Wednesday, May 4, 2016
In follow up to my post yesterday, my trusted and valued co-blogger Joan Heminway asked a good question (as usual) based one of my comments. My response became long enough that I thought it warranted a follow-up post (and it needed formatting). Joan commented:
you say: "there should be no problem if, for example, Delaware corporate law did not allow a for-profit entity to exercise religion for the sole sake of religion. I think that is the case right now: that’s not a proper corporate purpose under my read of existing law." Are you implying that a corporate purpose of that kind for a for-profit corporation organized in Delaware would be unlawful? Can you explain?
My response: I am suggesting exactly that, though I concede one might need a complaining shareholder first. My read of eBay, and Chief Justice Strine’s musing on the subject, suggest that an entity that is run for purposes of religion (not shareholder wealth maximization) first and foremost, is an improper use of the Delaware corporate form. (“I simply indicate that the corporate law requires directors, as a matter of their duty of loyalty, to pursue a good faith strategy to maximize profits for the stockholders.”) Chancellor Chandler explained in eBay:
The corporate form in which craigslist operates, however, is not an appropriate vehicle for purely philanthropic ends, at least not when there are other stockholders interested in realizing a return on their investment.
I think this definition of philanthropic easily includes religious ends (or should).
Chancellor Chandler continued:
Jim and Craig opted to form craigslist, Inc. as a for-profit Delaware corporation and voluntarily accepted millions of dollars from eBay as part of a transaction whereby eBay became a stockholder. Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, the craigslist directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.
I don’t see how this should play any differently if it applied to religion. Consider, for example, this possible spin:
Jane and Carrie opted to form Religion, Inc., as a for-profit Delaware corporation and voluntarily accepted millions of dollars from BigCo as part of a transaction whereby BigCo became a stockholder. Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, the Religion directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.
Further to the point, Chancellor Chandler added:
I cannot accept as valid . . . a corporate policy that specifically, clearly, and admittedly seeks not to maximize the economic value of a for-profit Delaware corporation for the benefit of its stockholders—no matter whether those stockholders are individuals of modest means or a corporate titan of online commerce.
Thus, a for-profit business can be religious in nature—e.g., make religious books or products or sponsor religious seminars—but as a Delaware corporation, the purpose of the entity must be to “promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.”
This is the potential problem with the Hobby Lobby case as to Delaware law. There, the companies had a lot to lose:
If they and their companies refuse to provide contraceptive coverage, they face severe economic consequences: about $475 million per year for Hobby Lobby, $33 million per year for Conestoga, and $15 million per year for Mardel. And if they drop coverage altogether, they could face penalties of roughly $26 million for Hobby Lobby, $1.8 million for Conestoga, and $800,000 for Mardel.
These losses were justified in that case as being necessary to exercise religion, and not to further a corporate purpose. Of course, they had to make that claim, because otherwise they couldn’t get the benefit of RFRA, which requires demonstrating “an honest conviction,” which could be problematic if the reason was couched in business terms, and not religious ones.
Incidentally, I think the business judgment rule should probably protect this decision, anyway, but I don’t know that Delaware law would support that view. In fact, it shouldn't based in recent case law, and I think plainly eBay says no on that one. The Supreme Court says RFRA protects the right to pursue religious ends. It doesn't mean Delaware law does. (Note: Hobby Lobby is not a Delaware entity, so the rules are admittedly different.)
Thus, my fix seek to balance these competing possible outcomes. Tell shareholders your plan, and they can’t question it later, even if that plan costs the company $475 million in losses. Where the law has evolved, I don't think it's fair to suggest it was part of the bargain for all companies, thought maybe investors in Hobby Lobby did know. But it doesn't matter. I thought craigslist’s long-standing business plan was sufficient notice, too. Chancellor Chandler disagreed.
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
A recent Vanity Fair article discussing Citizens United is making the rounds. (I saw it on Facebook!) The article notes:
It had already been established, in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), that anyone has a First Amendment right to spend his or her own money advancing his or her own cause, including a candidacy for political office. Citizens United extended this right to legally created “persons” such as corporations and unions.
I have been giving some more thought to whole “personhood” discussion of late, and my thoughts have taken me back to both Hobby Lobby and Citizens United. What follows is a long blog post that pulls together my thoughts on these two cases in an admittedly not well developed way. But it's a start (though I really should be grading).
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
(c) for purposes of imposing liability on any member or manager of a limited liability company for the debts, obligations or other liabilities of the company, a court shall consider only the following factors no one (1) of which, except fraud, is sufficient to impose liability:(i) Fraud;(ii) Inadequate capitalization;(iii) Failure to observe company formalities as required by law; and(iv) Intermingling of assets, business operations and finances of the company and the members to such an extent that there is no distinction between them.
The veil of a limited liability company may be pierced under exceptional circumstances when: (1) the limited liability company is not only owned, influenced and governed by its members, but the required separateness has ceased to exist due to misuse of the limited liability company; and (2) the facts are such that an adherence to the fiction of its separate existence would, under the particular circumstances, lead to injustice, fundamental unfairness, or inequity.
(d) In any analysis conducted under subsection (c) of this section, a court shall not consider factors intrinsic to the character and operation of a limited liability company, whether a single or multiple member limited liability company. Factors intrinsic to the character and operation of a limited liability company include but are not limited to:(i) The ability to elect treatment as a disregarded or pass-through entity for tax purposes;(ii) Flexible operation or organization including the failure to observe any particular formality relating to the exercise of the company’s powers or management of its activities;(iii) The exercise of ownership, influence and governance by a member or manager;(iv) The protection of members’ and managers’ personal assets from the obligations and acts of the limited liability company.
Tuesday, March 22, 2016
March has provided a slate of mistakes as to entity form, focusing (as it almost always does) on limited liability companies (LLCs) and various outlets calling such entities "corporations." These are not in any particular order, but lists are neat. Enjoy!
(1 ) Politifact Checks Trump Facts, Forgets to Check Entity Law Facts
In an article on Politifact.com, Donald Trump incorrectly says Virginia winery is the largest on East Coast, which determines that Trump's claims about the size of a winery that his son runs to be false and notes some statements are incorrect. Ironically, the article also claims:
A legal disclaimer on the winery website says the GOP presidential candidate doesn’t own the winery. The venture is a limited liability corporation, and its owners are not a matter of public record.
Wrong. The winery site says, "Trump Winery is a registered trade name of Eric Trump Wine Manufacturing LLC, which is not owned, managed or affiliated with Donald J. Trump, The Trump Organization or any of their affiliates." An LLC is still not a corporation.
(2) Big Bang Theory: Big Brains Don't Know Entity Law
I don't watch the Big Bang Theory, but my colleague at Valparaiso University, Professor Rebecca J. Huss, is a reader of this blog who also cares about precise language with regard to LLCs alerted me to this one. The story line of the March 10 show (the show can be found here) related to a the creation of a partnership agreement for some of the characters. One thing that is realistic is that the folks think it's a good idea to form an entity and draft contract language without a lawyer. One character says he has some concerns about the partnership, and another replies with this "joke": "Are you suggesting a limited liability corporation, because I did not LLC that coming." (The offending segment is roughly 14 minutes into the show.) (This was also covered at Kentucky Business Entity Law Blog, here, which noted, "Ughhhh. LLC ≠ limited liability corporation. Rather, LLC = limited liability company.")
(3) Ghost LLCs Masquerading as Corporations
The Washington Post last week ran a story, How ‘ghost corporations’ are funding the 2016 election. The article discusses how entities can be used to shield those backing political candidates. The article states:
Advocates for stronger campaign-finance enforcement fear there will be even more pop-up limited liability corporations (LLCs) funneling money into independent groups, making it difficult to discern the identities of wealthy players seeking to influence this year’s presidential and congressional contests.
. . . .
Many corporate givers this cycle are well-established hedge funds, energy companies and real estate firms. But a significant share of the money is coming from newly formed LLCs with cryptic names that offer few clues about their backers.
(4) Pass-Through Tax Law Isn't Really About Corporations (mostly)
The Topeka Capital-Journal Editorial Board wrote on March 20: LLC loophole needs plugging: Even some small business owners think the tax exemption should be eliminated. The editorial is related to a 2012 Kansas law, HB 2117, which eliminated taxes on pass-though entities like LLCs, S corps, partnerships, farms, and sole proprietorships. (So, I admit, S corps are corporation, but they are essentially partnerships for federal tax purposes.) Even though I agree with some their concerns, the board makes a couple mistakes here when they assert that the bill "was simply an unconditional gift from the state for anyone who has created an entity called a limited liability corporation (LLC)."
First, it assumes that just LLCs get the benefit, which is not true. All pass-though entities benefit. Second, of course, the "limited liability corporation" is a corporation, not an LLC, and the corporation (other than one chosen to be an S corp) does not get the benefit of the law.
(5) Court Gets Entity Right, Regulations Not Quite
I'm not one to leave the courts out of this. Judge Robert M. Dow, Jr., of the United States District Court, Northern Illinois has an incredible resume. A member of Phi Beta Kappa and a Rhodes Scholar, his credentials are impressive. In a recent decision, though, his opinion refers to a defendant LLC correctly, but then goes on to say that Treasury Regulations are silent on treatment of "limited liability corporations." Alas, that's not accurate. Here's the passage:
It is undisputed that, as of the date of Anderson Bros.' withdrawal from the fund, Anderson Bros. (an Illinois corporation) was 100% owned by Anderson. Anderson therefore had a “controlling interest” in Anderson Bros. 29 U.S.C. § 1.414(c)-2(b)(2)(A). At the same time, Defendant (an Illinois limited liability company) was also solely owned by Anderson. Section 1.414(c)-2 of the Treasury Regulations does not address specifically the treatment of limited liability corporations, and the Board does not address this issue in its brief. According to the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”), “an LLC with only one member is treated as an entity disregarded as separate from its owner for income tax purposes * * *, unless it files Form 8832 and affirmatively elects to be treated as a corporation.” IRS, Single Member Limited Liability Companies, https://www.irs.gov/Businesses/Small-Businesses-&-Self-Employed/Single-Member-Limited-Liability-Companies (last visited Mar. 16, 2016).
Bd. of Trustees of the Auto. Mechanics' Local No. 701 Union & Inustry Pension Fund v. 6516 Ogden Ave., LLC, No. 14-CV-3531, 2016 WL 1043422, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 16, 2016) (emphasis added).
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
In my Energy Business: Law & Strategy course, I use Larry A. DiMatteo's article, Strategic Contracting: Contract Law as a Source of Competitive Advantage, 47 Am. Bus. L.J. 727 (2010). I have been using the article in the class since 2012 (this is the third time I have taught it), and I think it does a great job of providing a theoretical backdrop for practical application. I teach the article in combination with a one-sided proposed Memorandum of Understanding to help students think about the contracting process and and the long-term implications of what might seem like a small-scale negotiation. I highly recommend the piece.
In reading the article this time around, though, I was struck by how differently the piece treats limited liability companies (LLCs) and corporations and the way concerns about opportunistic behavior are raised in the context of the latter. In one portion of the article, DiMatteo notes:
Corporate strategy that fails to take account of the strategic use of law is likely to waste opportunities for competitive advantages. A corporate legal strategy can be used to gain competitive advantages both internally and externally.
I wholeheartedly agree, and this is part of the reason I teach my course. Although I don't think this is true of just "corporate" strategy, because the same applies to other entities, such as educational institutions, environmental organizations, LLCs, and even governments. Regular readers will not be surprised that I would choose to start the sentence "entity strategy" instead of "corporate strategy, " but his point is still well taken.
Later in the piece, Prof. DiMatteo takes the following position with regard to LLCs:
The freedom of contract paradigm that underlies LLCs allows for broad flexibility in strategically drafting the operating agreement. I will make a distinction here between proper and improper strategic drafting, because a distinction based on legality is insufficient. That is, improper terms may be perfectly legal under some states’ LLC statutes. The argument here is that the freedom of contract construct can lead to contractual abuse, albeit a legally sanctioned abuse. For example, a combination of clauses could be inserted into the operating agreement that strips nonmanager members of all power and protections, such as removal of fiduciary duties relating to the managing member, an indemnification clause to protect the managing member from liability for malfeasance, and a clause providing that the nonmember managers have no right to withdraw or to seek dissolution. These types of provisions may be legal under some statutory schemes, but strict enforcement of these clauses by the managing member would be abusive.
I fail to see why strategic use of law in this context is more problematic than the strategic use of law in other contexts. I do understand and validate concerns about on-going expectations of fiduciary protections related to entities, and that is why, as I have suggested previously, that the lack of fiduciary duties and post-formation changes to fiduciary duties (especially loyalty) should include disclosure and perhaps other structural protections. (I am less concerned about those forming the entity agreeing to limit or eliminate fiduciary duties because they are agreeing to the option at formation when they can object or walk away.) Still, I don't see any reason that freedom of contract in LLCs is fundamentally different from freedom of contract in any other setting, at least as along as you account for a potential knowledge gap about fiduciary duties. In contrast, I liked how Larry Ribstein framed the question of possible promoter liability for LLCs in New York, where he argued that one could make a complaint that "alleged a misrepresentation which would be actionable without implying a fiduciary duty."
I do agree with Prof. DiMatteo when he says, "In the end, contracts can be a strategic tool in obtaining a competitive advantage, or they can be a tool to support collaboration by minimizing the opportunities for advantage taking." Freedom of contract in LLC formation embraces both of these concepts, too. I just think that those forming the entity should be the ones to determine which path they will take.
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Justice Scalia’s sudden passing has generated a tidal wave of media and academic attention on the future of the Supreme Court. As a corporate law scholar, I have to admit to a tinge of jealousy to be seemingly outside of this controversy, the hand wringing, and the political equivalent of Dungeons and Dragons that has ensued as people examine the various maneuverers available to our elected politicians and those vying-to be elected.
My solution? I searched for pending corporate cases hanging in the balance of the new, and indeterminate, vacancy on the Supreme Court. I wanted to know if there were any cases pending that would likely be decided differently in a post-Scalia court, or at least hang in a 4-4 split and thus uphold the lower court ruling. There isn’t a big juicy corporate law case pending, or at least one that I readily identified.
Not to be deterred, however, there is a case worth highlighting. Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., was argued on January 19th before the Supreme Court (transcript available here). The issue before the Supreme Court in Americold was how to establish the citizenship of a real estate trust for purposes of diversity citizenship. Is the trust's citizenship dependent upon the citizenship of the controlling trustees (as argued by Americold)? Or is it dependent upon the citizenship of the trust beneficiaries (argued by ConAgra Foods), or some combination? Locating citizenship with trustees narrows the potential states and ensures diversity citizenship whereas citizenship with the beneficiaries, of which there are thousands, implicates most states and thus frustrates federal jurisdiction.
At the heart of the oral argument was the 1990 ruling Carden v. Arkoma Associates, which established a bright line between the citizenship of corporations (located in the state of incorporation) and the citizenship of all other artificial business entities (located in the states of the beneficial owners of the business).
In Carden, the Supreme Court wrote:
In 1958 it revised the rule established in Letson, providing that a corporation shall be deemed a citizen not only of its State of incorporation but also "of the State where it has its principal place of business." 28 U.S.C. 1332(c). No provision was made for the treatment of artificial entities other than corporations, although the existence of many new, post-Letson forms of commercial enterprises, including at least the sort of joint stock company ..., the sort of limited partnership association ..., and the sort of Massachusetts business trust ... We have long since decided that, having established special treatment for corporations, we will leave the rest to Congress; we adhere to that decision.
Drawing on the Carden precedent, the question became whether the REIT as issue in Americold was organized as a traditional corporation or not.
Ronald Mann writing for the SCOTUS Blog summarized Justice Scalia’s role in oral argument on this issue with the following:
Justice Antonin Scalia early on asked, “[w]ho owns these assets under Maryland law? Is it . . . this new corporation-type entity? That’s the entity that can sue.” That conclusion led him to dismiss out of hand Americold’s contention that the citizenship of the trust managers should be decisive: “[T]he trustees are sort of in the position of managers, just as though you hired a CEO.”
Scalia's skepticism about the REIT functioning like a corporation was shared by the other Justices despite the fact that modern REITs, in many ways, resemble corporations more so than other unincorporated business entities. REITs have dispersed and diffused shareholders, often with shares traded on public exchanges. This position was articulated by an amicus brief filed by National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts (NAREIT). The Justices however signaled a truly formalistic approach asking if the entity was indeed formed as a corporation (not did it function as one or was it capitalized as one). Only if so would the state of incorporation rule prevail.
A Justice Scalia-influenced Supreme Court's last word on corporate jurisprudence may very likely be one of pure form over substance. Merely asking which entity form was used without looking at the distinguishing features of a corporation and the justifications for why corporations were treated differently beginning in 1958 produces a corporate law legacy of flimsy jurisprudence. Failing to take into account the market realities and relying upon strict categorical distinctions without reference to function would create a bright line, but not necessarily a bright result.
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
Embracing Freedom of Contract in the LLC: Linking the Lack of Duty of Loyalty to a Duty of Disclosure
I have been giving a lot of thought to the idea of waiving the duty of loyalty in LLCs in Delaware. The more I think about it, the more I am okay with the concept of allowing members of an LLC to decide to do away with the duty of loyalty when they form the entity. Delaware, of course, retains the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in any contract, and I think parties to a contract should be able to decide the terms of their deal.
Still, I am sympathetic to those who are concerned about eliminating the duty of loyalty because it does seem rather awful, and yet, I am also a proponent of freedom of contract. How to reconcile these things? Well, I am now of the mind that perhaps we need to bring a partnership principle to LLCs to help. In partnerships, the default rule is that changes to the partnership agreement or acts outside the ordinary course of business require a unanimous vote. See UPA § 18(h) & RUPA § 401(j). I think changes to the duty of loyalty should have the same requirement, and perhaps that even the rule should be mandatory, not just default.
At formation, then, those creating an LLC would be allowed to do whatever they want to set their fiduciary duties, up to and including eliminating the consequences for breaches of the duty of loyalty. This is part of the bargain, and any member who does not agree to the terms need not become a member. Any member who joins the LLC after formation is then on notice (perhaps even with an affirmative disclosure requirement) that the duty of loyalty has been modified or eliminated. This is not especially concerning to me.
What would concern me more is a change in the duty of loyalty after one becomes a member. That is, if the majority of LLC members could later change the loyalty provision, then that seems problematic to me, as fiduciary duties are not just to protect the majority. As such, it seems to me more proper that changes to the duty of loyalty, when a member does not have any say in that change, is what should be restricted. Like in changing a partnership agreement, if everyone agrees, then there is not a problem. And if you accept the provision when you join, it is not a problem. But you shouldn't have a fiduciary duty removed or modified after the fact without your consent.
Because the duty of loyalty is a fixture that most people expect, I do see value in requiring (at least for some time) that there be clear disclosure of the applicable to duties to potential LLC members. But at least for the moment, I am feeling the freedom of contract option on the duty of loyalty is quite reasonable.
Tuesday, January 26, 2016
At the request of Tom Rutledge, chair of the American Bar Association Section of Business Law's Committee on LLCs, Partnerships and Unincorporated Entities (that sure is a mouthful!), I am passing on the following:
While the dates are still being resolved, this October, 2016, the Committee of LLCs, Partnerships and Unincorporated Entities will again be sponsoring a two-day LLC Institute in Arlington, Virginia. This program brings together more than 100 high-level practitioners and academics to review a variety of issues involving the law of unincorporated business organizations. In recent years presentations have been made by Joan Heminway, Carter Bishop, Dan Kleinberger, Colin Marks, Michelle Harner and Benjamin Means. I think each will vouch for the quality of the program.
We are actively soliciting proposals for panels. If you are working on something, or if there is something you would like to discuss before an audience that I can guarantee will be “hot”, please let me know.
Indeed, I can vouch for the program, at which I have presented twice. There typically is an opportunity presented to write a short piece for Business Law Today, if you are interested. My contribution from the 2015 LLC Institute (a real page-turner--not) can be found here.
Thursday, January 14, 2016
Last week, I threatened that I might have outtakes from the the Association of American Law Schools ("AALS") panel discussion for the Section on Agency, Partnerships, LLCs and Unincorporated Associations, "Contract is King, But Can It Govern Its Realm?". The "conversation" between panelists and among panelists and audience members was rich and far-ranging, although much of it was not "new news" to those of us focused on the many legal questions relating to contracts in the unincorporated business associations space. Here is my brief additional comment on the panel discussion, ex post. A recording of the session should later be available, for those interested in listening in.
Although most of the discussion was intentionally not scripted (but, rather, organized by a set of questions shared with the panelists in advance), a few of us did have assignments. I was charged with two key areas of earmarked participation. First, I accepted an invitation to identify and categorize non-Delaware state law issues at the intersection of unincorporated business association law, contract law, and legislative drafting. Second, I was invited to comment on my work on the LLC [operating] agreement as contract (or non-contract). Although each topic is worthy of attention, I already have written a bit about the latter in this forum. So, I will focus here on just the state law piece.
This specific area of focus, the non-Delaware issues, is a favorite area of mine in LLC law and business associations law more generally. As teachers and scholars, we all-too-often focus on Delaware law--and most often, for good reason. But sometimes we ignore, to our detriment, the fact that other laws, while not leading or as well developed, deserve attention in their own right--attention that may help the judiciary, the legislature, and the bar (including our former students). So, I took on this first assignment for the AALS panel to help ensure that we consider state laws more broadly. And for those who have done any work in this area, you know the specific doctrine can vary!
I made three observations on the non-Delaware state law issues relating to whether contract is king in LLC law. First, I observed that states describe the contractarian nature of their LLC laws differently. Some, like Delaware, articulate a policy of giving maximum effect to principles of freedom of contract and the enforceability of LLC [operating] agreements. See, e.g., the statutes in Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, and Virginia. At least one state, Pennsylvania, declares that contract is king unless otherwise noted in the certificate of organization or otherwise in the statute. A number of states, including my home state of Tennessee, have what I refer to as "RUPA-like" provisions (i.e., statutory language similar to that included in the Revised Uniform Partnership Act) that merely, without being subject to an overarching policy as to interpretation, give effect to the provisions in the LLC [operating] agreement unless those provisions are expressly proscribed by statute.
My second observation was that states treat exculpation and private ordering with respect to fiduciary duties and the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing differently. Again, some states follow Delaware in allowing (1) exculpation except for bad faith violations of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and (2) the elimination of fiduciary duties (but not the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing). Kansas is an example that I noted. Mississippi, however, limits exculpation in ways not unlike those used in corporate law. Colorado LLC law provides that fiduciary duties may be restricted or eliminated if not "manifestly unreasonable" and allows for the provision of standards for compliance with the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing (but does not permit its elimination). Tennessee, the District of Columbia, and others use a RUPA-like approach that does not permit exculpation and allows tailoring, but not elimination, of fiduciary duties (under separate standards for loyalty and care) and the articulation of standards by which performance of the obligation of good faith and fair dealing is to be measured, if not "manifestly unreasonable".
Finally, I observed that state legislatures may or may not focus on these issues or the differences among the state statutes concerning these matters. I noted, however, based on my experiences in Massachusetts and Tennessee, that the bar is attentive to both the issues and (at least to some extent) the differences. In other words, I see anecdotal evidence of conscious path-dependence in business entity legislation planning and drafting.
I wonder if these observations ring true to you. I also wonder if you have your own observations in this regard. Let me know in the comments.
Wednesday, January 6, 2016
Tomorrow afternoon (as Anne promoted earlier today), I will participate in the annual Association of American Law Schools ("AALS") panel discussion for the Section on Agency, Partnerships, LLCs and Unincorporated Associations. The panel discussion this year is entitled "Contract is King, But Can It Govern Its Realm?" and focuses on the contractarian aspects of LLC law. Here's the panel description from the AALS annual meeting program:
This program will explore the role of contract in unincorporated associations, with particular emphasis on the LLC and limited partnership forms. In most jurisdictions, the sparse prescriptions in the default rules imply that the parties will draft an operating agreement that reflects the material points of their bargain. For example, Delaware emphasizes that its policy for LLCs and LPs is to give “maximum effect to the principle of freedom of contract.” Modern contract theory, however, raises significant questions about the extent to which any documentation of a transaction can be “complete,” even if sophisticated parties negotiate at arm’s length and attempt to fully reduce their expectations to writing. If complete contracts are indeed an ideal rather than the reality, can legislatures impose default rules (fiduciary or otherwise) to fill the gaps without undermining the benefits of private ordering? To what extent should judges look outside the operating agreement to determine the parties’ intent? Our format will be a lively moderated discussion, and we will invite significantly more audience participation from the outset than attendees may have come to expect from AALS section meetings.
As you may recall (and as Anne reminded us in her earlier post on the AALS conference sessions), we hosted a weblog micro-symposium on issues relating to this topic in anticipation of this annual meeting program back in November, for which the concluding post is here, and my contributions are here and here.
I expect that we will explore through the conference panel (which, as the program description indicates, will engage the audience for much of the time) the nature and status of LLC agreements as contracts and the coexistence of contract with fiduciary duties and the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. I hope that we can cover points of theory, policy, doctrine, and practice. I will be adding some non-Delaware flavor in some areas of the discussion and encouraging folks to contemplate whether LLC operating agreements are contracts or merely treated like contracts for certain LLC law purposes. Please come join in on the fun if you are attending the conference this year! I may have more to say after the discussion has concluded . . . .
Tuesday, January 5, 2016
Some day, I may tire of calling out courts (and others) that refer to limited liability companies (LLCs) as "limited liability corporations, but today is not that day. Looking back on 2015, I thought I'd take a quick look to see who the worst offenders were, starting with the state courts. I figured I'd start with Delaware.
As a state that is proud of its status as a leader as a key forum of choice for corporations, and Delaware has done well for uncorporations, as well, it seemed logical. The book Why Corporations Choose Delaware, written by Lewis S. Black, Jr., and printed and distributed by the Delaware Department of State, Division of Corporation, explains:
Delaware continues to be the favored state of incorporation for U.S. businesses. Delaware has been preeminent as the place for businesses to incorporate since the early 1900s, and its incorporation business, supplemented by the growth in numbers of such “alternative entities” as limited liability companies, limited partnerships and statutory trusts, continues to grow smartly.
And Delaware does have a generally well-informed and skilled judiciary. Still, even Delaware is not above calling an LLC a "limited liability corporation." Better than many jurisdictions, Westlaw reports that the state had just three cases in 2015 making that error, and no such mistakes were noted after March 2015. Not ideal, but not bad.
Here are some other states I reviewed for 2015 (again, using Westlaw):
- Michigan: 0
- Pennsylvania: 3
- Ohio: 4
- Florida: 5
- Nevada: 6
- California: 7
- New York: 7
- Texas: 8
Overall, state courts called LLCs "corporations" 105 times in 2015. Federal courts did the same 280 times in 2015. As such, it works out to just over once a day that some U.S. court is making this mistake.
Big picture, given the number of cases courts see each year, it may seem that these are small numbers. Not really. A search of federal courts for the term "limited liability company" turns up 2949 cases from 2015, which suggests that around 10% of cases (9.49%) referring to LLCs in some substantive manner made a reference to a "limited liability corporation." NOTE: If one searches for "LLC," the number of cases exceeds 10,000 for 2015, but I decided that a court taking the time to spell out "limited liability company" suggested that the entity choice had a heightened relevance to the case.
At the state level, the numbers are a little better. State courts referred to "limited liability companies" 1691 times in 2015. With 105 cases calling an LLC a corporation, that works out to just over 6% of the time. Not great, but a substantial improvement.
I admit this is not a scientific review of the data and I am making some assumptions, but the sheers number do, I think, support the notion that all our courts can do better on this issue. And give state courts credit -- although federal courts are often viewed the more prestigious courts, state courts are holding their own on this issue. Perhaps state courts are a little more careful because entities are generally (though not always) creatures of state law.
This is not, I am sure, just the courts. I suspect a lot of these errors come from attorneys who call LLCs corporations, then the court just take their lead. Still not okay, but I can imagine that some courts just follow the lead of those arguing the cases before them on such issues.
So, for 2016, I issue a challenge to all U.S. courts and the lawyers who practice in them: let's cut these numbers in half! (I'd like them to go to zero, but one needs to be somewhat realistic, right?)
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
A quick break from grading for my year-end report on the use of "limited liability corporation" instead if the correct "limited liability company" when referring to LLCs. Hold on to your hats.
Since December 31, 2014, Westlaw reports the following using the term "limited liability corporation":
- Cases View all 381
- Trial Court Orders View all 93
- Administrative Decisions & Guidance View all 169
- Secondary Sources View all 1,071
For example, Massachusetts has the following proposed legislation from, Sen. Tarr, Bruce (R), with the following summary: " An Act relative to limited liability corporation filing fees." 2015 Massachusetts Senate Bill No. 238, Massachusetts One Hundred Eighty-Ninth General Court. Of course, the proposed change is to the state's Limited Liability Company Act, Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 156C, § 12 (West 2015).
And one proposed change to "limited liability corporations" is not sufficient for that state this year. Rep. Arciero, James (D), similarly proposed "An Act relative to limited liability corporations dealing with children." 2015 Massachusetts House Bill No. 304, Massachusetts One Hundred Eighty-Ninth General Court. The sponsors of these bills show that the "limited liability corporation" mistake is, at least, bipartisan.
Section 104(k)(1) of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (42 U.S.C. 9604(k)(1)) is amended-
. . . .(3) by adding at the end the following:'(I) an organization described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 and exempt from taxation under section 501(a) of that Code;'(J) a limited liability corporation in which all managing members are organizations described in subparagraph (I) or limited liability corporations whose sole members are organizations described in subparagraph (I);'(K) a limited partnership in which all general partners are organizations described in subparagraph (I) or limited liability corporations whose sole members are organizations described in subparagraph (I); or'(L) a qualified community development entity (as defined in section 45D(c)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986).'.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
As I continue my mission to solidify the limited liability company (LLC) as its own entity, and not a corporation or corporate derivative, I have come to realize that U.S.-based distinctions are usually easier than international ones. One challenge we have is that we often try to find direct entity analogies from country to country, when none may exist.
Case in point: Over at Lexology.com lat week, an article titled Is litigation funding in peril? appeared. The article states, "In its ruling (KKO 2015:17), the Finnish Supreme Court found that under certain criteria it is possible to hold the shareholders of a limited liability company liable for the company's liabilities." So, if this were a U.S. LLC, we'd know there are no "shareholders" of an LLC. We have members (or should). But, I am no expert in Finnish law, but it is different than U.S. law. According to Wikipedia (that all-knowing source), Osakeyhtiö, abbreviated Oy, means "stock company," thought others sources says it means "limited company" or limited stock company." Nonetheless, the shareholder characterization appears acceptable for a Finnish (but not a U.S.) entity.
Finnish entities do not break down the same way as U.S. entities (this is not surprising). Thus, in Finland, there are limited partnerships, limited companies, and public limited companies. My suspicion is that the Osakeyhtiö is actually more like a corporation, as "the management is provided by the management board," but general parlance is that it is an LLC because of how it translates.
The Lexology article discusses limited liability companies, but then repeatedly discusses piercing the "corporate" veil and the "corporate structure" of the entities in questions. To draw a direct analogy to U.S. entities, and to try to hold my overseas colleagues to U.S. language, would be unfair. It may be that in a non-U.S. jurisdiction, "limited liability companies" in such an instance means the more general "limited liability entities," and is not intended as a term of art for the LLC. However, there is language that can be employed globally to help make entity distinctions more clear, particularly when talking about general concepts for a more general audience. Avoiding terms of art where specificity is not intended would be helpful.
For example, if we talk about a "limited liability veil," we can use that to apply to all limited liability entities. This is particularly apt when discussing situations where multiple entities are in play, and perhaps we're discussing veil piercing of a partner corporation and its subsidiary LLC.
Similarly, we can talk about "entity structure," instead of "corporate structure," to ensure we're not assigning specific rules and obligations to the wrong entity type.
Cross-border entity issues are inherently complex, and understanding how foreign courts will view various business arrangements is always a challenge. Foreign courts often have to grapple with foreign entities, and must decide how to reconcile the entity choice with domestic law. I appreciate the challenge, and recognize that there are rarely easy answers. I do think, though, that avoiding specific entity language when more general language will suffice, it's a good idea, because we can avoid inadvertently attaching domestic rules to a foreign entity.
We use analogies as anchors to help us understand concepts. That can be good, and it can be helpful. But we must be careful not to overdo it. Despite some similarities, LLCs are distinct from corporations and LLPs. And the Oy is different than the GmbH or the S.A. or the NV. Comparisons are inevitable, and often helpful. But, if we get more specific than we need to, before we need to, we run the risk of framing the question incorrectly and prematurely.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
Facebook (not surprisingly) and other social media blew up when Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, released an open letter to their new baby daughter, Max. (Congratulations to all, by the way.) The Chan Zuckerberg family announced that they would be giving a ton of money to support important causes, which caused people to get excited, get skeptical, and get mad.
One big complaint has been that the family chose a limited liability company (LLC), which is not a corporation (more on that later), rather than a not-for-profit entity to do the work. Some say this makes it a scam. I say hooey. Even if it were a scam, it’s not because they chose an LLC.
- First, without knowing the LLCs members or structure, there’s no reason to say the LLC cannot be a 501(c)(3). But, more important, the Letter to Max never says they will give money to charity. Never.
The letter says:
As you begin the next generation of the Chan Zuckerberg family, we also begin the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to join people across the world to advance human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation. Our initial areas of focus will be personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities.
We will give 99% of our Facebook shares -- currently about $45 billion -- during our lives to advance this mission.
How the Chan Zuckerberg’s choose to advance that mission can easily be through an LLC, whether it is tax-exempt or not. They may have chosen the for-profit (or benefit) LLC as the entity so that they could seek profit in certain ways, with the thought that the profit seeking supports the mission. Or maybe they want to be able to give to for-profit entities to build and grow business in areas that further their mission, but lacks status that would satisfy IRS nonprofit requirements.
Regardless, the choice of LLC may be a good one. I am thinking these folks have good counsel and financial advisors, so the entity choice probably serves their purposes, or at least their best estimate of those future purposes. And I am all for them putting that kind of money behind what seems to me like an excellent mission. So, like them or hate, but back off their choice of entity. (Leave the LLC alone!)
And, since this would not be a post of mine without noting the utter media failure in referring to the LLC, again, it’s a limited liability company, not corporation, as several news outlets have reported. PBS tends to be my favorite news source, which makes it all the more painful that they may be the source of this limited liability corporation nonsense.
The apparent source of the limited liability “corporation” nonsense is the PBS Newshour, link here. I know the U.S. Supreme Court has gotten this wrong, too, but I had hope for better from PBS. Oh well. I'll still be listening to PBS for quality news, and I'll still be happy to hear when someone commits to putting billions of dollars behind good causes. If either one doesn't follow through, I'll be disappointed, but I am not ready to give up hope on either one, just yet.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Like many people, I am traveling for the holiday this week. Because of that, I'll keep this short. Since November 15, 2015, six more courts have listed an LLC as a "limited liability corporation," instead of the correct, ""limited liability company." The culprits:
1) JACK LOUMENA, Pl., v. WALTER P HAMMON, et al., Defendants. Additional Party Names: Travis I. Krepelka, 15-CV-03613-LHK, 2015 WL 7180679, at *2 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 16, 2015) ( "PAI 'is a limited liability corporation which was originally owned, at least in part, by...Timothy Tibbott.' . . . Aug. 25, 2014 Order at 5.") .
2) Ironridge Glob. IV, Ltd. v. Securities and Exch. Commn., 1:15-CV-2512-LMM, 2015 WL 7273262, at *11 (N.D. Ga. Nov. 17, 2015) ("Notwithstanding the plain text of § 1391(c), the SEC argues that (1) § 1391(c) was intended to apply to corporations, partnerships, limited liability corporations, and labor unions—not federal agencies—according to “a natural reading of the full text of the statute” and its legislative history; and (2) to read § 1391(c) otherwise would facilitate forum shopping.").
3) In the caption: Perez v. Sophia's Kalamazoo, LLC, d/b/a SOPHIA'S HOUSE OF PANCAKES, a limited liability corporation, et al., Defendants., No. 1:14-CV-772, 2015 WL 7272234 (W.D. Mich. Nov. 17, 2015).
4) In the caption: Oracle America, Inc., a Delaware Corporation, Plaintiff, v. The Oregon Health Insurance Exchange Corporation, dba Cover Oregon, an Oregon Limited Liability Corporation, and The State of Oregon, by and through The Oregon Health Authority and The Oregon Department of Human Services, Defendants, No. 3:14-CV-01279-BR, 2015 WL 7296233 (D. Or. Nov. 18, 2015).
This post concludes the Contract Is King, But Can It Govern Its Realm? Micro-symposium. The symposium was hosted as part of the AALS section on Agency, Partnership, LLCs and Unincorporated Associations in advance of the section meeting on January 7th at 1:30 where the conversation will be continued.
I summarized the conversation and provided links to all of the individual posts. Bookmark this page-- there is great commentary at your finger tips on a range of topics. Please keep reading (and commenting) on these great contributions by our insightful participants to whom we are very grateful.
Jeffrey Lipshaw kicked off the symposium conversation with his post (available here) questioning, in practice, how different LLCs are from traditional corporations. He used a great map analogy to talk about the role of formation documents and default rules as gap fillers.
“The contractual, corporate, and uncorporate models are always reductions in the bits and bytes of information from the complex reality, and that’s what makes them useful, just as a map of Cambridge, Massachusetts that was as complex as the real Cambridge would be useless.”
After asserting that LLCs differ from corporations only in matters of degrees, Jeff went on to to them illustrate how degrees of difference may still matter. He provided a good example of a situation where the ability to eliminate fiduciary duties may produce the right result—an option only available in alternative entities not corporations.
Mohsen argued that if contract is king, business revenue rules the reign in Delaware. Franchise taxes and revenues generated from being the business domicile of so many businesses, in all forms, is a source of riches, one that Mohsen argued will be protected by preserving a commitment to freedom of contract.
“Delaware’s annual tax charged to alternative entities is flat. All LLCs and LPs, no matter how large or small, whether publicly traded or closely held, pay the state only $300 annually for the privilege of being a Delaware entity. Thus, unlike the corporate context, where Delaware’s business is dependent on attracting large, publicly traded corporations, in the alternative entity context, Delaware’s business depends on volume alone.”
In his first post, Mohsen also addressed Delaware Chief Justice Strine and Vice Chancellor Laster’s provocative “Siren Song” book chapter, where the pair advocate for mandatory fiduciary duties in publicly traded LLCs and LPs. Mohsen questioned the limitation arguing that
“[M]any of critiques that Strine and Laster levy at publicly traded alternative entities– unsophisticated investors, the absence of true bargaining, and confusing contract terms that often unduly favor the managers—could be levied at many private entities as well. If so, then why should Strine & Laster’s proposal be limited to public entities?”
Sandra Miller blogged here about investor sophistication and its relationship to fiduciary duty waivers. She highlighted her scholarship in the area and provided helpful links to her papers discussing her points in greater detail.
“[T]here are asymmetries in the marketplace that make it unlikely that the marketplace will efficiently discount the effects of waivers. Given the investor profile, at a very minimum, the duty of loyalty should be non-waivable for publicly-traded entities.”
Joan Heminway questioned whether LLC operating agreements are contracts, and if not the implication for fiduciary duties, statue of frauds, capacity and public policy challenges and enforceability against third parties.
“[W]ith judicial and legislative attention on freedom of contract in the LLC, the status of the LLC as a matter of contract law may shed light on the extent to which contract law can or should be important or imported to legal issues involving LLC operating agreements...So, while contract may be king in LLC law, we may question whether a contract even exists under LLC law.”
Joan also highlighted her recent appearance at the ABA LLC Institute in a related post available here and shared the many functions of an operating agreement (whether contract or not!).
Daniel Kleinberger contributed to the conversation in four parts (appearing in three separate posts here (1), here (2) and here(3)). Daniel focused on Delaware’s implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing and the covenant’s role in Delaware entity law. He carefully distinguished the covenant from the UCC implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and from the corporate standards of good faith as articulated in Stone v. Ritter and Smith v. Van Gorkum. Thirdly he addressed waivers of good faith and fair dealing both in the governing agreement and arising from contract in Delaware and under the Uniform Limited Partnership Act.
“Perhaps ironically (or some might even say “counter-intuitively”), the Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (2006) (Last Amended 2013) permits an ULLCA operating agreement to go where a Delaware operating agreement cannot.”
In his final post, available here, Kleinberger addressed interpretation questions with implied covenants analogizing the analysis to that used with impracticability.
“For impracticability or a breach of the implied covenant to exist, the situation at issue must have been fundamentally important to the deal and yet unaddressed by the deal documents. Put another way: the notion of a “cautious enterprise” means that only a condition that is egregious or at least extreme is capable of revealing a gap to be remedied by the implied covenant.”
BLPB editor, Joshua Fershee, was inspired by the topic and contributed his own post to the micro-symposium. In his post, he declared himself a Larry Ribstein devotee and highlighted how the structural differences in the LLC form, as opposed to the corporate form, provide business benefits for LLC members.
“The flexibility of the LLC form creates opportunity for highly focused, nimble, and more specific entities that can be vehicles that facilitate creativity in investment in a way that corporations and partnerships, in my estimation, do not.”
Greg Day, another BLPB-generated contribution to the conversation, blogged about sophisticated parties’ utilization of freedom of contract in LLC, and sophisticated investors demand for the conformity of traditional corporate formation over LLCs.
“[W] hen Delaware LLCs become big, and attract big funds, a condition of investment almost always requires an LLC to convert into a Delaware corporation. It seems that the lack of predictability associated with the freedom of contract scares potential investors who prefer the comforts of fiduciary duties, among other corporate staples. …So the parties who ostensibly are best served by contractual freedoms—i.e., sophisticated parties—appear to be the ones most likely to demand the traditional corporate form. And on a related note, this helps to explain why such a paltry number of LLCs and LPs have become public companies.”
Finally, Peter Molk & Verity Winship also contributed a last-minute addition to the symposium highlighting their empirical work on LLC operating agreement dispute resolution provisions as it relates to the question of contracting rights in unincorporated entities. They reported some of their early findings and linked it to the discussion about contractual freedom and the implications of mandatory fiduciary duties.
“More than a third of the agreements in our sample selected the forum for resolving disputes, primarily through exclusive forum provisions or mandatory arbitration provisions. The agreements also modified litigation processes through terms that imposed fee-shifting, waived jury trials, and, less commonly, through other means like books and records limitations.”
Participants in the Micro-Symposium were asked to respond to a series of questions (available here) that will be further discussed at the AALS section meeting. Joan MacLeod Heminway (BLPB editor), Dan Kleinberger, Jeff Lipshaw, Mohsen Manesh, and Sandra Miller.will be panelists at the AALS meeting and joined by Lyman Johnson and Mark Loewenstein.
Monday, November 23, 2015
Daniel Kleinberger: Delineating Delaware’s Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing (Contract Is King Micro-Symposium)
Guest Post by Daniel Kleinberger
Part IV– Delaware’s Implied Contractual Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing
Delaware case law applying the implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing to a limited partnership dates back to at least 1993,[i] and Delaware’s limited partnership and limited liability company acts have expressly recognized the covenant since 2004.[ii] However, the contents of the implied covenant have not always been crystal clear.[iii]
A passage from a 2000 Chancery Court decision is illustrative:
The implied covenant of good faith requires a party in a contractual relationship to refrain from arbitrary or unreasonable conduct which has the effect of preventing the other party to the contract from receiving the fruits of the contract. This doctrine emphasizes faithfulness to an agreed common purpose and consistency with the justified expectations of the other party. The parties' reasonable expectations at the time of contract formation determine the reasonableness of the challenged conduct. [C]ases invoking the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing should be rare and fact-intensive. Only where issues of compelling fairness arise will this Court embrace good faith and fair dealing and imply terms in an agreement.[iv]
This formulation was correct as far as it went, but it omitted the all-important frame of reference. In the “fact-intensive” inquiry, what types of facts matter? Where does the court look to determine “the agreed common purpose” and “the justified expectations of the [complaining] party”? What evidence is admissible to prove the expected “fruits of the bargain”?
The answers to these questions determine whether “implying obligations based on the covenant of good faith and fair dealing [remains] a cautious enterprise.”[v] The broader the frame of reference, the more likely is the covenant to become “a judge's roving commission for determining fairness.”[vi]
Fortunately, over the past five years the Court of Chancery and the Delaware Supreme Court have provided both clarity and context. The frame of reference is confined to the actual words of the agreement; the reasonable expectations must be gleaned from those words.[vii]
Thus, the actual words of the agreement control the application of the implied covenant, both as to “fair dealing” and “good faith”:
“Fair dealing” is not akin to the fair process component of entire fairness, i.e., whether the fiduciary acted fairly when engaging in the challenged transaction as measured by duties of loyalty and care …. It is rather a commitment to deal “fairly” in the sense of consistently with the terms of the parties' agreement and its purpose. Likewise, “good faith” does not envision loyalty to the contractual counterparty, but rather faithfulness to the scope, purpose, and terms of the parties' contract. Both necessarily turn on the contract itself and what the parties would have agreed upon had the issue arisen when they were bargaining originally.[viii]
When a court considers a fiduciary claim, the “court examines the parties as situated at the time of the [alleged] wrong…. [and] determines whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, considers the defendant's obligations (if any) in light of that duty, and then evaluates whether the duty was breached.”[ix] In contrast, because the actual words of the agreement control the application of the implied covenant:
An implied covenant claim ... looks to the past. It is not a free-floating duty unattached to the underlying legal documents. It does not ask what duty the law should impose on the parties given their relationship at the time of the wrong, but rather what the parties would have agreed to themselves had they considered the issue in their original bargaining positions at the time of contracting.[x]
A successful implied covenant claim depends on finding a gap in the contractual language; therefore, an implied covenant claim cannot override an express contractual provision.[xi] For example, if a limited partnership agreement creates options for limited partners under specified circumstances and not otherwise, the implied covenant will not extend the option right to circumstances not specified.[xii] Expressio unius est exclusio alterius.[xiii] There is no gap.
But inevitably gaps will exist:[xiv]
No contract, regardless of how tightly or precisely drafted it may be, can wholly account for every possible contingency. Even the most skilled and sophisticated parties will necessarily fail to address a future state of the world ... because contracting is costly and human knowledge imperfect. In only a moderately complex or extend[ed] contractual relationship, the cost of attempting to catalog and negotiate with respect to all possible future states of the world would be prohibitive, if it were cognitively possible. And parties occasionally have understandings or expectations that were so fundamental that they did not need to negotiate about those expectations.[xv]
For example, suppose that: (i) a limited partnership agreement authorizes the general partner to restructure the organization as the general partner sees fit provided a competent expert provides a “fairness opinion” stating that the restructuring is fair to the limited partners; (ii) a competent expert furnishes the opinion; but (iii) the expert omits to consider the value of certain contingent assets of the limited partnership, namely the value of pending derivative litigation.[xvi] Because the limited partnership agreement “[does] not specify whether the fairness opinion [has] to consider the value of derivative litigation,” the expert’s omission reveals “a gap for the implied covenant to fill.”[xvii] The gap is filled with what the court concludes “the parties would have agreed to themselves had they considered the issue in their original bargaining positions at the time of contracting.”[xviii]
In this respect, the implied covenant analysis resembles the analysis for determining whether a party’s contractual duties are discharged by supervening impracticably. “In order for a supervening event to discharge a duty …, the non-occurrence of that event must have been a ‘basic assumption’ on which both parties made the contract.”[xix] For impracticability or a breach of the implied covenant to exist, the situation at issue must have been fundamentally important to the deal and yet unaddressed by the deal documents. Put another way: the notion of a “cautious enterprise”[xx] means that only a condition that is egregious or at least extreme is capable of revealing a gap to be remedied by the implied covenant.[xxi]
[i] Desert Equities, Inc. v. Morgan Stanley Leveraged Equity Fund, II, L.P., 624 A.2d 1199, 1207 (Del. 1993) (“Desert Equities alleges that the defendants breached their implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing when they, in bad faith, breached the Partnership Agreement.”).
[ii] 74 Del. Laws, c. 265, §15 (revising Del. Code tit. 6, § 17-1101(d) to provide inter alia that “the partnership agreement may not eliminate the implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing”). The same change was made to the limited liability company act by 74 Del. Laws, c. 275, § 13 (revising Del. Code tit. 6, § 18-1101(c) to provide inter alia that “the limited liability company agreement may not eliminate the implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing”).
[iii] Cincinnati SMSA Ltd. P'ship v. Cincinnati Bell Cellular Sys. Co., 708 A.2d 989, 992 (Del. 1998) (stating that “[t]he articulation of the standard for implying terms through application of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing represents an evolution from previous Delaware case law” and that “Delaware Supreme Court jurisprudence is developing along the general approach that implying obligations based on the covenant of good faith and fair dealing is a cautious enterprise”). See also, e.g., Desert Equities, Inc. v. Morgan Stanley Leveraged Equity Fund, II, L.P., 624 A.2d 1199, 1207 (Del. 1993) (reversing the Chancery Court’s dismissal on the pleadings of plaintiff’s implied covenant claim; accepting the seemingly redundant notion that bad faith breach of the partnership agreement could breach the implied covenant; and suggesting the general partner may have acted in bad faith by “act[ing] unreasonably”). For a decision that addresses the redundancy issue, see Painewebber R & D Partners, L.P. v. Centocor, Inc., No. C.A. 96C-04-194, 1998 WL 109818, at *4 (Del. Super. Feb. 13, 1998) (“The Court is satisfied that the payment obligations of Centocor are encompassed by the express terms of the PPA and, as a matter of law, cannot be the subject of any implied covenant.”)
[iv] Cont'l Ins. Co. v. Rutledge & Co., 750 A.2d 1219, 1234 (Del. Ch. 2000) (internal quotations and footnotes omitted).
[v] Cincinnati SMSA Ltd. P'ship v. Cincinnati Bell Cellular Sys. Co., 708 A.2d 989, 992 (Del. 1998).
[vi] Daniel S. Kleinberger, Two Decades of "Alternative Entities": From Tax Rationalization Through Alphabet Soup to Contract as Deity, 14 Fordham J. Corp. & Fin. L. 445, 469 (2009) (first presented as the keynote address at the 2lst Century Commercial Law Forum – Seventh International Symposium 2007 – sponsored by School of Law, Tsinghua University, Beijing, People’s Republic of China). See also Nemec v. Shrader, 991 A.2d 1120, 1128 (Del. 2010) (“Crafting, what is, in effect, a post contracting equitable amendment that shifts economic benefits from [one set of shareholders to another] would vitiate the limited reach of the concept of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing…. The policy underpinning the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing does not extend to post contractual rebalancing of the economic benefits flowing to the contracting parties.”); Lonergan v. EPE Holdings, LLC, 5 A.3d 1008, 1019 (Del. Ch. 2010) (criticizing and rejecting attempts to “re-introduce fiduciary review through the backdoor of the implied covenant” of good faith and fair dealing). This point is precisely what divided the majority and dissent in Nemec. The core of the dissent is this statement: “[U]nder Delaware case law, a contracting party, even where expressly empowered to act, can breach the implied covenant if it exercises that contractual power arbitrarily or unreasonably.” Nemec, at 1131 (Jacobs, J. dissenting). The statement does not recognize that the frame of reference must be the words of the contract. Cf. ULLCA (2013) § 409(d), cmt. (stating that “the purpose of the contractual obligation of good faith and fair dealing is to protect the arrangement the members have chosen for themselves, not to restructure that arrangement under the guise of safeguarding it”). But cf. HB Korenvaes Inv., L.P. v. Marriot Corp., Del. Ch., C.A. No. 12922, Mem. Op. at 11, Allen, C., (June 9, 1993) (“Indeed the contract doctrine of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing may be thought in some ways to function analogously to the fiduciary concept.”) (quoted in Gale v. Bershad, No. CIV. A. 15714, 1998 WL 118022, at *5 n. 24(Del. Ch. Mar. 4, 1998); Gale v. Bershad, No. CIV. A. 15714, 1998 WL 118022, at *5 (“The function of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in defining the duties of parties to a contract, is analogous to the role of fiduciary law in defining the duties owed by fiduciaries.”); Blue Chip Capital Fund II Ltd. P'ship v. Tubergen, 906 A.2d 827, 832 (Del. Ch. 2006) (stating that “[t]he court [in Gale v. Bershad] explained that the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing defines the duties of parties to a contract and is analogous to the role of fiduciary law in defining the duties owed by fiduciaries”) (citing Gale v. Bershad, No. CIV. A. 15714,.1998 WL 118022 at *5, (Del.Ch. Mar. 3, 1998)).
[vii] These points are analogous to Professor Williston’s four corners approach to determining ambiguity for the purposes of the parol evidence rule. See, e.g., Wallace v. 600 Partners Co., 86 N.Y.2d 543, 548, 658 N.E.2d 715, 717 (1995) (stating that “[t]he question whether a writing is ambiguous is one of law to be resolved by the courts” and that “excursion beyond the four corners of the document” is warranted only when the wording is not “clear and complete”) (citing Williston, 4 Williston, Contracts, § 610A, at 513 [3d ed.]). The “roving commission” notion resembles Professor Corbin’s approach to the ambiguity question. “According to Corbin, the court cannot apply the parol evidence rule without first understanding the meaning the parties intended to give the agreement. To understand the agreement, the judge cannot be restricted to the four corners of the document.” Taylor v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 175 Ariz. 148, 153, 854 P.2d 1134, 1139 (1993) (citation omitted). Delaware takes the Williston approach. GMG Capital Investments, LLC v. Athenian Venture Partners I, L.P., 36 A.3d 776, 781-84 (Del. 2012) Schwartz v. Centennial Ins. Co., No. CIV. A. 5350 (1977), 1980 WL 77940, at *5 (Del. Ch. Jan. 16, 1980) (stating that “parol evidence may not be used to show an ambiguity in the first place”).
[viii] Gerber v. Enter. Products Holdings, LLC, 67 A.3d 400, 418-19 (Del. 2013) (quoting ASB Allegiance Real Estate Fund v. Scion Breckenridge Managing Member, LLC, 50 A.3d 434, 440–42 (Del. Ch. 2012), aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other grounds, 68 A.3d 665 (Del. 2013)) (footnotes omitted) (citations omitted) (internal quotations omitted without ellipsis by Gerber).
[ix] Gerber v. Enter. Products Holdings, LLC, 67 A.3d 400, 418 (quoting ASB Allegiance Real Estate Fund v. Scion Breckenridge Managing Member, LLC, 50 A.3d 434, 440–42 (Del. Ch. 2012), aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other grounds, 68 A.3d 665 (Del. 2013)) Del. 2013). Gerber was overruled on other grounds by Winshall v. Viacom Int'l, Inc., 76 A.3d 808 (Del. 2013). See also Gilbert v. El Paso Co., 575 A.2d 1131, 1142-43 (Del. 1990) (enforcing express conditions pertaining to a tender offer; stating that “[a]lthough an implied covenant of good faith and honest conduct exists in every contract … such subjective standards cannot override the literal terms of an agreement”).
[x] Gerber v. Enter. Prods. Holdings, LLC, 67 A.3d 400, 418 (Del. 2013) (quoting ASB Allegiance Real Estate Fund v. Scion Breckenridge Managing Member, LLC, 50 A.3d 434, 440–42 (Del. Ch. 2012), aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other grounds, 68 A.3d 665 (Del. 2013)) (emphasis added) (footnotes omitted) (citations omitted) (internal quotations omitted without ellipsis by Gerber). In this respect, the implied covenant parallels the contract law doctrine of unconscionability. See Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 208 (1981) (stating that the unconscionability analysis addresses whether “a contract or term thereof is unconscionable at the time the contract is made”) (emphasis added); UCC § 2-302 (stating that the doctrine applies only if “the court finds the contract or any clause of the contract to have been unconscionable at the time it was made”) (emphasis added).
[xi] Nemec v. Shrader, 991 A.2d 1120, 1127 (Del.2010) (“The implied covenant will not infer language that contradicts a clear exercise of an express contractual right.”).
[xii] See Aspen Advisors LLC v. United Artists Theatre Co., 843 A.2d 697, 707 (Del. Ch.) aff'd, 861 A.2d 1251 (Del. 2004) (“By specific words, the parties to the Stockholders Agreement and the Warrants identified particular transactions that would provide the Warrantholders with the right to receive the same consideration paid to common stockholders (e.g., in mergers involving United Artists) and the right (if they had exercised their Warrants) to tag along (i.e., in certain change of control transactions). Similarly, the parties also (by omission) defined the freedom of action other parties to those contracts (such as United Artists, the UA Holders, and Anschutz) had to engage in transactions without triggering rights of that nature.”).
[xiii] “[T]o express or include one thing implies the exclusion of the other.” EXPRESSIO UNIUS EST EXCLUSIO ALTERIUS, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014).
[xiv] However, whether a gap matters depends on whether a party’s conduct makes the gap apparent – i.e., whether one party’s conduct exposes an issue on which the parties would have agreed had the issue arisen when the deal was being made.
[xv] Allen v. El Paso Pipeline GP Co., L.L.C., No. CIV.A. 7520-VCL, 2014 WL 2819005, at *11 (Del. Ch. June 20, 2014) (internal quotations and citations omitted).
[xvi] In simplified form, this example reflects one of the transactions – the 2010 merger – addressed in Gerber v. Enter. Products Holdings, LLC, 67 A.3d 400 (Del. 2013), overruled on other grounds by Winshall v. Viacom Int'l, Inc., 76 A.3d 808 (Del. 2013).
[xvii] Allen v. El Paso Pipeline GP Co., L.L.C., No. CIV.A. 7520-VCL, 2014 WL 2819005, at *14 (Del. Ch. June 20, 2014). The opinion refers to the omission “creating a gap,” id. but the author respectfully disagrees. The gap existed ab initio. It remained hidden until revealed by the expert’s omission.
[xviii] Gerber v. Enter. Prods. Holdings, LLC, 67 A.3d 400, 418 (Del. 2013) (quoting ASB Allegiance Real Estate Fund v. Scion Breckenridge Managing Member, LLC, 50 A.3d 434, 440–42 (Del. Ch. 2012), aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other grounds, 68 A.3d 665 (Del. 2013)) (emphasis added) (footnotes omitted) (citations omitted) (internal quotations omitted without ellipsis by Gerber). It might be more consistent with actual practice to revise the quoted language so that the sentence read: “The gap is filled with what the court concludes the now complaining party would have insisted on as a condition to going forward with the deal, if the party had then considered the issue in the party’s original bargaining position at the time of contracting.”
[xix] Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 261, cmt. b (1981)
[xx] See n. 66.
[xxi] In this respect, the implied covenant is similar to the unconscionability doctrine of contract law. See Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 208. cmt. b (1981) (“Traditionally, a bargain was said to be unconscionable in an action at law if it was ‘such as no man in his senses and not under delusion would make on the one hand, and as no honest and fair man would accept on the other….”) (quoting Hume v. United States, 132 U.S. 406 (1889), which in turn was quoting Earl of Chesterfield v. Janssen, 2 Ves.Sen. 125, 155, 28 Eng.Rep. 82, 100 (Ch.1750)).
Friday, November 20, 2015
The micro-symposium has generated interest in a broad range of topics, so we are adding the following post by Peter Molk & Verity Winship discussing their recent scholarship on dispute resolution in LLC operating agreements and its intersection with the "contract is king" discussion this week.
This post highlights a particular area of private ordering within the LLC and other alternative entities: contractual provisions within the operating agreement that set the rules for resolving internal disputes. These terms determine how disputes are resolved, such as by specifying when claims must be submitted to arbitration, where disputes can be heard, and whether parties waive the jury right or impose fee-shifting of litigation costs. They apply to internal disputes, meaning they govern the dispute process among the LLCs’ members, managers, and the LLC itself.
How do these provisions fit with the debate over whether contract should be king? The broadest connection is straightforward. Dispute resolution provisions allocate rights and duties within LLCs, so the debate about the proper bounds of freedom of contract in the LLC space has implications for them as well. But how firms set the rules for internal disputes is also relevant to the particular debate about the imposition of fiduciary duties. Suppose that fiduciary duties were to become mandatory in publicly traded LLCs and LPs, as Delaware Chief Justice Strine and Vice Chancellor Laster have proposed and as Sandra Miller and Mohsen Manesh discuss in their posts in this micro-symposium. Imposing fiduciary duties, by expanding the actions that disgruntled members can bring, in turn puts particular pressure on the dispute resolution clauses.
To see the connection, look no further than the debate in the corporate context about private ordering of shareholder litigation in corporate charters and bylaws. Contract is not king in the corporate context – a host of mandatory rules, including fiduciary duties, are imposed to protect investor rights. Since corporations cannot respond by waiving fiduciary duties, some have instead taken the step of nevertheless effectively eliminating these protections by contracting out of enforcement mechanisms. Recent efforts at imposing fee shifting can be characterized as indirectly weakening mandatory protections by reducing the probability of enforcing them.
For corporations, the Delaware legislature eventually stepped in to ban fee-shifting provisions in the organizational documents of Delaware stock corporations. The legislative response is telling. It targets only stock corporations, using the business form as a proxy for characteristics that trigger a need for additional protections. This takes us back to the question of whether contract should be king, and whether business form is a good rough indicator of characteristics (sophistication, consent) that we care about.
In an empirical study we are conducting, we identified dispute resolution provisions in a sample of operating agreements of privately owned Delaware LLCs. More than a third of the agreements in our sample selected the forum for resolving disputes, primarily through exclusive forum provisions or mandatory arbitration provisions. The agreements also modified litigation processes through terms that imposed fee-shifting, waived jury trials, and, less commonly, through other means like books and records limitations.
We can think of these practices as altering the calculus parties engage in when deciding whether to enforce their rights that exist under the agreement. While looking at dispute resolution provides a more accurate picture for LLCs’ governance regimes, it also complicates the contract-as-king debate. Strengthening LLC members’ mandatory protections beyond the duty of good faith and fair dealing, as several earlier posts propose, does little good if LLCs respond by cutting back parties’ ability to enforce these protections.
Thursday, November 19, 2015
Contract Law, Fiduciary Duties, Good Faith, Fair Dealing, and the Legal Status of LLC Operating Agreements (Contract Is King Micro-Symposium)
The title of this post undoubtedly promises too much. But that won't prevent me from trying to establish a few points that approach the many topics that could be discussed under a title that includes this much great stuff. I make that attempt here.
I start with contract law. As I noted in my prior post for this micro-symposium, one of my appearances at last week's ABA LLC Institute included a debate on whether an operating agreement is a common law contract. This question arose in connection with my teaching of operating agreements (and also has arisen in my teaching of partnership agreements) in Business Associations. Of course, lawyers understand that not all agreements are contracts. A significant amount of energy is spent on this matter in the beginning of the standard contracts course in law school.
Is an LLC operating agreement a contract? I like the question not just for its face value, but because I believe that the answer does or may matter for purposes of resolving other questions arising in and outside LLC law. I captured some thoughts about this question in a draft essay soon to be published in revised form in the SMU Law Review. (I blogged about it here over the summer.) Among other things, with judicial and legislative attention on freedom of contract in the LLC, the status of the LLC as a matter of contract law may shed light on the extent to which contract law can or should be important or imported to legal issues involving LLC operating agreements.
I would like to thank the Business Law Professor Blog for this very important symposium. My brief thoughts are filling in for Marcia Narine. I became well acquainted with LLCs when I practiced in the alternative entities group of a Delaware law firm. What most stood out during my time there was the freedom enjoyed by LLCs and LPs to abridge fiduciary duties and deviate from other corporate orthodoxies. I constantly thought about whether this freedom of contract was a good thing; after all, case law tells only the tragic stories.
As mentioned in other posts, contractual freedom is ideal when sophisticated parties of comparable strengths are allowed to define their relationships. And generally, few problems arise from the LLC form. Law firms typically provide those seeking to form an LLC one of their standard, boilerplate operating agreements, which includes fiduciary duties. In turn, business owners are able to enjoy limited liability while avoiding many of the formalities, transactions costs, and tax burdens associated with traditional corporations. However, there seems to be an increasing number of cases where operating agreements resemble adhesion contracts, creating opportunities for abuse. Is it wise that unsophisticated are more at risk for contractual related harms so that sophisticated parties can contract freely?
The above narrative suggests that sophisticated parties benefit and enjoy the organizational flexibilities provided by the LLC form. It goes unnoticed, though, that sophisticated parties often reject this freedom of contract. Without question the trend in Delaware is towards the formation of LLCs and LPs versus corporations (at seemingly a 3:1 rate). But that doesn’t mean alternative entities always choose to keep their form. I was discussing this issue with a friend and practicing lawyer who mentioned that, in his transactional practice, when Delaware LLCs become big, and attract big funds, a condition of investment almost always requires an LLC to convert into a Delaware corporation. It seems that the lack of predictability associated with the freedom of contract scares potential investors who prefer the comforts of fiduciary duties, among other corporate staples. Upon some reflection, this anecdotally lines up with my experience as best as I can remember. So the parties who ostensibly are best served by contractual freedoms—i.e., sophisticated parties—appear to be the ones most likely to demand the traditional corporate form. And on a related note, this helps to explain why such a paltry number of LLCs and LPs have become public companies.