Tuesday, October 21, 2014
In Business Organizations today, I spent some time reviewing the differences between varying entity types. I made the point that courts often make mistakes on this front, especially with LLCs and corporations, and it reminded me I needed to follow up on my own pet LLC protection project.
Over the years, I have taken more than a passing interest in how often courts refer to (and ultimately treat) LLCs. I have this thing where I think LLCs are not treated as well doctrinally as they should. In February of this month, I made the argument, Courts Should Get the Doctrinal Distinction Between LLCs and Corporations, and I have made other similar arguments (here, here, and here).
As part of this I committed to noting when courts refer to LLCs as "limited liability corporations" and not "limited liability companies," as they should. Almost one year ago, I noted this continuing theme, repeating the search I did for a 2011 article, where I found in a May 2011 search of Westlaw’s “ALLCASES” database that there were 2,773 documents with the phrase “limited liability corporation," in describing an LLC. (That article is here.) Things are not getting much better. Since Oct. 15, 2013, there have been 410 more cases making that same mistake. Just since my February 4, 2014 post, reference above, there have been 300 of those cases.
As I read through some of these cases, many of which don't seem to turn on whether the entity is a limited liability company or a corporation, I have noticed that some of the case may have an entity structure issue that no one is raising. That's a failure of at least one of the parties, and potentially the court. I plan to follow up with a few example of such cases, but for now, I'll part with my familiar refrain: as long as courts keeping describing limited liability companies as corporations, I'll keep pointing it out.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
I plan to write a more traditional blog post later if I have time, but I am in the midst of midterm grading hell. I was amused today in class when a student compared the drama of the Francis v. United Jersey Bank case with the bankruptcy, bank, and mortgage fraud convictions of husband and wife Joe and Teresa Guidice from the reality TV hit the Real Housewives of New Jersey.
I had provided some color commentary courtesy of Reinier Kraakman and Jay Kesten’s The Story of Francis v. United Jersey Bank: When a Good Story Makes Bad Law, and apparently Mrs. Pritchard’s defenses reminded the student of Teresa Guidice’s pleas of ignorance. Other than being stories about New Jersey fraudsters, there aren’t a lot of similarities between the cases. Based on my quick skim of the indictment I don’t think that Teresa served on the board of any of the companies at issue--Joe apparently had an LLC and was the sole member, and the vast majority of the counts against the couple relate to their individual criminal conduct. In addition, Teresa is also going to jail, and no one suffered that fate in United Jersey. But luckily, she may see a big payday from a purported book deal and reality TV show spinoff after she’s out, possibly disproving the adage that crime doesn’t pay.
Monday, September 29, 2014
In recent blog posts, two of my favorite bloggers, Keith Paul Bishop and Steve Bainbridge, have highlighted for our attention Delaware and California statutes providing (differently in each case) that an LLC and, at least in Delaware, its managers and members, are bound by the LLC's operating agreement even if they do not sign that agreement. Bishop notes in his post that the California "RULLCA creates an odd situation in which LLCs are bound by contracts that they did not execute and to which they seemingly are not parties." In his post Bainbridge cites to the Bishop post and another post by Francis Pileggi. Certainly, they all have a point. For students of contract law, the conclusion that a non-party is bound by a contract does not seem to be an obvious result . . . .
The flap in the blogosphere has its genesis in a recent Delaware Chancery Court decision, Seaport Village Ltd. v. Seaport Village Operating Company, LLC, et al. C.A. No. 8841-VCL. The limited liability company defendant in that case raised as its only defense that it was not a party to the limited liability company agreement and therefore was not bound. Unsurprisingly in light of applicable Delaware law, Chancellor Laster found the defense wanting as a matter of law.
This issue has more history than my brother bloggers point out, some of which is included in the brief Seaport Village opinion. I probably don't have all the details, but set forth below is some additional background information that may be useful in thinking about the binding nature of LLC operating agreements. Others may care to fill in any missing information by leaving comments to this post.
Friday, September 12, 2014
In 2007, J. W. Verret (George Mason) and then Chief Justice Myron Steele authored an article entitled Delaware's Guidance: Ensuring Equity for the Modern Witenagemot, which discussed "some of the extrajudicial activities in which members of the Delaware judiciary engage to minimize the systemic indeterminacy resulting from the resolution of economic disputes by a court of equity."
One of these extrajudicial activities is authoring or co-authoring law review articles. In this post, I am not going to weigh in on whether Delaware judges should be authoring law review articles, but rather, I simply note that there are two recent law review articles and one recent book chapter by Delaware judges that warrant our attention.
John Maynard Keynes is said to have observed, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" In Delaware's Choice, Professor Subramanian argues that the facts underlying the constitutionality of Section 203 have changed. Assuming his facts are correct, and the Professor says that no one has challenged his account to date, then they have implications for more than Section 203. They potentially extend to Delaware's jurisprudence regarding a board's ability to maintain a stockholder rights plan, which becomes a preclusive defense if a bidder cannot wage a proxy contest for control of the target board with a realistic possibility of success. Professor Subramanian's facts may call for rethinking not only the constitutionality of Section 203, but also the extent of a board's ability to maintain a rights plan.
One important aspect of Citizens United has been overlooked: the tension between the conservative majority’s view of for-profit corporations, and the theory of for-profit corporations embraced by conservative thinkers. This article explores the tension between these conservative schools of thought and shows that Citizens United may unwittingly strengthen the arguments of conservative corporate theory’s principal rival.
Citizens United posits that stockholders of for-profit corporations can constrain corporate political spending and that corporations can legitimately engage in political spending. Conservative corporate theory is premised on the contrary assumptions that stockholders are poorly-positioned to monitor corporate managers for even their fidelity to a profit maximization principle, and that corporate managers have no legitimate ability to reconcile stockholders’ diverse political views. Because stockholders invest in for-profit corporations for financial gain, and not to express political or moral values, conservative corporate theory argues that corporate managers should focus solely on stockholder wealth maximization and non-stockholder constituencies and society should rely upon government regulation to protect against corporate overreaching. Conservative corporate theory’s recognition that corporations lack legitimacy in this area has been strengthened by market developments that Citizens United slighted: that most humans invest in the equity markets through mutual funds under section 401(k) plans, cannot exit these investments as a practical matter, and lack any rational ability to influence how corporations spend in the political process.
Because Citizens United unleashes corporate wealth to influence who gets elected to regulate corporate conduct and because conservative corporate theory holds that such spending may only be motivated by a desire to increase corporate profits, the result is that corporations are likely to engage in political spending solely to elect or defeat candidates who favor industry-friendly regulatory policies, even though human investors have far broader concerns, including a desire to be protected from externalities generated by corporate profit-seeking. Citizens United thus undercuts conservative corporate theory’s reliance upon regulation as an answer to corporate externality risk, and strengthens the argument of its rival theory that corporate managers must consider the best interests of employees, consumers, communities, the environment, and society — and not just stockholders — when making business decisions.
One frequently cited distinction between alternative entities — such as limited liability companies and limited partnerships — and their corporate counterparts is the greater contractual freedom accorded alternative entities. Consistent with this vision, discussions of alternative entities tend to conjure up images of arms-length bargaining similar to what occurs between sophisticated parties negotiating a commercial agreement, such as a joint venture, with the parties successfully tailoring the contract to the unique features of their relationship.
As judges who collectively have over 20 years of experience deciding disputes involving alternative entities, we use this chapter to surface some questions regarding the extent to which this common understanding of alternative entities is sound. Based on the cases we have decided and our reading of many other cases decided by our judicial colleagues, we do not discern evidence of arms-length bargaining between sponsors and investors in the governing instruments of alternative entities. Furthermore, it seems that when investors try to evaluate contract terms, the expansive contractual freedom authorized by the alternative entity statutes hampers rather than helps. A lack of standardization prevails in the alternative entity arena, imposing material transaction costs on investors with corresponding effects for the cost of capital borne by sponsors, without generating offsetting benefits. Because contractual drafting is a difficult task, it is also not clear that even alternative entity managers are always well served by situational deviations from predictable defaults.
In light of these problems, it seems to us that a sensible set of standard fiduciary defaults might benefit all constituents of alternative entities. In this chapter, we propose a framework that would not threaten the two key benefits that motivated the rise of LPs and LLCs as alternatives to corporations: (i) the elimination of double taxation at the entity level and (ii) the ability to contract out of the corporate opportunity doctrine. For managers, this framework would provide more predictable rules of governance and a more reliable roadmap to fulfilling their duties in conflict-of-interest situations. The result arguably would be both fairer and more efficient than the current patchwork yielded by the unilateral drafting efforts of entity sponsors.
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
(Note: This is a cross-posted multiple part series from WVU Law Prof. Josh Fershee from the Business Law Prof Blog and Prof. Elaine Waterhouse Wilson from the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog, who combined forces to evaluate benefit corporations from both the nonprofit and the for-profit sides. The previous installment can be found here (NLPB) and here (BLPB).)
What It Is: So now that we’ve told you (in Part I) what the benefit corporation isn’t, we should probably tell you what it is. The West Virginia statute is based on Model Benefit Corporation Legislation, which (according to B Lab’s website) was drafted originally by Bill Clark from Drinker, Biddle, & Reath LLP. The statute, a copy of which can be found, not surprisingly, at B Lab’s website, “has evolved based on comments from corporate attorneys in the states in which the legislation has been passed or introduced.” B Lab specifically states that part of its mission is to pass legislation, such as benefit corporation statutes.
As stated by the drafter’s “White Paper, The Need and Rationale for the Benefit Corporation: Why It is the Legal Form that Best Addresses the Needs of Social Entrepreneurs, Investors, and, Ultimately, the Public” (PDF here), the benefit corporation was designed to be “a new type of corporate legal entity.” Despite this claim, it’s likely that the entity should be looked at as a modified version of traditional corporation rather than at a new entity.
To read the rest of the post, please click below.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
West Virginia is the latest jurisdiction to adopt benefit corporations – the text of our legislation can be found here. As with all benefit corporation legislation, the thrust of West Virginia’s statute is to provide a different standard of conduct for the directors of an otherwise for-profit corporation that holds itself out as being formed, at least in part, for a public benefit. (Current and pending state legislation for benefit corporations can be found here.)
As WVU Law has two members of the ProfBlog family in its ranks (Prof. Josh Fershee (on the Business Law Prof Blog) and Prof. Elaine Waterhouse Wilson (on the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog)), we combined forces to evaluate benefit corporations from both the nonprofit and the for-profit sides. For those of you on the Business Prof blog, some of the information to come on the Business Judgment Rule may be old hat; similarly, the tax discussion for those on the Nonprofit Blog will probably not be earth-shaking. Hopefully, this series will address something you didn’t know from the other side of the discussion!
Part I: The Benefit Corporation: What It’s Not: Before going into the details of West Virginia’s legislation (which is similar to statutes in other jurisdictions), however, a little background and clarification is in order for those new to the social enterprise world. A benefit corporation is different than a B Corporation (or B Corp). B Lab, which states that it is a “501(c)(3) nonprofit” on its website, essentially evaluates business entities in order to brand them as “Certified B Corps.”
It wants to be the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for social enterprise organizations. In order to be a Certified B Corp, organizations must pass performance and legal requirements that demonstrate that it meets certain standards regarding “social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.” Thus, a business organized as a benefit corporation could seek certification by B Lab as a B Corp, but a business is not automatically a B Corp because it’s a state-sanctioned benefit corporation – nor is it necessary to be a benefit corporation to be certified by B Labs.
In fact, it’s not even necessary to be a corporation to be one of the 1000+ Certified B Corps by B Lab. As Haskell Murray has explained,
I have told a number of folks at B Lab that "certified B corporation" is an inappropriate name, given that they certify limited liability companies, among other entity types, but they do not seem bothered by that technicality. I am guessing my fellow blogger Professor Josh Fershee would share my concern. [He was right.]
A benefit corporation is similar to, although different from, the low-profit limited liability company (or L3C), which West Virginia has not yet adopted. (An interesting side note: North Carolina abolished its 2010 L3C law as of January 1, 2014.) The primary difference, of course, is that a benefit corporation is a corporation and an L3C is a limited liability company. As both the benefit corporation and the L3C are generally not going to be tax-exempt for federal income tax purposes, the state law distinction makes a pretty big difference to the IRS. The benefit corporation is presumably going to be taxed as a C Corporation, unless it qualifies and makes the election to be an S Corp (and there’s nothing in the legislation that leads us to believe that it couldn’t qualify as an S Corp as a matter of law). By contrast, the L3C, by default will be taxed as a partnership, although again we see nothing that would prevent it from checking the box to be treated as a C Corp (and even then making an S election). The choice of entity determination presumably would be made, in part, based upon the planning needs of the individual equity holders and the potential for venture capital or an IPO in the future (both very for-profit type considerations, by the way). The benefit corporation and the L3C also approach the issue of social enterprise in a very different way, which raises serious operational issues – but more on that later.
Finally, let’s be clear – a benefit corporation is not a nonprofit corporation. A benefit corporation is organized at least, in some part, to profit to its owners. The “nondistribution constraint” famously identified by Prof. Henry Hansmann (The Role of Nonprofit Enterprise, 89 Yale Law Journal 5 (1980), p. 835, 838 – JSTOR link here) as the hallmark of a nonprofit entity does not apply to the benefit corporation. Rather, the shareholders of a benefit corporation intend to get something out of the entity other than warm and fuzzy do-gooder feelings – and that something usually involves cash.
In the next installments:
Part II – The Benefit Corporation: What It Is.
Part III – So Why Bother? Isn’t the Business Judgment Rule Alive and Well?
Part IV – So Why Bother, Redux? Maybe It’s a Tax Thing?
Part V - Random Thoughts and Conclusions
EWW & JPF
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
At West Virginia University College of Law, we started classes yesterday, and I taught my first classes of the year: Energy Law in the morning and Business Organizations in the afternoon. As I do with a new year coming, I updated and revised my Business Organizations course for the fall. Last year, I moved over to using Unicorporated Business Entities, of which I am a co-author. I have my own corporations materials that I use to supplement the book so that I cover the full scope of agency, partnerships, LLCs, and corporations. So far, it's worked pretty well. I spent several years with Klein, Ramseyer and Bainbridge's Business Associations, Cases and Materials on Agency, Partnerships, and Corporations (KRB), which is a great casebook, in its own right.
I did not make the change merely (or even mostly) because I am a co-author. I made the change because I like the structure we use in our book. I had been trying to work with KRB in my structure, but this book is designed to teach in with the organization I prefer, which is more topical than entity by entity. I'll note that a little while ago, my co-blogger Steve Bradford asked, "Are We Teaching Business Associations Backwards?" Steve Bainbridge said, "No." He explained,
I've tried that approach twice. Once, when I was very young, using photocopied materials I cut and pasted from casebook drafts the authors kindly allowed me to use. Once by jumping around Klein, Ramseyer, and Bainbridge. Both times it was a disaster. Students found it very confusing (and boy did my evaluations show it!). It actually took more time than the entity by entity approach, because I ended up having to do a lot of review (e.g., "you'll remember from 2 weeks ago when we discussed LLCs most recently that ...."). There actually isn't all that much topic overlap. Among corporations, for example, you've got the business judgment rule, derivative suits, "duty" of good faith, executive compensation, the special rules for close corporations, proxies, and so on, most of which either don't apply to LLCs etc.... or don't deserve duplicative treatment.
I have great respect for Prof. Bainbridge, and his writing has influenced me greatly, but (not surprisingly), I come out more closely aligned with my perception of Larry Ribstein on such issues, and with Jeff Lipshaw, who commented,
I disagree about the lack of topic overlap, and suspect Larry Ribstein is raging about this in BA Heaven right now. . . .
This may reflect differences among student populations, but the traditional corporate law course, focusing primarily on public corporations, is less pertinent in many schools where students are unlikely to be doing that kind of work when they graduate. It's far more likely that they'll need to be able to explain to a client why the appropriate business form is a corporation or an LLC, and what the topical differences between them are.
I completely agree, and I would go another step to say that I find the duplication to be a valuable reinforcement mechanism that is worth (what I have seen as limited) extra time. I am teaching a 4-credit course, though, which gives me time I never had in my prior institution's 3-credit version.
One thing I am doing differently this year is my first assignment, which seeks to build on what I see as a need for students here. That is, I think many of them will need to be able to explain entity differences and help clients select the right option.
I had my students fill out the form for a West Virginia Limited Liability Company (PDF here). I had a few goals. First, I don't like to have students leave any of my classes without handling at least some of the forms or other documents they are likely to encounter in practice. Second, I did it without any instruction this time (I have used similar forms later in the course) because I thought it would help me tee up an introduction to all this issues I want them thinking about with regard to entity choice. (It did.) Finally, I like getting students to see the connection between the form and the statute. We can link though and see why the form requires certain issues, discuss waivable and nonwaivable provisions, and talk about things like entity purpose, freedom of contract, and the limits of limited liability.
If nothing else, the change kept things fresh for me. I welcome any comments and suggestions on any of this, and I wish everyone a great new academic year.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
The Hobby Lobby decision states:
No known understanding of the term "person" includes some but not all corporations. The term "person" sometimes encompasses artificial persons (as the Dictionary Act instructs), and it sometimes is limited to natural persons. But no conceivable definition of the term includes natural persons and nonprofit corporations, but not for-profit corporations. 20 Cf. Clark v. Martinez, 543 U. S. 371 , 378 (2005) ("To give th[e] same words a different meaning for each category would be to invent a statute rather than interpret one").
The decision continues:
Under the Dictionary Act, "the wor[d] 'person' . . . include[s] corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies, as well as individuals." Ibid .; see FCC v. AT&T Inc., 562 U.S. ___, ___ (2011) (slip op., at 6) ("We have no doubt that 'person,' in a legal setting, often refers to artificial entities. The Dictionary Act makes that clear"). Thus, unless there is something about the RFRA context that "indicates otherwise," the Dictionary Act provides a quick, clear, and affirmative answer to the question whether the companies involved in these cases may be heard.
Thus, unless otherwise stated, any place a person can recover claims, so can “corporations, companies, associations, firms, partnerships, societies, and joint stock companies.” There are opinions that have distinguished the “fictional person” from the “natural person.” See, e.g., All Comp Const. Co., LLC v. Ford, 999 P.2d 1122, 1123 (Okla. App. Div. 1 2000) (stating that an LLC was a "fictional 'person' for legal purposes and thus any damages due to the LLCs would be "due to it as a fictional person," and thus certain damages were not recoverable because LLCs are not "capable of experiencing emotions such as mental stress and anguish"). RFRA, per Hobby Lobby, though, does not make such a distinction.
As such, it seems to me there are places where federal law uses the term person that might now extend potential recovery to entities for things like pain and suffering or mental anguish. Maybe I am missing something here. Any ideas come to mind? Maybe civil rights laws?
The ripples, it seems, are just beginning.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
The Louisiana Supreme Court recently denied the state's attempt to collect sales tax on the sale of an RV to a Montana LLC. Thomas v. Bridges, No. 2013-C-1855 (La. 2014). The LLC was formed for the sole purpose of avoiding RV sales tax (saving the buyer as much as $47,000). The state argued that the LLC veil should be pierced and the tax should be assessed to the LLC's sole member claiming fraud. The court disagreed, explaining that "taking actions to avoid sales tax does not constitute fraud. Although tax evasion is illegal, tax avoidance is not."
There were problems with the state's attempt from the outset. First, the sale occurred in Louisiana, but the RV was housed in Mississippi. Even if the LLC were to be disregarded, Mississippi, it seems to me, would be the state that should be asserting the claim. Second, the state attempted to collect from the LLC's member before ever trying to collect from the LLC. Thus, the veil-piercing claim was being used as a post hoc justification for the attempt to recover from the LLC's member and was not properly raised below.
This "legal loophole" (which is redundant because if it's a loophole, it's legal and if not, it's fraud), can be fixed by legislation, as Justice Guidry concurred,
While I concur in the majority analysis and result, I write additionally to encourage the legislature to revisit this area of the law on foreign limited liability corporations formed solely for the purpose of sales tax avoidance on purchases made in Louisiana. As the facts of this case suggest, the law may be susceptible to abuse.
Justice Clark's concurrence goes a step further:
Because I see no actual violation of the letter of the law in this matter, I concur with the result reached by the majority. However, I am concerned that the spirit of the law is not being protected. The potential for abuse in allowing the creation of sham entities to avoid the payment of taxes has policy implications that are worthy of the legislature’s attention.
I agree with Justice Guidry, but I think Justice Clark goes too far. I just don't see this as a sham entity. It does seem a bit shady, I admit, but shady does not equal a sham. The entity here is a tax avoidance vehicle, but the entity is real, and the entity was apparently properly formed. There was no allegation that the entity was not real, not disclosed, or otherwise used to perpetrate fraud. There are other ways to try to ensure taxes are paid in a state where the RV is housed. (As a side note, though, one should always be sure to make it very clear that one is signing for the entity and not in one's individual capacity.)
And like the competition for entity formation, states often compete for business in a variety of ways. Maine, for example, has long-term leasing for trailers, including 8-, 12-, 20- and 25-year terms, that latter of which requires registration of at least 30,000 trailers.
Other states choose to charge annual personal property taxes on vehicles like my home state of West Virginia. Similarly, the State of Virginia assesses personal property tax on vehicles kept by non-residents in the state, as long as the tax is paid somewhere:
Any person domiciled in another state, whose motor vehicle is principally garaged or parked in this Commonwealth during the tax year, shall not be subject to a personal property tax on such vehicle upon a showing of sufficient evidence that such person has paid a personal property tax on the vehicle in the state in which he is domiciled.
It seems Montana is using entity law to make a few dollars on state LLC formations, but that the benefit will likely be short lived. I would expect many states will respond to reduce the effectiveness of this behavior. The more interesting response, though, would be if Montana were to pass an annual RV property tax on entities (not individuals) that own such vehicles. Montana natural persons, of course, don't need entities to avoid RV sales tax, so the tax would only (or mostly) impact out-of-state individuals who would have to pay taxes for their Montana entity. Because these nonresidents can't vote in the state, it would be hard for these folks to raise too much of a ruckus.
Whether it is Montana or the location the RV is stored, the loopholes may start to close quickly. That, though, is a cost of doing business, even if the only business the entity tries to conduct is tax avoidance.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia recently had the opportunity to address the role (if any) of veil piercing in West Virginia LLCs. The state statute is silent on the subject, but the court determined veil piercing was there, anyway. It was close, though, as the West Virginia Circuit Court took on the following question with the corresponding answer:
Does West Virginia's version of the Uniform Limited Liability Company Act, codified at W. Va. Code § 31B el seq., afford complete protection to members of a limited liability company against a plaintiff seeking to pierce the corporate veil?
Kubican v. The Tavern, LLC, 2012 WL 8523515 (W.Va.Cir.Ct.)
Under West Virginia LLC law:
[T]he debts, obligations and liabilities of a limited liability company, whether arising in contract, tort or otherwise, are solely the debts, obligations and liabilities of the company. A member or manager is not personally liable for a debt, obligation or liability of the company solely by reason of being or acting as a member or manager. . . . The failure of a limited liability company to observe the usual company formalities or requirements relating to the exercise of its company powers or management of its business is not a ground for imposing personal liability on the members or managers for liabilities of the company.
W. Va. Code § 31B-3-303 .
The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia recently took the certified question and disagreed, determining that veil piercing is permitted in LLCs in the state. Kubican v. The Tavern, LLC, 752 S.E.2d 299, 313 (W. Va. 2013) (pdf here). There are legitimate arguments on both sides of this issue, so it was proper for the court to answer the question. The reasoning behind the court’s decision, though, is not very satisfiying.
The Supreme Court explained, in the syllabus, the law on veil piercing for corporations, as follows:
[T]o ‘pierce the corporate veil’ in order to hold the shareholder(s) actively participating in the operation of the business personally liable ..., there is normally a two-prong test: (1) there must be such unity of interest and ownership that the separate personalities of the corporation and of the individual shareholder(s) no longer exist (a disregard of formalities requirement) and (2) an inequitable result would occur if the acts are treated as those of the corporation alone (a fairness requirement).” Syllabus point 3, in part, Laya v. Erin Homes, Inc., 177 W.Va. 343, 352 S.E.2d 93 (1986).
For LLCs, the court eliminates the “disregard of formalities requirement” in part one, but kept the rest of the corporate veil-piercing test the same. The court provided:
To pierce the veil of a limited liability company in order to impose personal liability on its member(s) or manager(s), it must be established that (1) there exists such unity of interest and ownership that the separate personalities of the business and of the individual member(s) or managers(s) no longer exist and (2) fraud, injustice, or an inequitable result would occur if the veil is not pierced.
The problem, of course, is that part one of the LLC test is the same as that of the corporate veil piercing test, minus the explanation that part one is “the disregard of formalities requirement.” The court is comfortable saying that the veil piercing test:
is a fact driven analysis that must be applied on a case-by-case basis, and, pursuant to W.Va. Code § 31B–3–303(b) (1996) (Repl. Vol. 2009), the failure of a limited liability company to observe the usual company formalities or requirements relating to the exercise of its company powers or management of its business may not be a ground for imposing personal liability on the member(s) or manager(s) of the company.
However, now that the “unity of interest and ownership” test no longer looks at corporate formalities and looks simply to other factors to make the determination. The court notes the nineteen factors that can be used in corporate veil-piercing cases, like undercapitalization, commingling of funds, etc., and explains that similar considerations may apply for LLCs. The court is right to point out that other states have made the same determination on similar statutes, but that doesn’t clearly make those decisions correct. See, e.g., Bainbridge, Abolishing LLC Veil Piercing (pdf here). In addition, West Virginia’s veil-piercing test under Laya stated more clearly than other states have that corporate formalities are the main issue for the unity of interest test.
Courts continue to look to veil piercing to rectify harms such as commingling of funds or using entity funds for personal endeavors. This does not inherently warrant veil piercing. Instead, courts can find such uses of funds fraudulent transfers or improper uses of entity funds that the member needs to pay back. That is not veil piercing; that is simply requiring the member to put back in the entity that which was wrongfully withdrawn.
Further, there are other arguments that can be made to hold LLC members liable for the entity’s debts. If the members pay directly the bills for the entity, it may be that the members have become guarantors for the entity. In the Kubican case, the allegation was that the members used the entity credit cards for things like visits to the chiropractor, dinners, and even a trip to Myrtle Beach. Again, though, if true, all of those funds should be returned to the entity to pay any claims the plaintiff is awarded from the LLC, but it does not need to be that the limited liability veil must be disregarded in full.
It is at least an open question whether the West Virginia legislature intended to preserve veil piercing for LLCs. The often cited Flahive case in Wyoming determined it was a mere oversight of that state’s legislature to provide veil piercing in the LLC context expressly. Since then, though, states have shown they know how to include LLC veil piercing by statute (see, e.g., Minnesota: Minn. Stat. § 322B.303(2) (2003) & North Dakota: N.D. Cent. Code § 10-32-29(3)). If the legislature determines that veil piercing is proper in LLCs, then so be it. Until then, though, courts should ensure entity funds are available for entity debts, but they should also be far more willing to follow the statute as written and respect the unique nature of LLCs.
Thursday, April 10, 2014
Continuing with the theme, I want to highlight a new hybrid resource, JURIFY, which is a mostly-free, online transactional law resource.
“Jurify provides instant access to high-credibility, high-relevance legal content, including forms and precedent in Microsoft Word® format written by the world’s best lawyers, white papers and webinars from top-tier law firms, articles in prestigious law journals, reliable blog posts and current versions of statutory, regulatory and case law, all organized by legal issue.”
Here are the stats: Jurify, launched in 2012, covers 5 broad transactional areas: General Corporate, Governance, Mergers & Acquisitions, Securities and Startup Companies. The 11,000+ sources that the website currently contains have been verified by transactional attorneys and generated from free on-line platforms or submitted by private attorneys who are voluntarily sharing their work. Documents are organized according to 586 tags. Three transactional attorneys started this website (husband/wife duo and their former law-firm colleague); none take compensation from editors, publishers or law firms.
Jurify is a unique transactional law resource for the following reasons:
- FREE (mostly). Website contents including primary law, secondary sources and template agreements and forms. All content is searchable; most is free; some templates/forms, available in Microsoft word version, require either a fee or a paid membership. In the future, Jurify founders hope to generate revenue by providing performance metrics and career services components.
- Emphasis on Primary Sources—collecting the most current and complete versions of governing statutes, and here is the important part—putting relevant sources together. Want to find out registration obligations? A search on Jurify will pull from several different sources to give you a comprehensive look at the governing law.
- Organization. The website resources are organized in a consumer-friendly, vertically integrated platform (like the searching functions on YouTube). If you search for one term of art, (the example used was break-up fees), the search results pull all related terms of art (i.e., termination fees, reverse break-up fees, etc.). The data base has been encoded with 1600 corporate law synonyms in the platform to facilitate more robust natural language searches.
- Multiple search modes (i.e., accessible for the novice). Non-experts can search for information using tags and drop down boxes to sort information by source type (news articles, videos, journals, statutes and regs, etc.). The site also includes a glossary of terms, and those terms serve as searchable categories that have documents associated with them.
- Narrowing the field. You don’t need every document- you just need the right document. Researchers can narrow search results through subcategories, which include definitions on all of the subcategories to assist the non-expert (i.e., students, generalist attorneys like some in-house teams). Within general categories, researchers can also conduct granular searches within a topic and can narrow by specific fields (i.e., M&A).
- Sorting the results. Search results are displayed in order of relevance. Relevance, in Jurify, is determined by the tags assigned by Jurify attorneys reviewing and labeling each document in the database. While a document may have 15 tags, 2 or 3 tags will be the primary tag, and the document will be flagged as “noteworthy” for that particular topic. The idea is that you review the most relevant documents first not just any document that contains any reference to your search fields.
- Networking Component. Some of the documents are voluntarily provided by practicing attorneys and their names remain associated with the document(s). If an attorney wants to establish herself as an expert in an area, she may do so in part, by contributing high-quality documents on that topic. Top contributors are highlighted on the website, using in part, a Credibility Score. In the future, a ranking/review feature will be added so that users can provide feedback on the quality/relevance of a document as well.
Erik Lopez, co-founder of Jurify, contacted the BLPB editors earlier this spring. As a result, I test drove the site with Erik a few weeks ago, which formed the basis of my comments above. Thanks Erik! (Note: Neither BLPB nor I, individually, received any compensation as a result of this post. I am passing it along because I genuinely am intrigued by the platform, business model, and potential for the website to be a valuable transactional resource.)
If anyone currently uses Jurify, or test drives the site after reading this post, please share your experience in the comments.
Tuesday, March 25, 2014
(1) As I explained here, entities should be able to take on a racial, religious, or gender identity in discrimination claims. I would add that I feel similarly about sexual orientation, but (though I think it should be) that is still not generally federally protected. To the extent the law otherwise provides a remedy, I’d extend it to the entity.
(2) It is reasonable to inquire, why is discrimination different than religious practice? For me, I just don’t think religious exercise by an entity is the same as extending discrimination protection to an entity. There is something about the affirmative exercise of religion that I don’t think extends well to an entity. That is, discrimination happens to a person or an entity. Religious practice is an affirmative act that is different. Basically, reification of the entity to the point of religious practice crosses a line that I think is unnecessary and improper because discrimination protection should be sufficient.
As a follow up to that, I also think it's a reasonable question to ask: Why is religion different than speech? To me it is different because entities must speak, but entities don’t have to practice religion. The entity needs speech to conduct business. A public entity speaks in its public filings. Speech is not just something an entity could do. It is something it must do. Religion, at the entity level is not necessary.
(3) Reverse piercing is not as good a solution as it might appear. Professor Bainbridge suggests that reverse veil piercing is one way in which the religion of the shareholders could be used to justify extending a religious identity to the Hobby Lobby entity, thus allowing the entity to object to certain provisions of the federal healthcare mandate. His argument is, as usual, reasonable and plausible. Still, as explained above, I don't think this is necessary.
More important, though, I don’t like expanding the use of any form of veil piercing. Veil piercing is supposed to be used (at least in my view) solely as a heightened level of fraud protection. It is already used too often and too haphazardly, and further degradation of the line between the entity and others is a dangerous proposition, regardless of the purpose. That is, as people (and courts) get more comfortable with disregarding the entity, they are more likely to disregard the entity. As a general proposition, I think that’s a bad outcome. That alone is reason enough for me to hope the Court will pass on reverse veil piercing as a potential remedy.
Sunday, March 23, 2014
I'm trying out a new weekly blog post theme, "The Weekly BLT," wherein I highlight a few interesting business law tweets that I've come across in the past week that have not yet made it to the BLPB.
"The problem ... is that ... Kiobel ... ignore[s] the robust corporate identity [recognized in Citizens United]" http://t.co/RI0BefWUUr— Stefan Padfield (@ProfPadfield) March 18, 2014
"Only ... 10 percent of S&P 500 companies reported the number of environmental fines paid." http://t.co/rthzXPwy2w— Stefan Padfield (@ProfPadfield) March 17, 2014
John Cunningham: "one of the best discussions I’ve ever seen about the application of veil-piercing doctrine to LLCs" http://t.co/xJae7nGqQm— Stefan Padfield (@ProfPadfield) March 17, 2014
"traditional theory about shareholder voting..does not reflect recent fundamental changes as to who shareholders are" http://t.co/e9LsR4YUtp— Stefan Padfield (@ProfPadfield) March 17, 2014
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Ed Whelan at National Review Online (h/t: Prof. Bainbridge) asks, in light of a recent Fourth Circuit opinion, “Will those who (wrongly) think that for-profit corporations are incapable of exercising religion for purposes of RFRA object as vigorously to the concept that for-profit corporations can have a racial identity for purposes of Title VI? If not, why not?”
I have been following the Hobby Lobby case with interest, though I am just delving into its depths now. After starting through the various amicus briefs, my initial reaction is that the law has not evolved to where it needs to be with respect to protecting those engaging in the widespread use of entities. I, as is often the case, my intitial reaction is that the answer to Mr. Whelan’s question is somewhere in the middle: I think for-profit corporations are capable of exercising religion under RFRA, but in this case I don’t see the necessary substantial burden, at least when balanced with an individual’s right to make such decisions, to carry the day. (Reasonable minds can disagree on this, but that’s my take).
Taking a broader look, though, view entities should be able to take on the race, gender, or religion of its primary shareholders (or members) in proper circumstances to protect against discrimination. The Fourth Circuit opinion states: “We hold that a corporation can acquire a racial identity and establish standing to seek a remedy for alleged race discrimination under Title VI.” Seven other circuit courts “have concluded that corporations have standing to assert race discrimination claims.” This seems proper, because a minority-owned company might be denied a contract or be treated differently in the execution of a contract because of the race of the primary shareholders. It would be improper to deny protections for the shareholders/members just because they chose to avail themselves of entity protections to conduct their business.
The same should be true in cases of religion and gender. Suppose, for example, an all-female construction company were denied a bid because the city seeking the project thinks construction is “man’s work to be done by men.” Similarly, protections should be available if a Catholic-owned company were to lose a bid because the county seeking the bid was run by people who didn’t “trust Catholics to finish anything on time.” (Disclosure: I was raised Catholic, and while I most certainly don’t speak for any other Catholics, my comfort level leads me to use Catholics in such examples.)
Thus, an entity should be able to take on the race, gender, or religion of the shareholders/members to fight cases where the same discrimination against an individual would stand. Obviously, then, having a member of a certain race, gender, or religion as a shareholder, member, director, or employee would not be sufficient to make the claim. The entity would also have to demonstrate: (1) that the alleged discrimination was predicated on race, gender, or religion, and (2) the entity (and not just certain individuals) was identified with the group against whom the discrimination was targeted.
In the Hobby Lobby case, then, under this rubric I think the claim would fail because the entity would not be able to demonstrate they have satisfied the first test. Regardless of what one thinks of the healthcare law, the law was not designed to discriminate against certain religions (or race or gender). The law also does not mandate any individual course of action, but merely requires that access be provided to certain healthcare options. (That is, it mandates access, not use.)
This is not the current state of the law, of course. Still, it seems to me that the proper way forward is to recognize that entities can often take on identities of those running them, but that protections should only be available where the entity’s identity was targeted for harm because of that identity, and not an arguable result of another non-identity-based decision.
Monday, March 3, 2014
Business law has a broad overlap with tax, accounting, and finance. Just how much belongs in a law school course is often a challenge to determine. We all have different comfort levels and views on the issue, but incorporating some level of financial literacy is essential. Fortunately, a more detailed discussion of what to include and how to include it is forthcoming. Here's the call:
Call For Papers
AALS Section on Agency, Partnerships LLCs, and Unincorporated Associations
Bringing Numbers into Basic and Advanced Business Associations Courses: How and Why to Teach Accounting, Finance, and Tax
2015 AALS Annual Meeting Washington, DC
Business planners and transactional lawyers know just how much the “number-crunching” disciplines overlap with business law. Even when the law does not require unincorporated business associations and closely held corporations to adopt generally accepted accounting principles, lawyers frequently deal with tax implications in choice of entity, the allocation of ownership interests, and the myriad other planning and dispute resolution circumstances in which accounting comes into play. In practice, unincorporated business association law (as contrasted with corporate law) has tended to be the domain of lawyers with tax and accounting orientation. Yet many law professors still struggle with the reality that their students (and sometimes the professors themselves) are not “numerate” enough to make these important connections. While recognizing the importance of numeracy, the basic course cannot in itself be devoted wholly to primers in accounting, tax, and finance.
The Executive Committee will devote the 2015 annual Section meeting in Washington to the critically important, but much-neglected, topic of effectively incorporating accounting, tax, and finance into courses in the law of business associations. In addition to featuring several invited speakers, we seek speakers (and papers) to address this subject. Within the broad topic, we seek papers dealing with any aspect of incorporating accounting, tax, and finance into the pedagogy of basic or advanced business law courses.
Any full-time faculty member of an AALS member school who has written an unpublished paper, is working on a paper, or who is interested in writing a paper in this area is invited to submit a 1 or 2-page proposal by May 1, 2014 (preferably by April 15, 2014). The Executive Committee will review all submissions and select two papers by May 15, 2014. A very polished draft must be submitted by November 1, 2014. The Executive Committee is exploring publication possibilities, but no commitment on that has been made. All submissions and inquiries should be directed to Jeff Lipshaw, Chair.
Jeffrey M. Lipshaw
Suffolk University Law School
Click here for contact info
Thursday, February 13, 2014
Last night I attended a forum organized by the Ladies Empowerment and Action Program (LEAP). The panel featured female entrepreneurs from the culinary industry. Some were chefs, some owned restarurnts, some sold products, and others blogged and educated the public, but their stories were remarkably similar. They told the audience of business students and budding entrepreneurs that they generally didn’t like partners, were wary of investors because they tended to exert too much control over their vision, and that they wished that they had better financial advisors who cared about them and understood their business.
One panelist, who had received $500,000 in capital from an investor, indicated that she was glad that she had been advised to enter into her contract as though she may end up in litigation. As a former litigator who now teaches both civil procedure and business associations, I both agree and disagree with that advice. As a naïve newbie litigator in a large New York firm, I used to joke with the corporate associates that the only reason I needed to understand how their deals were done was so that I could understand how to defend them went they fell apart and the litigation ensued. Now that I am older and wiser I try to focus my students on considering an exit strategy of course, but also on how to ask the right questions so that the parties never have to consider litigation.
Many of my students will likely advise small and midsized businesses as well as large corporations and that’s part of the reason that I stress the importance of a baseline level of understanding of finance and accounting. But how will we prepare them to counsel entrepreneurs who may not see the value in partners or understand how startup capital works? Perhaps that’s not the job of a lawyer but if the issue comes up, will our graduates know how to provide balanced arguments for their clients? How will we prepare our students to add value so that accountants don’t provide the (potentially wrong) legal advice to these entrepreneurs or so that their clients don’t just turn to LegalZoom, which reportedly sets up 20% of the LLCs in California? In essence, how do we teach our students to think like business people and lawyers?
Although clinics where students advise entrepreneurs or small businesses are expensive, and skills-based transactions courses aren’t as plentiful as they should be in law schools, these are good starts. I currently try to integrate drafting, negotiation and role-play into my classes when appropriate, but would welcome additional ideas that work.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
The Grand Forks City Council Service/Safety Committee recommended Tuesday that the city deny a liquor license transfer for Rumors bar in Grand Forks.
The committee originally recommended the full council deny the license earlier this month because of the previous felony charges against Blake Bond, Jamestown, N.D., one of the partners in Sin City LLC, the applicant of the license.
The council then sent the issue back to the committee, but when representatives from Sin City failed to show up at Tuesday’s meeting, the committee voted to recommend denying the license again. . . . .
A quick note for the reporter, who wouldn't necessarily know this: LLCs don't have partners. They have members. So, the more accurate statement would be that Mr. Bond "is one of the members of Sin City, LLC." The North Dakota Limited Liability Company Act definitions provision explains that:
"Member" means a person, with or without voting rights, reflected in the required
records of a limited liability company as the owner of a membership interest in the
limited liability company.
As for the LLC members, here's a hint: it's probably best not to name your LLC "Sin City, LLC" when you want approval from the council's Safety Committee and need approval of the full council to get the liquor license you need for your bar. This is likely to be even less of a good idea when one of your LLC members apparently has prior felony convictions. It's also probably best to show up for the council meeting to make your case, too, if the council is willing to listen.
In this circumstance, it is entirely possible that Sin City, LLC, was formed (about a month ago) without the services of an attorney. I rather hope so. Although as lawyers we are not necessarily required to opine on entity names or other business decisions, sometimes being a good counselor requires suggesting to one's client the potential implications of such decisions. Here, for example, good counsel might have suggested that other naming options might be preferable.
Clients won't always listen, of course, but it's worth a shot (no pun intended).
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
I understand that I may be one of the few people who seems to actually care about such a thing, but it seems to me courts really should be careful about their descriptions of limited liability entities. I have written about this before (here, here, and here), but it continues to frustrate me.
One of the things that got me thinking about this again (but let's be honest, it seems I am always thinking about this) is a post over at The Conglomerate. There, Christine Hurt (who, to be clear, is a lot smarter and more knowledgeable than I) discusses the Illinois governor's interest in generating more jobs by shifting to "the $39 limited liability company." In her post, she makes a couple references to incorporation in the context of LLC formation. But, in fairness, that's a blog post, and I can't claim that I have always been as precise as I should be in my blog writing, either.
Courts, however, should be more careful. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, for example, loves to call limited liability companies "limited liability corporations" in their cases. Take, for example, CarePartners, LLC v. Lashway, 545 F.3d 867 (9th Cir. 2008), the caption of which is: "CAREPARTNERS LLC, limited liability corporation under the Laws of the State of Washington doing business as Alderwood Assisted Living . . . ." That is wrong. Washington LLC law provides that an LLC is a limited liability company. Even more significant, Washington LLC law provides specifically that an LLC's name "[m]ust not contain any of the words or phrases: . . . 'corporation,' 'incorporated,' or the abbreviations 'corp.,' 'ltd.," or 'inc.,' . . . ." Wash. Stat. 25.15.010(d) (2014).
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Last week, after a post here, I received a call from a Charleston (WV) reporter seeking some background on veil piercing as it relates to the company (Freedom Industries) linked to a chemical spill that left 300,000 people without clean drinking water. That conversation led to a rather long article, as newspapers go, on the concepts of veil piercing in West Virginia. The article did a rather good job of relaying the basics (with a few nits), and I hope it at least informs people a little bit about the process to follow on that front.
The article does reflect a little confusion over what I was trying to communicate about personal liability for the president of Freedom Industries. West Virginia law provides: (b)“Unless otherwise provided in the articles of incorporation, a shareholder of a corporation is not personally liable for the acts or debts of the corporation except that he may become personally liable by reason of his own acts or conduct.” W. Va. Code, § 31D-6-622 (emphasis added). I was trying (and I take responsibility for any lack of clarity) to reflect my view that it was conceptually possible that the company president could be found personally liable for the harm if there were activities undertaken in his personal (and not corporate) capacity, but that based on the facts currently available, that seemed unlikely to me.
West Virginia courts have long reinforced the separate nature of the corporation and the shareholder. Consistent with prevailing views, the state recognizes each corporation as a distinct, individual entity that is separate and distinct from other corporations and from their respective shareholders. “The law presumes that two separately incorporated businesses are separate entities and that corporations are separate from their shareholders.” S. Elec. Supply Co. v. Raleigh County Nat. Bank., 173 W. Va. 780, 788, 320 S.E.2d 515, 523 (1984). In a proper case, courts will disregard the entity form—pierce the limited liability veil—where necessary to prevent injustice; however, courts take seriously this separate nature of corporations and shareholders, and “the corporate form will never be disregarded lightly.” Laya v. Erin Homes, Inc., 177 W. Va. 343, 347, 352 S.E.2d 93, 97 (1986) (quoting S. States Coop., Inc. v. Dailey, 167 W.Va. 920, 930, 280 S.E.2d 821, 827 (1981)); see also S. Elec. Supply Co. v. Raleigh County Nat. Bank., 173 W. Va. 780, 787, 320 S.E.2d 515, 522 (1984) (“The [veil piercing] doctrine is complicated, and it is applied gingerly.”). Thus, while veil piercing is not impossible, it is a significant hurdle.
I mentioned in a prior post that I thought enterprise liability (essentially collapsing various limited liability entities into one) was a more likely possible remedy for unpaid losses, though again it is by no means a given. Much more information about how the various entities involved in the whole situation operated and interacted with one another will need to be discovered before the real likelihood of such an outcome can be reasonably predicted.
Regardless of how that turns out, though, there is another issue worth noting, and that is the lack of government oversight. The classic case on veil piercing and enterprise liability, Walkovszky v. Carlton, explained that complaints about the inadequacy of corporate insurance and others assets are not a problem for the courts to solve. That court explained:
if the insurance coverage required by statute “is inadequate for the protection of the public, the remedy lies not with the courts but with the Legislature.” It may very well be sound policy to require that certain corporations must take out liability insurance which will afford adequate compensation to their potential tort victims. However, the responsibility for imposing conditions on the privilege of incorporation has been committed by the Constitution to the Legislature (N. Y. Const., art. X, §1) and it may not be fairly implied, from any statute, that the Legislature intended, without the slightest discussion or debate, to require of . . . [such] corporations that they carry . . . liability insurance over and above that mandated by [law].” Walkovszky v. Carlton, 18 N.Y.2d 414, 419-420(N.Y. 1966) (citations omitted).
I don’t know if a court will pierce the veil or apply an enterprise liability theory to expand the available assets for victims of the chemical spill. There is a lot to be determined before we’ll see an outcome. Still, it needs to be clear that where a company acts within the parameters of its grant of limited liability, seeking additional compensation from others after the fact is improper. (Again, whether the companies involved acted appropriately is an open question.)
If we’re uncomfortable with the cap on recovery for harms such as this, then randomly, haphazardly, and retroactively eliminating a state grant of limited liability protection is not the proper response. There are other ways to help protect the public, such as proper permitting, oversight and enforcement at chemical storage sites, and increased insurance and/or bonding requirements. State and federal legislatures should be discussing such options right now, and at least some discussions are occuring. It is, though, disheartening to read that even while discussing stronger standards for chemical storage tank operators, the West Virginia Senate Natural Resources Committee also voted to reduce water quality standards for aluminum in state water.