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.  

February 2, 2016 in Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

2016 American Bar Association LLC Institute

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.

Thanks.


Tom Rutledge
Thomas.rutledge@skofirm.com

 

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.

January 26, 2016 in Conferences, Joan Heminway, LLCs, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Contractual Nature of LLCs, An AALS Conference Afterward

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.

January 14, 2016 in Conferences, Joan Heminway, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Is Contract King in LLCs? (And What Does Being "King" Mean, Anyway?)

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 . . . .

January 6, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Joan Heminway, LLCs, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

U.S. Courts Called LLCs Corporations About Once a Day in 2015

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 Delawarewritten 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?)  

January 5, 2016 in Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Law Firms, LLCs, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Year-End Edition: LLCs Are Still Not Corporations, Even if They Try to Pass a Law

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":

The most concerning of these, though, is Proposed & Enacted Legislation View all 169.  That's not just misstating the law; it's trying to make incorrect law. 

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.  

A bipartisan effort in the U.S. Congress is underway, as well, with "[a] bill to amend the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 to modify provisions relating to grants, and for other purposes."  This proposed amendment to Superfund boasts Sen. Inhofe, James M. R-OK, as the primary sponsor, and co-sponsors include Sen. Markey, Edward J. D-MA, Sen. Rounds, Mike R-SD, Sen. Boxer, Barbara D-CA, Sen. Crapo, Mike R-ID, Sen. Booker, Cory A. D-NJ.  The bill was referred to the Committee on Environment and Public works, and included the following provisions: 
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).'.
S. 1479, 114th CONGRESS, 1st Session (emphasis added).
 
Sigh.  
 
Finally, less binding than a statute would be, but perhaps more upsetting given its source, is Senate Resolution 210 from June 23, 2015.  A resolution "[c]elebrating the 125th anniversary of the State of Wyoming" as proposed by Wyoming Senator Enzi (for himself and Senator Barrasso) has the following bit of history wrong: "Whereas in 1977, Wyoming was the first State to establish a limited liability corporation (LLC) statute . . . ."  While the Senate resolution appropriately "commends and celebrates Wyoming and the people of Wyoming on the 125th anniversary of the State of Wyoming," it is a something of a travesty that a "limited liability corporation" is part of that celebration of the state that gave us the limited liability company.  
 
Okay, just to be clear, I know that relative to real world problems like starvation, illness, and violence, this is not even a blip on the radar of relative importance. But, this should also not be that hard to fix, even with 169 proposed pieces of legislation last year using such abominable language.  
 
As we close out the year, I am hoping to see Michigan State at the top of both the men's football and basketball rankings, and I wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year that is entirely free of LLCs being called "limited liability corporations." 

December 29, 2015 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

International Edition: Can it be an LLC if there are Shareholders?

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.  

December 15, 2015 in Corporations, International Business, International Law, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Partnership, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Back Off the Chan Zuckerbergs and Their Limited Liability Company (NOT Corporation)

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. 

  1. 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.  

December 3, 2015 in Current Affairs, Human Rights, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Nonprofits, Social Enterprise, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Misstating the LLC in the Thanksgiving Season

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). 

5) In re Jeffries, No. 14-50656, 2015 WL 7348214, at *3 (Bankr. M.D.N.C. Nov. 19, 2015) ("The Debtor did not disclose her affiliation with GQM, a limited liability corporation organized in North Carolina in May, 2005. The Debtor was listed as the registered agent and signed the Articles of Organization as the President [member organizer]. This LLC was dissolved in August 2010.").

6) HUA LIN, HENG CHEN, FEI HU, WEI LIN, ZHEN ZU, and JIU TAO WANG, Plaintiffs, v. W & D ASSOCIATES LLC doing business as KUDETA, CHRISTINA TAN, DOUG MCSHANE, ALBERT WONG, ELAINE PI YUN CHAO, EMILY PI SHIA CHAO, HERRY DARBI, TERRENCE KUM, and TOM HO, Defendants, and W & D ASSOCIATES LLC doing business as KUDETA, CHRISTINA TAN, DOUG MCSHANE, ALBERT WONG, ELAINE PI YUN CHAO, and EMILY PI SHIA CHAO, Third-Party Plaintiffs, v. HERRY DARBI, Third-Party Def.., 3:14-CV-164 (VAB), 2015 WL 7428528, at *2 (D. Conn. Nov. 20, 2015) ("W&D was founded as a Connecticut limited liability corporation in 2005 for the purpose of funding and managing Kudeta Restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut.").
 

November 24, 2015 in Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Contract Is King Micro-Symposium Wrap Up

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 Manesh contributed two posts (available here and here).

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 KleinbergerJeff LipshawMohsen Manesh, and Sandra Miller.will be panelists at the AALS meeting and joined by Lyman Johnson and Mark Loewenstein

November 24, 2015 in Anne Tucker, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Partnership, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)

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]

Endnotes:

[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)).

November 23, 2015 in Conferences, Corporate Governance, Delaware, LLCs, Partnership, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 20, 2015

LLC Agreements and the Private Ordering of Dispute Resolution (“Contract Is King” Micro-Symposium)

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.

Guest post by Peter Molk & Verity Winship:

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.

November 20, 2015 in Business Associations, Conferences, LLCs, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (1)

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.

Continue reading

November 19, 2015 in Business Associations, Joan Heminway, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (2)

Do Sophisticated Parties Really Prefer the Freedom of Contract? (Contract Is King Micro-Symposium)

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.

November 19, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, LLCs, Venture Capital | Permalink | Comments (1)

Exalting the Distinct Nature of the LLC (Contract Is King Micro-Symposium)

Regular readers of this blog know that I am fervent that the distinction between entities matters, particularly when it comes to LLCs and corporation.  I’m happy to be a part of this micro-symposium, and I have enjoyed the input from the other participants. 

My comments relate primarily to the role of contract in LLCs and how that is different that corporations. Underlying my comments is my thesis that LLCs and corporations are meaningfully distinct. This view is in contrast to Jeff Lipshaw, who argued in his post:

[I]f uncorporations differ from corporations, it’s more a matter of degree than of any real difference.  Both are textual artifacts.  We have created or assumed obligations pursuant to the text at certain points in time, and we use the artifacts and their associated legal baggage opportunistically when we can.  I am not convinced that organizing in the form or corporations or uncorporations makes much difference on that score.

I tend to be more of a Larry Ribstein disciple on this, and I wish I had the ability to articulate the issues as eloquently and intelligently as he could.  Alas, you’re stuck with me. (Editor's note: As Jeff Lipshaw says in his comment below, he did not say the forms of LLCs and corporations are not distinct. He is, of course, correct, and I know very well he knows the difference between the forms. In fact, a good portion of what I understand of the practical implications of the LLC comes from him. I do believe that the choice of form matters, and at least should matter in how courts review the different entities, as I explain below. And I do think the LLC is better, or should be (if courts will allow it), because of what the form allows interested parties to do with it. 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.]

In his book, The Rise of the Uncorporation, Ribstein stated, “Uncorporations [his term for noncorporate entities] come in all shapes and sizes, and are increasingly encroaching on traditionally ‘corporate’ domain.  The thesis is that form matters.” He goes on to explain that the differences between corporations and noncorporate entities have practical implications for those in business (and their lawyers).  I think he was right. 

It seems that some view the limited liability protection that comes with both an LLC and a corporation as the main, if not sole, defining function of the firm. If that were true, then it would be accurate that LLCs and corporation are functionally the same. I think the evolution and purposes of the limited partnership, the LLC, and the corporation suggest that these entities at least should (if they don’t in fact) serve different purposes and roles for those who create them.

The LLC Revolution helped facilitate formation of entities with pass-through taxation and limited liability protection. And it is true, that limited liability one chief benefit of the corporation, and the rise of the corporation can be tracked to that benefit.  But, entity choice is more that just liability and taxation, too, at least where there are real entity choices that provide options. 

Corporations are far more off-the-rack in nature, and they have a tremendous number of default rules. These rules facilitate start up, and help skip a number of conversations that promoters and initial investors might otherwise need to have. (Of course, they probably should have these conversations, but if they don’t, there are more significant gap fillers than for other entities.) 

Ribstein observed, “Uncorporations not only explicitly permit, but also indirectly facilitate contracts.  A firm’s contractual freedom should be evaluated not only in terms of the flexibility permitted by a given business association statute, but in light of the alternative available standard forms.”  As such, the clearer and more distinct the terms of the various entity-form statutes are, the more significant a firm’s choice of form can be.  And if the choice is an LLC, that choice should be respected.

As my countless posts lamenting the fact that courts can’t seem to get the distinction between LLCs and corporations clear, there’s evidence that Lipshaw is right as to the current state of the law, or some meaningful portion of it. But that doesn’t make it right.

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November 19, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Partnership | Permalink | Comments (6)

Daniel Kleinberger: Delineating Delaware’s Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing Part III (Contract Is King)

Part III Another Major “Not” and the Uniform Act’s More (!) Contractarian Approach

C. Not Whatever is Meant by a Contractual Provision Invoking “Good Faith”

Some limited partnership and operating agreements expressly refer to “good faith” and define the term.[1] As the Delaware Supreme Court held in Gerber v. Enter. Products Holdings, LLC (Gerber), such “express good faith provisions” do not affect the implied covenant.[2] In Gerber, the Court rejected the notion that “if a partnership agreement eliminates the implied covenant de facto by creating a conclusive presumption that renders the covenant unenforceable, the presumption remains legally incontestable.” [3]

The rejected notion arose from on an overbroad reading of Nemec v. Shrader [4] – namely that “under Nemec, the implied covenant is merely a ‘gap filler’ that by its nature must always give way to, and be trumped by, an ‘express’ contractual right that covers the same subject matter.”[5] Invoking Section 1101(d) of the Delaware Revised Uniform Limited Partnership Act,[6] the Gerber opinion stated: “That reasoning does not parse. The statute explicitly prohibits any partnership agreement provision that eliminates the implied covenant. It creates no exceptions for contractual eliminations that are ‘express.’”[7] 

Some agreements contain express good faith provisions but omit to define the concept.[8] Such omissions render the agreement ambiguous [9] and impose on the courts an interpretative task that involves looking not only to other, related provisions in the agreement [10] but also to the negotiations, if any, and other circumstances that led up to the agreement being made.[11]  A few Delaware cases have even resorted to the corporate fiduciary duty concept of good faith.[12] In any event, if, as held in Gerber, an agreement that expressly defines “good faith” cannot affect the implied covenant, a fortiori neither can an agreement that uses the term but omits to define it.

D. Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (ULLCA) Approach – More Contractarian than Delaware (!)

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. Although an ULLCA operating agreement may not “eliminate the contractual obligation of good faith and fair dealing …., [it] may prescribe the standards, if not manifestly unreasonable, by which the performance of the obligation is to be measured.”

This provision entered uniform laws with the Revised Uniform Partnership Act, which took the concept from the Uniform Commercial Code. ULPA (2001) followed suit, as did ULLCA (2006). In my opinion, this importation was a bad idea. But, in any event, the comment to ULLCA (2013) § 105(c)(6). at least provides examples:

EXAMPLE: The operating agreement of a manager-managed LLC gives the manager the discretion to cause the LLC to enter into contracts with affiliates of the manager (so-called “Conflict Transactions”). The agreement further provides: “When causing the Company to enter into a Conflict Transaction, the manager complies with Section 409(d) of [this act] if a disinterested person, knowledgeable in the subject matter, states in writing that the terms and conditions of the Conflict Transaction are equivalent to the terms and conditions that would be agreed to by persons at arm’s length in comparable circumstances.” This provision “prescribe[s] the standards by which the performance of the [Section 409(d)] obligation is to be measured.”[13]

EXAMPLE: Same facts as the previous example, except that, during the performance of a Conflict Transaction, the manager causes the LLC to waive material protections under the applicable contract. The standard stated in the previous example is inapposite to this conduct. Section 409(d) therefore applies to the conduct without any direct contractual delineation. (However, other terms of the agreement may be relevant to determining whether the conduct violates Section 409(d). See the comment to Section 409(d).)

EXAMPLE: The operating agreement of a manager-managed LLC gives the manager “sole discretion” to make various decisions. The agreement further provides: “Whenever this agreement requires or permits a manager to make a decision that has the potential to benefit one class of members to the detriment of another class, the manager complies with Section 409(d) of [this act] if the manager makes the decision with:

a. the honest belief that the decision: i. serves the best interests of the LLC; or ii. at least does not injure or otherwise disserve those interests; and

b. the reasonable belief that the decision breaches no member’s rights under this agreement.”

This provision “prescribe[s] the standards by which the performance of the [Section 409(d)] obligation is to be measured.” Compare Section 105(c)(6), with Nemec v. Shrader, 991 A.2d 1120 (Del. 2010) (considering such a situation in the context of the right to call preferred stock and deciding by a 3-2 vote that exercising the call did not breach the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing).

Looking to Delaware law, the comment advises that “[a]n operating agreement that seeks to prescribe standards for measuring the contractual obligation of good faith and fair dealing … should expressly refer to the obligation.” The comment refers to Gerber v. Enter. Prods. Hldgs., L.L.C., 67 A.3d 400, 418 (Del. 2013) as distinguishing between the implied contractual covenant and an express contractual obligation of “good faith” as stated in a limited partnership agreement.

Coming Next to a Blog Near You: So, what is Delaware’s implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing?

This posting is derived from Daniel S. Kleinberger, “Delaware’s Implied Contractual Covenant of Good Faith and “Sibling Rivalry” Among Equity Holders,” a paper presented at the 21st Century Commercial Law Forum: 15th International Symposium in Beijing, at Tsinghua University’s School of Law, November 1, 2015 (footnotes converted to endnotes).

 

ENDNOTES:

[1] E.g., DV Realty Advisors LLC v. Policemen's Annuity & Ben. Fund of Chicago, 75 A.3d 101, 109 (Del. 2013) (stating that, “[i]f the parties wanted to use the UCC definition of good faith, they could have so provided in the [limited partnership agreement] or incorporated it as a defined term by reference.”); In re El Paso Pipeline Partners, L.P. Derivative Litig., No. CIV.A. 7141-VCL, 2014 WL 2768782, at *17 (Del. Ch. June 12, 2014) (“In this case, the LP Agreement supplies a definition of ‘good faith’ that governs whether the defendants have complied with provisions of the LP Agreement that utilize that term.”)

[2] 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)

[3] Id., at 420, n. 48.

[4] Nemec v. Shrader, 991 A.2d 1120 (Del. 2010).

[5] Gerber, 67 A.3d at 420, n. 48.

[6] Del. Code., tit.6, § 17-1101(d).  The subsection has been amended since then but the relevant language is unchanged: “the agreement may not eliminate the implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing.”  Unlike the uniform partnership, limited partnership, and limited liability company acts, the Delaware statutes do not authorize a partnership or operating agreement to “prescribe the standards, if not manifestly unreasonable, by which the performance of the [implied contractual] obligation [of good faith and fair dealing] is to be measured.” UPA (2013) § 105(c)(6); ULPA (2013) § 105(c)(6); ULLCA § 105(c)(6) (identical wording in each).

[7] Gerber, 67 A.3d at 420, n. 48.  See also In re El Paso Pipeline Partners, L.P. Derivative Litig.:

The defendants … try to defeat the implied covenant claim by arguing that the LP Agreement expressly defines the term “good faith,” leaving no room for the implied covenant. According to the defendants, the implied covenant does not apply because the LP Agreement makes “good faith” the standard for evaluating whether the Conflicts Committee validly gave Special Approval and further defines “good faith” as subjective good faith. The defendants argue that when the parties have “agreed how to proceed under a future state of the world” (i.e., in the face of a conflict transaction), their bargain (i.e., the LP Agreement) “naturally controls.” The Delaware Supreme Court has rejected similar arguments.

No. CIV.A. 7141-VCL, 2014 WL 2768782, at *16 (Del. Ch. June 12, 2014) (citing and quoting Gerber v. Enter. Prods. Hldgs., LLC, 67 A.3d 400, 418 (Del.2013), overruled in part on other grounds by Winshall v. Viacom Int'l, Inc., 76 A.3d 808 (Del.2013) and DV Realty Advisors LLC v. Policemen's Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chi., 75 A.3d 101, 109 (Del.2013) (recognizing that the agreement's “contractual duty [of good faith] encompasses a concept of ‘good faith’ that is different from the good faith concept addressed by the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing”)) (parentheticals in the original).

The El Paso opinion further explained: “In this case, the LP Agreement supplies a definition of ‘good faith’ that governs whether the defendants have complied with provisions of the LP Agreement that utilize that term. The definition is not a means of implying terms to fill contractual gaps, and the implied covenant does not turn on whether the counterparty acted in subjective good faith.” El Paso., at *17.

[8] E.g., DV Realty Advisors LLC v. Policemen's Annuity & Ben. Fund of Chicago, 75 A.3d 101, 107 (Del. 2013); Allen v. Encore Energy Partners, L.P., 72 A.3d 93, 105 n.44 (Del. 2013) (referring to “the undefined term ‘bad faith’ in the LPA's exculpation provision”); Norton v. K-Sea Transp. Partners L.P., 67 A.3d 354, 362 (Del. 2013) (noting that (i) “the LPA broadly exculpates all Indemnitees … so long as the Indemnitee acted in ‘good faith;’” but (ii) “the LPA regrettably does not define ‘good faith’ in this context”).

[9] DV Realty Advisors LLC v. Policemen's Annuity & Ben. Fund of Chicago, 75 A.3d 101, 107 (Del. 2013) (noting that the failure of a limited partnership agreement to define the term resulted in “ambiguity”).

[10] See, e.g., Norton v. K-Sea Transp. Partners L.P., 67 A.3d 354, 362 (Del. 2013) (noting that “the LPA broadly exculpates all Indemnitees … so long as the Indemnitee acted in ‘good faith’ [but] regrettably does not define ‘good faith’ in this context;” dealing with “the parties' insertion of a free-standing, enigmatic standard of ‘good faith’ by construing the term to be consistent with another, related provision; stating that “[i]n this LPA's overall scheme, ‘good faith’ cannot be construed otherwise”).

[11] The ambiguity precludes application of the parol evidence rule.  Schwartz v. Centennial Ins. Co., No. CIV. A. 5350 (1977), 1980 WL 77940, at *5 (Del. Ch. Jan. 16, 1980) (stating that “[t]he parol evidence rule is unavailable to plaintiffs to bar the admission of [defendant’s] evidence to show the true meaning of the ambiguous term”).  In the Delaware Court of Chancery, the other circumstances may even include common drafting practices within the informal community of (mostly Delaware) lawyers whose practices regularly involve negotiating and drafting very sophisticated partnership and LLC agreements.  See In re El Paso Pipeline Partners, L.P. Derivative Litig., No. CIV.A. 7141-VCL, 2014 WL 2768782, at *22 (Del. Ch. June 12, 2014) (“[P]recedent suggests that if the drafters intended for a disclosure obligation to exist, they would have included specific language. A recent decision by this court interpreted a limited partnership agreement that utilized a similar structure for conflict-of-interest transactions, with four contractual alternatives including Special Approval. The language authorizing the Special Approval route stated that it would be effective ‘as long as the material facts known to the General Partner or any of its Affiliates regarding any proposed transaction were disclosed to the Conflicts Committee at the time it gave its approval.’ The inclusion of this condition in [that other] agreement indicates that without this language, a general partner and its affiliates would not have an obligation to disclose information.”) (citation and footnote omitted).

[12] DV Realty Advisors LLC v. Policemen's Annuity & Ben. Fund of Chicago, 75 A.3d 101, 110 (Del. 2013) (“In our recent opinion in Brinckerhoff v. Enbridge Energy Company, Inc. [67 A.3d 369, 373 (Del.2013)], we defined the characteristic of good faith by its opposite characteristic – bad faith. We applied a traditional common law definition of the business judgment rule to define a limited partnership agreement's good faith requirement. We used the formula describing conduct that falls outside business judgment protection, namely, an action ‘so far beyond the bounds of reasonable judgment that it seems essentially inexplicable on any ground other than bad faith.’ That definition of good faith, as set forth in Brinckerhoff, is appropriately applied in this case as well.”).  Thus, no single definition exists for the meaning of “good faith” when a limited partnership or LLC agreement expressly includes the term.  The meaning depends first on what, if any, definition the agreement provides.  In the absence of a definition, uncertainty is initially inevitable; the term means whatever the court determines the term to mean.  In contrast, it is certain that the implied covenant is not a fallback definition for an undefined express good faith provision.  Opinions dealing with such provisions never use the implied covenant even as a frame of reference.  See, e.g., DV Realty Advisors LLC v. Policemen's Annuity & Ben. Fund of Chicago, 75 A.3d 101, 107 (Del. 2013); Allen v. Encore Energy Partners, L.P., 72 A.3d 93, 105 n.44 (Del. 2013); Norton v. K-Sea Transp. Partners L.P., 67 A.3d 354, 362 (Del. 2013).  Moreover, using the implied covenant as a fallback definition would render the undefined provision duplicative, because the implied covenant exists in every limited partnership or LLC agreement as a matter of law.

[13] ULLCA (2013) § 105(c)(6).

November 19, 2015 in Business Associations, Conferences, Delaware, LLCs, Partnership, Shareholders, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)

What is an LLC Operating Agreement, Anyway? (Contract Is King Micro-Symposium)

I so appreciate the opportunity to be a part of this micro-symposium, in which we can explore important issues at the intersection of contract law and fiduciary duties in the fastest growing form of business entity in the United States: limited liability companies (LLCs).  Today, I contribute some foundational information relating to, but not directly responding to, the micro-symposium questions.  These observations come from a panel discussion at the 2015 ABA LLC Institute in Washington, DC in which I was a participant.  I blogged from the Institute last week and promised this post in that first post.

The session at the Institute that I feature in today's post explored the legal and practical nature of an operating agreement (a/k/a, a limited liability company agreement).  Since the operating agreement is the typical locus of private ordering in the LLC form, its status under LLC and other law should be of interest to us.  Among other things, understanding the operating agreement may better enable us to understand when it is a valid, binding, and enforceable obligation among the parties.  That's an issue I have been exploring in some of my work.  But there is more in the legal status of the operating agreement than meets the eye . . . .

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November 19, 2015 in Business Associations, Joan Heminway, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (13)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Mohsen Manesh: Delaware’s Financial Commitment to Unlimited Freedom of Contract (Contract Is King Micro-Symposium)

Guest post by Mohsen Manesh:

In my previous post, I suggested that we are unlikely to see Delaware ever step back from its statutory commitment to freedom of contract in the alternative entity context. And that is true even if Chief Justice Strine, Vice Chancellor Laster, and others might believe that unlimited freedom of contract has been bad public policy.

Why? To be cynical, it’s about money.

It is well known that Delaware, as a state, derives substantial profits, in the form of franchise taxes, as a result of its status as the legal haven for a majority of publicly traded corporations. In 2014 alone, Delaware collected approximately $626 million—that is almost 16% of the state’s total annual revenue—from corporate franchise taxes. (For scale, that’s almost $670 per natural person in Delaware.)

Less well documented, however, is that Delaware also now derives substantial—and growing—revenues as the legal home from hundreds of thousands of unincorporated alternative entities. My chart below tells the story. Over the last decade, while the percentage of the state’s annual revenue derived from corporate franchise taxes has been flat, an increasingly larger portion of the state’s annual revenue has been derived from the taxes paid by its domestic LLCs and LPs. Unsurprisingly, in Delaware, alternatives entities have been a real growth industry.

Given the state’s increasing dependence on revenues from domestic LLCs and LPs, it is highly unlikely that the state would undertake any reforms that risk eroding this emerging and increasingly important tax base. Evidence, as well as experience, suggests that businesses (and their lawyers) are drawn to Delaware, in part, because of its unlimited freedom of contract and the ability to tailor and eliminate all fiduciary duties. [1] Thus, if Delaware were to alter its alternative entity law to curtail that freedom and impose some form of mandatory, unwaivable fiduciary duties, it would lose some number of LLCs. Too many other jurisdictions “give the maximum effect to the … freedom of contract”. [2]

Importantly, however, this concern is much less acute when the reform is one that is limited only to publicly traded alternative entities. For one, as I noted in my earlier post, Delaware’s 150 or so publicly traded LPs and LLCs represent a tiny sliver of the hundreds of thousands of alternative entities domiciled in Delaware. Moreover, those few publicly traded firms contribute only a nominal portion to Delaware’s overall revenues collected from alternative entity taxes.

As I have shown in earlier work, unlike Delaware’s corporate franchise tax, which is scalable based on a formula that tends to charge most to large, publicly traded firms (up to $180,000 annually), 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. And publicly traded alternative entities represent a negligible part of the state’s overall volume—accounting for approximately $45,000 of the total $195 million that Delaware collected from its domestic alternative entities last year.

The upshot is that although Delaware might be quite sensitive economically to curtailing the freedom of contract for all alternative entities, lest it loses some if this thriving tax base, the state may be relatively indifferent to losing the approximately $45,000 annually that it gets from its few publicly traded LPs and LLCs. 

Whether this indifference can be transformed into a willingness to amend its law to impose mandatory fiduciary duties in publicly traded alternative entities depends on whether Strine, Laster, and others can make a convincing policy case for making this change. Or more cynically yet, it might depend on whether Delaware’s legislature fears that in the absence of state-level regulation, the federal government might step in to preempt Delaware law on behalf of public investors. [3]

-Mohsen Manesh

* * * * *

[1] See Franklin Gevurtz, Why Delaware LLCs?, 91 Or. L. Rev. 57, 105 (2012).

[2] See, e.g., Ark. Code Ann. § 4-32-1304 (2001); Colo. Rev. Stat. § 7-80-108(4) (2009); Conn. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 34-242(a) (West 2005); Ga. Code. Ann. § 14-11-1107(b) (2003 & Supp. 2010); Kan. Stat. Ann. § 17-76,134(b) (2007); Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 275.003 (West, Westlaw through 2010 legislation); La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 12:1367(B) (2010); Miss. Code. Ann. § 79-29-1201(2) (2009); Mo. Rev. Stat. § 347.081(2) (2001 & Supp. 2010); Nev. Rev. Stat. § 86.286(4)(b) (2010); N.M.Stat. Ann. § 53-19-65(A) (LexisNexis 1978 & Supp. 2003); N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 57C-10- 03(e) (2009); Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 18, § 2058(D) (West 1999 &  Supp.  2010);  Utah Code Ann. § 48-2c-1901 (LexisNexis 2007); Va. Code Ann. § 13.1-1001.1(C) (2006); Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 25.15.800(2) (West 2005); Wis. Stat. Ann. § 183.1302(1) (West 2002).

[3] Cf. Gerber v. Enterprise Prods. Holdings, LLC, 2012 WL 34442, *10 n.42 (Del. Ch. Jan. 6, 2012) (Noble, V.C.) (“This [case] raises the issue of just what protection Delaware law affords the public investors of limited partnerships that take full advantage of [the freedom of contracting.] If the protection provided by Delaware law is scant, then the LP units of these partnerships might trade at a discount or another governmental entity might step in and provide more protection to the public investors in these partnerships.”) (emphasis added).

November 17, 2015 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, LLCs, Partnership, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sandra Miller: Un-Sophisticated Parties Require Mandatory Duties at least in Publicly-Traded Entities if Not in all Entities (Contract Is King Micro-symposium)

 Guest post by Sandra Miller:

The ratio of LLC filings to corporate filings in Delaware from 2010 to 2014 was over 3 to 1.  Alternative business entities are no longer the province of a relatively small number of sophisticated investors.  Increasingly, corporations are becoming the “alternative” and LLCs and other unincorporated entities the norm.  Mom and Pop business as well as sophisticated real estate syndicators use alternative business entities.  Additionally, as discussed below, publicly-traded limited partnerships and LLCs are now being aggressively marketed. 

Accordingly, the assumptions that might once have justified greater reliance on private ordering in LLCs and alternative business entities should be revisited.  Not all investors are highly sophisticated parties and a relentlessly contractual approach to business entity governance is not appropriate for unsophisticated parties.   Nor is it appropriate for those without sophisticated legal counsel.  In backhanded fashion, this point was recognized by Larry E. Ribstein who advocated the removal of restrictions on waivers of fiduciary duties in limited partnerships when these entities were used by sophisticated firms that were unlikely to be publicly traded.   Ribstein expressly stated that limited partnership interests may be less vulnerable than corporate shareholders and are unlikely to be publicly traded.  (See Fiduciary Duties and Limited Partnerships)

Master limited partnerships (e.g. publicly-traded limited partnerships and publicly-traded LLCs) provide an important example of how capital from unsophisticated investors now flows readily into alternative investments.  According to the National Association of Publicly-Traded Partnerships (NAPTP) most MLP investors are individuals, the vast majority of whom are over age 50.  Many investors are individuals, estates, and retirement plans – unsophisticated economic players.  Thus, there 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.   (See Toward Consistent Fiduciary Duties)

            There are even strong arguments in favor of reinstating mandatory minimum fiduciary duties for all business entities, public or private.  Contractarians pre-suppose a level contractual playing field.  Yet, repeat players who structure similar transactions repeatedly are at a distinct advantage.  Moreover, there may not be equal legal representation of majority and minority investors.  (See A New Direction for LLC Research in a Contractarian Legal Environment) Moreover, it is total madness to think that a contractual approach to business entity governance reduces costs.  If anything, costs are increased by the lack of standard terms under a contractual regime. 

     In short, we have empirical data and years of experience with waivers that expose serious inefficiencies and injustices in a system that permits the waiver of all fiduciary duties.  It is time to reconsider the benefits of a mandatory duty of loyalty for all entities, public or private. 

-Sandra Miller

 

November 17, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, LLCs, Partnership, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, November 16, 2015

Daniel Kleinberger: Delineating Delaware’s Implied Covenant of Good Faith & Fair Dealing (Contract Is King Micro-sympsium)

Guest post by Daniel Kleinberger:

Part I - Introduction

My postings this week will seek to delineate Delaware’s implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing and the covenant’s role in Delaware entity law

An obligation of good faith and fair dealing is implied in every common law contract and is codified in the Uniform Commercial Code (“U.C.C”). The terminology differs:  Some jurisdictions refer to an “implied covenant;” others to an “implied contractual obligation;” still others to an “implied duty.”  But whatever the label, the concept is understood by the vast majority of U.S. lawyers as a matter of commercial rather than entity law.  And, to the vast majority of corporate lawyers, “good faith” does not mean contract law but rather conjures up an important aspect of a corporate director’s duty of loyalty.

Nonetheless, Delaware’s “implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing” has an increasingly clear and important role in Delaware “entity law” – i.e., the law of unincorporated business organizations (primarily limited liability companies and limited partnerships) as well as the law of corporations.

Because to the uninitiated “good faith” can be frustratingly polysemous, this first blog “clears away the underbrush” by explaining what Delaware’s implied covenant’s “good faith” is not.

Part II – A Couple of Major “Nots”

  1. Not the Looser Approach of the Uniform Commercial Code

The Uniform Commercial Code codifies the common law obligation of good faith and fair dealing for matters governed by the Code: “Every contract or duty within [the Uniform Commercial Code] imposes an obligation of good faith in its performance and enforcement.”  The Code defines “good faith” as “mean[ing] [except for letter of credit matters] honesty in fact and the observance of reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing.” An official comment elaborates: “Although ‘fair dealing’ is a broad term that must be defined in context, it is clear that it is concerned with the fairness of conduct rather than the care with which an act is performed.”

The UCC standard thus incorporates facts far beyond the words of the contract at issue and furthers a value (fairness) which in the entity context is usually the province of fiduciary duty.  The UCC  definition provides some constraint by referring to “reasonable commercial standards,” but “[d]etermining . . . unreasonableness inter se owners of an organization is a different task than doing so in a commercial context, where concepts like ‘usages of trade’ are available to inform the analysis.” ULLCA (2013) § 105(e), cmt.

The Delaware Supreme Court has flatly rejected the U.C.C. approach for Delaware unincorporated businesses.

  1. Not the Corporate Good Faith of Disney, Stone v. Ritter, and Caremark

An obligation to act in good faith has long been part of a corporate director’s duty under Delaware law, but the concept became ever more important following the landmark case of Smith v. Van Gorkom, 488 A.2d 858 (Del. 1985).  In Van Gorkom, the Delaware Supreme Court held directors liable for gross negligence in approving a merger transaction, a holding that “shocked the corporate world.”

 Spurred by the Delaware corporate bar, the Delaware legislature promptly amended Delaware’s corporate statute.  The amendment permits Delaware  corporations to essentially opt out of the Van Gorkom rule.  The now famous Section 102(b)(7) authorizes a Delaware certificate of incorporation to:

eliminat[e] or limit[] the personal liability of a director to the corporation or its stockholders for monetary damages for breach of fiduciary duty …, provided that such provision shall not eliminate or limit the liability of a director: (i) For any breach of the director's duty of loyalty to the corporation or its stockholders; [or] (ii) for acts or omissions not in good faith….

In effect, the provision authorizes exculpation from damages arising from claims of director negligence, but for some time the exception “for acts or omissions not in good faith” was controversial.  Where plaintiffs could not allege breach of the duty of loyalty, they sought to equate “not in good faith” with extreme negligence.

Notably, the meaning of “not in good faith” was pivotal in the lengthy and costly litigation arising from the Disney corporation’s termination of Michael Ovitz.  However, the Supreme Court’s decision in In re Walt Disney Co. Derivative Litig. left the issue murky.  Eventually, in Stone v. Ritter, the court made clear that in this context “good faith” is an aspect of the duty of loyalty.  The Court then equated a lack of this type of good faith with a director’s utter failure to attend to his or her oversight obligations (the so-called Caremark I duties).

Thus, a Delaware director’s fiduciary duty of good faith has nothing to do with the “good faith” of the Delaware implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

This posting is derived from Daniel S. Kleinberger, “Delaware’s Implied Contractual Covenant of Good Faith and “Sibling Rivalry” Among Equity Holders,” a paper presented at the 21st Century Commercial Law Forum: 15th International Symposium in Beijing, at Tsinghua University’s School of Law, November 1, 2015 (all footnotes and most citations omitted).

November 16, 2015 in Agency, Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, LLCs, Partnership, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)