval) what he calls my possibly "Ahabian" obsession with courts and their LLC references, says that "misusing terminology leads to misapplied doctrine."  Darn right.

To illustrate his point, let's discuss a 2016 Colorado case that manages to highlight how both Colorado and Utah have it wrong. As is so often the case, the decision turns on incorrectly merging doctrine from one entity type (the corporation) into another (the LLC) without acknowledging or explaining why that makes sense.  To the court's credit, they got the choice of law right, applying the internal affairs doctrine to use Utah law for veil piercing a Utah LLC, even though the case was in a Colorado court. 

After correctly deciding to use Utah law, the court then went down a doctrinally weak path.  Here we go:

Marquis is a Utah LLC. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 7.) Utah courts apply traditional corporate veil-piercing principles to LLCs. See, e.g., Lodges at Bear Hollow Condo. Homeowners Ass'n, Inc. v. Bear Hollow Restoration, LLC, 344 P.3d 145, 150 (Utah Ct. App. 2015). The basic veil-piercing analysis requires two steps:
The first part of the test, often called the formalities requirement, requires the movant to show such unity of interest and ownership that the separate personalities of the corporation and the individual no longer exist. The second part of the test, often called the fairness requirement, requires the movant to show that observance of the corporate form would sanction a fraud, promote injustice, or condone an inequitable result.
Jones v. Marquis Properties, LLC, 212 F. Supp. 3d 1010, 1021 (D. Colo. 2016). 
 
First, say it with me: You Can’t Pierce the Corporate Veil of an LLC Because It Doesn't Have One.  Second, the so-called "the formalities requirement" is a problem for Utah LLCs if one looks at the Utah LLC Act. The Colorado court does not do that, and neither does the Utah court that decided Bear Hollow Restoration, upon which Colorado relied.  They should have. You see, Utah has adopted the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Act, and the Utah version states expressly: 
The failure of a limited liability company to observe formalities relating to the exercise of its powers or management of its activities and affairs is not a ground for imposing liability on a member or manager of the limited liability company for a debt, obligation, or other liability of the limited liability company.
Utah Code Ann. § 48-3a-304(b). So, that is at least potentially a problem, because the Utah test for the formalities requirement is supposed to be determined by looking at seven factors:
(1) undercapitalization of a one-[person] corporation; (2) failure to observe corporate formalities; (3) nonpayment of dividends; (4) siphoning of corporate funds by the dominant stockholder; (5) nonfunctioning of other officers or directors; (6) absence of corporate records; [and] (7) the use of the corporation as a facade for operations of the dominant stockholder or stockholders....
Lodges at Bear Hollow Condo. Homeowners Ass'n, Inc. v. Bear Hollow Restoration, LLC, 344 P.3d 145, 150 (Utah App. 2015).
 
I know some will argue I am being overly formalistic in highlighting how corporate focused these factors are, but this is problematic.  Virtually all of these factors must, at a minimum, be contorted to apply to LLCs.  If the test is going to be applied, the least a court should do is to rewrite the test so it refers LLCs specifically.  Why? Well, primarily because in doing so, it would make clear just how silly these factors are when trying to do so.  (For example, LLCs don't have stockholders, corporate funds, dividends, and generally don't have an obligation to have officers or directors.) 

 The Marquis Properties court skips actually applying the test saying simply that an SEC investigation report was sufficient to allow veil piercing. The court determined that an SEC report establishes that sole member of the LLC used the entity "to create the illusion of profitable investments and thereby to enrich himself, with no ability or intent to honor" the LLC's obligations. "Given this, strictly respecting [the LLC's] corporate form [ed. note: UGH] would sanction [the member's] fraud."  The Court then found that veil-piercing was appropriate to hold the member "jointly and severally liable for the amounts owed by" the LLC to the plaintiffs.

But veil piercing is both neither appropriate nor necessary in this case.  In discussing the SEC report earlier in the case, the court found that "all elements of mail and wire fraud are present." I see nothing that would absolve either the LLC as an entity of liability for the fraud and I see no reason why the member of the LLC would not be personally liable for the fraud he committed purportedly on behalf of the LLC and for his own benefit.  

This case illustrates another problem with veil piercing: both courts and lawyers are too willing to jump to veil piercing when simple fraud will do. This case illustrates clearly that fraud was evident, and fraud should be sufficient grounds for the plaintiffs to recover from the individual committing fraud. That means the entire veil piercing discussion should be treated as dicta. The entity form did not create this problem, and the entity form does not need to be disregarded, at least as far as I can tell, to allow plaintiffs to recover fully.  Before even considering veil piercing, a court should be able to state clearly why veil piercing is necessary to make the plaintiff whole. Otherwise, you end up with bad case law that can lead to bad doctrine, which leads to inefficient courts and markets.  

Oh, and while I'm at it, Westlaw needs to get their act together, too.  The Westlaw summary and headnotes say "limited liability corporation (LLC)" five times in connection with this case.  Come on, y'all.  

 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/business_law/2017/08/poor-llc-language-leads-to-poor-llc-doctrine-and-unnecessary-veil-piercing.html

Business Associations, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, LLCs, Shareholders, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink

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