Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Getting LLC Definitions Wrong: It's Not Always the Judge's Fault

As I have noted in the past, it is not just judges that make the mistake of calling limited liability companies (LLCs), "limited liability corporations."  Today, I got a notice of a Texas case using the later definition.  Here's the excerpt:

The statute defines a “licensed or registered professional” to mean “a licensed architect, licensed professional engineer, registered professional land surveyor, registered landscape architect, or any firm in which such licensed or registered professional practices, including but not limited to a corporation, professional corporation, limited liability corporation, partnership, limited liability partnership, sole proprietorship, joint venture, or any other business entity.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 150.001(1-a) (emphasis added).

CH2M Hill Engineers, Inc., v. Springer, No. 09-16-00479-CV, 2017 WL 6210837, at *2 (Tex. App. Dec. 7, 2017). 
 
My first thought was, "Doesn't everyone cut and paste statutory language these days?  How could they get that wrong?"  I went to look up the code, and even before the code section had loaded, it dawned on me:  Of course, they cut and pasted it.  It's the code that's wrong.  Sure enough, it is.
 
Another recent example comes from a Westlaw source: Business Transactions Solutions § 60:358. I am going to tread lightly here because my mission is not to be a snarky jerk (I can be one sometimes, but that is not my goal).  The source provides what appears to be a model letter to an LLC client that has some very useful information, but I am going to be critical of a couple parts.  The letter opens: "[T]he following is a summary of our discussion concerning business responsibilities that must be met to maintain your LLC status."  Good start.  And then: "Failure to comply with LLC formalities can result in individual liability to the members if the 'corporate veil is pierced.'" I know this is colloquial talk, but couldn't it just say "if the limited liability veil is pierced?"
 
The draft letter continues:
You can also be liable for the company's debts by implied actions or negligent conduct. If you disregard LLC formalities or commingle your personal interests with the company's assets or interests, you can open the door for an adverse party to “pierce the corporate veil” and render you personally liable for the LLC's debts. To avoid such consequences, you should never refer to your company as “my” business or “our” business. Such a statement could later be used against you as being a material representation that the business was a proprietorship or a partnership rather than a corporation.
There's a lot here with which I disagree. For example, LLCs don't, in my view, have formalities. And an LLC is not a corporation.  The letter also explains that "[m]anagers control the policy of the LLC, (this is similar to a director in a corporation)" and refers to the LLC's "corporate name " and "corporate records." Some of this is accurate colloquially, but don't you hire a lawyer for precision?  I appreciate the idea that lawyers should share a lot of this kind of information with clients, and a lot of this is useful, but this really can be better. The LLC letter should be different than the corporation letter.  

Anyway, this is another example where a lot of my complaints are simply nits, and they probably impact nothing.  But it's not all nits.  Some of this is substance that matters.  So, I keep picking nits. 

 

December 12, 2017 in Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Waterhouse Wilson in DePaul Law Review: Cooperatives: The First Social Enterprise

The DePaul Law Review recently posted the article, Cooperatives: The First Social Enterprise, written by my friend and colleague Elaine Waterhouse Wilson (West Virginia Univ. College of Law). I recommend checking it out. Here is an overview: 

As the cooperative and social enterprise movements merge, it is necessary to examine the legal and tax structures governing the entities to see if they help or hinder growth. If the ultimate decision is to support the growth of cooperatives as social enterprise, then those legal and tax structures that might impede this progress need to be re-examined.

This Article considers some of the issues that may impede the charitable sector in supporting the growth of the cooperative business model as a potential solution to issues of income inequality. To do so, the Article first defines a “cooperative.” Part II examines the definition of a cooperative from three different viewpoints: cooperative as social movement, cooperative as economic arrangement, and cooperative as legal construct. From these definitions, it is possible to identify those elements inherent in the cooperative model that might qualify as a tax-exempt purpose under the Internal Revenue Code (the Code) §501(c)(3). Part III reviews the definition of “charitable” for § 501(c)(3) purposes, specifically in the context of economic development and the support of workers. This Part demonstrates that many of the values inherent in the cooperative model are, in fact, charitable as that term is understood for federal tax purposes.

If a cooperative has charitable elements, however, then it should be possible for the charitable sector to support the cooperative move- ment. Part IV analyzes the possibilities and limitations of direct support by the charitable sector, including mission-related investing by charities and program-related investing by private foundations. In this regard, the cooperative can be viewed in many respects as an ex- isting analog to the new social enterprise forms, such as the benefit corporation or the L3C. Finally, Part V provides recommendations for changing both federal and state law to further support the cooperatibe movement in the charitable sector.

 

December 5, 2017 in CSR, Family Business, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

LLCs Are Still Not Corporations, And At Least One Judge (In Dissent) Knows It

A recent Pennsylvania opinion makes all sorts of mistakes with regard to a single-member limited liability company (LLC), but in dissent, at least some of the key issues are correctly framed. In an unreported opinion, the court considered whether a company (WIT Strategy) that required an individual to form an LLC as a predicate to payment was an employee eligible for unemployment compensation. WIT Strategy v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 2017 WL 5661148, at *1 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2017).  The majority explained the test for whether the worker was an employee as follows:

The burden to overcome the ‘strong presumption’ that a worker is an employee rests with the employer. To prevail, an employer must prove: (i) the worker performed his job free from the employer's control and direction, and (ii) the worker, operating as an independent tradesman, professional or businessman, did or could perform the work for others, not just the employer.

Id. at *3. (quoting Quality Care Options v. Unemployment Comp. Bd. of Review, 57 A.3d 655, 659-60 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012) (citations omitted; emphasis added)).

As to the first prong, the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review (UCBR) determined, and the court confirmed, that WIT Strategy had retained control over the claimant consistent with the type of control one exerts over an employee.  I might disagree with the assessment, but the test is correct, and the analysis reasonable, if not clearly correct.  Assessment of the second prong, though, is flawed.  

The court quotes the UCBR's conclusions:

The [UCBR] does not find that [C]laimant was operating a trade or business, customarily or otherwise. The only reason [C]laimant formed the LLC was because WIT required it, claiming that it needed to pay [C]laimant through the LLC. WIT also claimed that doing so was a ‘common agency model’ for its kind of agency. The [UCBR] does not credit WIT's testimony. Rather, although [C]laimant did perform two projects for other entities, each for under $600 [.00], there is no evidence that [C]laimant solicited business through her LLC since its inception in 2013 through her termination in 2015. [C]laimant worked for WIT 40 hours per week and did not have employees of the LLC to solicit business for her. Further, although WIT claimed that all its team members were required to have additional clients through their LLCs to share with it, WIT did not prove that [C]laimant had such clients. As [C]laimant did not operate a trade or business, but rather the LLC was formed as a type of shell corporation, the fact that [C]laimant was the single-member owner is not dispositive. [C]laimant was not customarily engaged in a trade, occupation, profession or business.

Id. at *4 (emphasis and modification in original).
 
Enter President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt.  In dissent, Judge Leavitt writes what should be the majority opinion.  First, she notes that "quality control" is not the same thing as control by an employer.  I think her analysis of the control prong is the better one, but again, reasonable minds can assess these facts differently. As the second prong, Judge Leavitt also quote the UCBR, then proceeds to assess it correctly. She explains: 
The legal form by which Claimant provided public relations and communications services to WIT-provided clients and to her own clients is irrelevant. A sole proprietor may establish a single-member LLC for many reasons, the obvious being a desire to limit individual liability. It is not known what the Board meant by a “shell corporation,” and there is no evidence on this point. A limited liability company is not even a corporation. The Pennsylvania Associations Code provides as follows:
One or more persons may act as organizers to form a limited liability company ....
15 Pa. C.S. § 8821. A single-member LLC, such as Jilletante Creative, is a perfectly lawful and valid alternative to a sole proprietorship.
Claimant continued to operate as an LLC even after her separation from WIT. The record includes Claimant's two-page detailed proposal to a potential client on “Jilletante Creative, LLC” letterhead, signed as “Jilletante Creative, LLC; By: Jillian Ivey, sole member.” R.R. 10a-11a. Jilletante Creative is not a sham or “shell” corporation, and characterizing it as such is a red herring in the analysis of whether Claimant worked for WIT clients as an employee of WIT or as an independent contractor.
Id. at *12 (Leavitt, Pres. J, dissenting). Yes!   "It is not known what the Board meant by a 'shell corporation,' and there is no evidence on this point. A limited liability company is not even a corporation." This is exactly right. Further, there is nothing wrong with an LLC serving one client. Whether its because it is a requirements contract (e.g., I will do as much work for you as you require) or simply that the LLC's owner is comfortable with the revenue coming from a single client, having only one client does not make you an employee.  
 
As a side note, as someone who has worked both for a law firm and a public relations agency, it is not at all uncommon for people in each profession to work as independent contractors.  A lawyer can be a solo and work for one client, or that lawyer can be hired an brought into the firm or in-house.  Same with PR professionals.  They may work as employees, but it is not uncommon to work as an independent contractor, in part to maintain the flexibility of work location, hours, and manner in which the work is completed.  
 
In the unemployment compensation context, what constitutes an employee can often be different than what one might deem an employee in the agency context. And that's okay. Sometimes we craft different definitions for different purposes or policy goals.  But disregarding an entity as a "shell" merely because there is only one member is wrong because the law says it is wrong.  If a state wants to outlaw single-member entities, they can (they'd be wrong to do so, but that's a different discussion).  But as long as the law allows it, the courts should respect it.  
 
Furthermore, when a person creates an LLC, they are actively engaging in the process of defining their relationship with others. I can come up with scenarios where maybe the existence of an LLC should be disregarded in the employment analysis, but more often than not the use of an LLC in the relationship should be compelling evidence of the type of relationship the parties have.  
 
Although this opinion still gets it wrong, there is hope. The dissent has set forth a proper path, and I can only hope others will follow. 
 
 

November 28, 2017 in Case Law, Corporations, Employment Law, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

No Need to Veil Pierce an LLC When Direct Liability Is Available (and LLCs Are Still Not Corps)

A new Maryland case deals with claims against a limited liability company that the plaintiff claimed was "registered as a limited liability corporation ('LLC')." Farm Fresh Direct Direct By a Cut Above LLC v. Downey, 2017 WL 4865481, at *2 (D. Md., 2017).  The court repeats the mistake, but the complaint is the original source, as it incorrectly identifies the LLC as a "corporation" and not a company.  The court then explains some of the allegations as follows: 
Plaintiff alleges that Sinsky violated 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a)(1)(A) and engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices, in violation of Maryland common law. ECF 1, ¶¶ 17-22, 23-26. At its core, plaintiff's contention is that “Sinsky is the resident agent and incorporator” of Farm Fresh Home (ECF 1, ¶¶ 12-13), and in that capacity she “filed” the articles of organization for Farm Fresh Home, creating a name for the “competing company” that is “intentionally confusing” because of its similarity to Farm Fresh Direct. ECF 1, ¶ 12.
. . . .
*4 Farm Fresh Home is a limited liability company. As a threshold matter, I must determine whether Sinsky is subject to suit in light of Farm Fresh Home's status as a limited liability company.
Id. at *3–4. 
 
That is not quite right. The complaint alleges that Sinsky, by helping to form the LLC, violated the Lanham Act and Maryland common law (the court repeats the complaint's "incorporator" language, but presumably this is meant to refer to the formation of the LLC).  The question, at least initially, should not be whether Sinksy is subject to suit as a member of the LLC.  The question, then, is whether there is a direct claim against Sinsky for creating the competing entity.
 
The court seems to understand this is at least part of the analysis because the opinion discusses veil piercing (in the corporate context, of course) as well as the concept of direct liability.  As to direct liability, the opinion correctly explained: “An LLC member is liable for torts he or she personally commits, inspires, or participates in because he or she personally committed a wrong, not ‘solely’ because he or she is a member of the LLC.” Id. at *5 (quoting Allen v. Dackman, 413 Md. 132, 158, 991 A.2d 1216, 1228 (2010)). The opinion further states that there can be direct liability under the Lanham Act and for unfair trade practices, even when an entity is involved.  This is (at least conceptually) correct.  Despite this, the opinion ultimately misses the mark: 
The question here is not whether plaintiff will ultimately prevail. Its allegations as to Sinsky border on thin. But, for purposes of the Motion, plaintiff adequately alleges sufficient facts and inferences that Sinsky participated in the creation of Farm Fresh Home for the purpose of using a confusingly similar name to compete with Farm Fresh Direct. See A Society Without a Name, 655 F.3d at 346. Therefore, plaintiff is not entitled to the protection of the corporate shield at this juncture.
Id. at *7 (emphasis added). No and no. First, LLCs do not have corporate shields. They have LLC or limited liability shields, but You Can’t Pierce the Corporate Veil of an LLC Because It Doesn't Have One!  Second, there is no need to consider veil piercing at this point. The court has found sufficient claims as to Sinsky's participation to support direct liability. The inquiry should end there. And even if there were value in discussing both direct liability and veil piercing (there is not), the court's own citation to Allen v. Dackman should indicate that this section is not solely related to entity-derived liability.  
 
I don't mean to be too hard on anyone here.  This is not personal -- it simply about identifying and trying to correct errors related to entity status. I know that not all courts or practicing attorneys spend the amount of time I do with entities and their nuances.  And this case involves a pro se party, which can make things even more challenging.
 
I just still maintain that this is something we can correct. Apparently, one blog post at a time. 

November 14, 2017 in Accounting, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Intellectual Property, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, November 6, 2017

2017 American Bar Association LLC Institute

I had the privilege of being invited again this year to present at the 2017 LLC Institute, an annual program produced by the LLC, Partnership and Unincorporated Entities Committee of the American Bar Association's Business Law Section.  As part of a panel discussion on LLC fiduciary duties (with friend-of-the-BLPB Mohsen Manesh and others), I sang a few bars of Rocky Top (!) and talked about the fiduciary duty waiver issue that we faced in Tennessee in revamping our limited partnership law this past year.  But that was far from the highlight of the program!  

Luckily, friend-of-the-BLPB Tom Rutledge--a leader in (and former chair of) the LLC, Partnership and Unincorporated Entities Committee--has captured the essence of the two-day event in blog posts here and here.  He notes in sum:

Over the last two days we have . . . , by means exceptional panels, considered and informed the participants on the broadest range of issues materially important to our shared area of interest and practice.  That is the mission of the LLC Institute, and hopefully it has again delivered on its objective.  The materials are posted and available for anyone, and in a few weeks the audio recordings will as well be posted.  While we recommend them to you, if you did not attend you missed out on the opportunity to ask questions as the programs were in progress and perhaps even more importantly the opportunity to meet new and liaison with old friends.  Those relationships are one of the great values of our Committee, the means by which we lean on and assist one another. 

This is so true.  The relationships--built through banter between and among panelists and audience members before, during, between, and after the sessions are what make this event special.  Of course, the subject matter also is phenomenally interesting.  

Co-blogger Josh Fershee also presented at the Institute this year.  Other BLPB readers and friends who attended (some of whom also presented) included:

  • Suffolk Law's Carter Bishop (who moderated and led our panel);
  • Colorado's infamous consummate practitioners and thought-leaders Bill Callison (who gave an amazing luncheon talk on Thursday regarding his work in establishing a model entity law statute for use in developing countries*) and Bob Keatinge;
  • Glommer and BYU Law Associate Dean Christine Hurt; and
  • Baylor Law's Beth Miller (a/k/a the walking, talking guru of Texas business associations law and Queen of LLC caselaw--who, it was announced, will soon have a Committee content award named after her).

I am sure that I am missing someone . . . .  Needless to say, a good time was had by all.  And let me know if you'd like to be part of the program next year.  I know that the folks who organize the event like to have new presenters come every year, to keep the banter going.  I am happy to pass your name along.

_____

*Specifically, as noted in his firm biography: "He is the American Bar Association's delegate to the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law Working Group I (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises), which is focusing on law reforms enabling adoption of simplified business entity structures by micro-, small- and medium-sized businesses in developing countries. He serves on the UNCITRAL Secretariat's expert group in this process."

November 6, 2017 in Conferences, Joan Heminway, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Mistake Number Two in Mueller's Indictment: Manafort's LLCs Are Not Corporations

The distinction between limited liability companies (LLCs) and corporations is one that remains important to me. Despite their similarities, they are distinct entities and should be treated as such.

When the indictment for Paul Manafort and Richard Gates was released yesterday, I decided to take a look, in part because I read that the charges included claims that the defendants "laundered money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts."  (Manafort Indictment ¶ 1.)

It did not take long for people to note an initial mistake in the indictment.  The indictment states that Yulia Tymoshenko was the president of the Ukraine prior to Viktor Yanukovych. (Id. ¶ 22.) But, Dan Abrams' Law Newz notes, "Tymoshenko has never been the president of the Ukraine. She ran in the Ukrainian presidential election against Yanukoych in 2010 and came in second. Tymoshenko ran again in 2014 and came in second then, too." Abrams continues: 

The Tymoshenko flub is a massive error of fact, but it doesn’t impinge much–if any–on the narrative contained in the indictment itself. The error doesn’t really bear upon the background facts related to Manafort’s and Gates’ alleged crimes. The error also doesn’t bear whatsoever upon the laws Manafort and Gates are accused of breaking. Rather, it’s an error which bears upon the credibility of the team now seeking to prosecute the men named in the indictment.

Perhaps. It is a high-profile mistake, but it doesn't go to the core of the charges, so I think this may overstate it a bit.  Still, it is hardly ideal, and it's definitely an unforced error.  And unfortunately, there is a second such error.  

Paragraph 12 of the indictment provides a chart of entities that were "owned or controlled" by the defendants. The chart headings provide "Entity Name," "Date Created," and "Incorporation Location." But a number of the entities are not corporations. They are LLCs,  and you do not "incorporate" an LLC.  You form an LLC.  (Also, just to be clear, LLCs are not "partnerships," either. They are LLCs.)

Similar to the Tymoshenko error, the type of entity does not appear to impact the underlying narrative or charges.  For example, entity type does not appear to impact the "conspiracy to launder money" count. And other jurisdictions, such as Cyprus, do tend to merge the corporate concept with the company concepts in a way that might make the chart headings less wrong than it is for U.S. entities.  Nonetheless, it would not have been that hard to go with "Entity Origin" or "Formation Location."  

Okay, so all of this is rather nitpicky, and I get that.  The underlying charges are serious, and I hope and expect that the charges and the surrounding facts (not these mistakes) will be the focus of the legal process as it runs its course. But, it is also proper, I think, to work toward getting the entire document right. Details matter, and at some point could mean the difference between winning and losing, even if that does not appear to be the case this time around.   

October 31, 2017 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, LLCs, Partnership, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Hawaii Courts Take Note: LLCs Are Not Corporations

A recent magistrate judge's recommendation on a motion to strike in Hawaii alerted me to a problem with the Hawaii Local Rules of Practice for the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii.  The mistake is not the judge's; it is in the rules.  The recommendation explains: 

[An] LLC must be represented by an attorney. See Local Rule 83.11 (“[b]usiness entities, including but not limited to ... limited liability corporations ... cannot appear before this court pro se and must be represented by an attorney”) . . . .


THE BANK OF NEW YORK MELLON FKA THE BANK OF NEW YORK, AS TRUSTEE FOR THE CERTIFICATE HOLDERS OF THE CWMBS INC., CHL MORTGAGE PASS-THROUGH TRUST 2006-OA5, MORTGAGE PASS THROUGH CERTIFICATES, SERIES 2006-OA5, a Delaware corporation, Plaintiffs, v. LEN C. PERRY JR.; NATHAN JON LEWIS; 3925 KAMEHAMEHA RD PRINCEVILLE, HI 96722, LLC, Defendants., No. CV 17-00297 DKW-RLP, 2017 WL 4768271, at *1 (D. Haw. Oct. 2, 2017), report and recommendation adopted sub nom. THE BANK OF NEW YORK MELLON fka THE BANK OF NEW YORK, AS TRUSTEE FOR THE CERTIFICATE HOLDERS OF CWMBS INC.; CHL MORTGAGE PASS-THROUGH TRUST 2006-OA5, MORTGAGE PASS THROUGH CERTIFICATES, SERIES 2006-OA5, a Delaware corporation, Plaintiff(s), v. LEN C. PERRY, JR.; NATHAN JON LEWIS; 3925 KAMEHAMEHA RD PRINCEVILLE, HI 96722, LLC Defendant(s)., No. CV 17-00297 DKW-RLP, 2017 WL 4767667 (D. Haw. Oct. 20, 2017).  (I know this could be cited more succinctly, but I thought this was pretty great so I went with the whole enchilada.)

The local rules, available here, state, as quoted, 

LR83.11.  Business Entities.

Business entities, including but not limited to corporations, partnerships, limited liability partnerships, limited liability corporations, and community associations, cannot appear before this court pro se and must be represented by an attorney. (emphasis added)

LLCs (limited liability companies) are still not corporations, and too often courts and local rules insist on saying they are. But help is available.  I made my first trip this summer to Hawaii with my family, and it was amazing. So I put this offer out there: if anyone in Hawaii would like some help cleaning up local rules (and other business-entity related laws, rules, and regulations) count me in.  This rule is wrong, but there is a whole lot right about Hawaii. 

October 24, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Courts Determined to Confuse Everyone about LLCs

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi seems to understand that LLCs are different than corporations, but they don't really want to keep them separate. See this passage, to which I have added notes: 

Regarding complete diversity, the citizenship of a limited liability corporation [no, limited liability company]  is determined by the citizenship of all its members. Tewari De-Ox Sys., Inc. v. Mtn. States/Rosen, Ltd. Liab. Corp., 757 F.3d 481, 483 (5th Cir. 2014). The “citizenship of an unincorporated [yes!] association must be traced through each layer of the association, however many there may be.” Deep Marine Tech., Inc. v. Conmaco/Rector, L.P., 515 F.Supp.2d 760, 766 (S.D. Tex. 2007). Further, “§ 1332(c)(1), which deems a corporation [wait, what?] of ‘every State and foreign state’ in which it is incorporated and the ‘State or foreign state’ where it has its principal place of business, applies to alien corporations.” Vantage Drilling Co. v. Hsin-Chi Su, 741 F.3d 535, 537 (5th Cir. 2014). The defendants submitted an upstream analysis of their organizational structure, tracing through each layer of association, to properly allege the citizenship of each member, ultimately establishing that they and Tubwell are citizens of different states.

JOE TUBWELL PLAINTIFF v. SPECIALIZED LOAN SERVICE LLC (SLS), Agents and Successors, Loan No. 1012441108; MORGAN STANLEY MORTGAGE CAPITAL HOLDINGS LLC, Agents and Successors DEFENDANTS, 3:17-CV-15-DMB-RP, 2017 WL 4228760, at *2 n.2 (N.D. Miss. Sept. 22, 2017). 
 
The court seems to have gotten to the right answer (I think), but this is hardly helping clarify anything.  It appears maybe they have left some of the key facts out. This is a time where a diagram might be helpful.  And properly identifying the entity types would definitely be.  

September 26, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Magical LLC, Part 1

A recent New Republic article states: 

The Community Law Center, a local legal services group, launched an investigation into 1906 Boone and hundreds of other vacant properties around Baltimore. The hunt took more than a year. In many cases, the identity of a property owner was hidden behind a maze of shell companies; an operation called Baltimore Return Fund LLC, for example, had purchased 1906 Boone at a city tax sale for $5,452. Eventually, the investigation revealed a Texas-based web of nearly a dozen LLCs—limited liability corporations, a form of legal tax shelter—that controlled more than 300 properties in Baltimore. Nearly all had been purchased at tax sales, often online, between 2001 and 2010. Most sold for less than $5,000. Many were vacant and in bad shape.

Okay, so we all know LLCs are not limited liability corporations (right?). But the entity form is a "legal tax shelter?"  As a pass-through entity?  What does this word salad mean?  Would this be less of a scourge if some guy owned them instead of the magical LLC?  I don't understand what the entity form has to do with any such concerns at all.  

Suppose they did the research and found out Benefit Corporation, Inc., owned all of them. Would they have breathed a sigh of relief?  

So many questions, so few answers. 

H/T to our astute and helpful reader Gregory J. Corcoran.

September 19, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

More Corporate LLCs and Phantom Veil Piercing

And so it continues:

In a recent case in the United States District Court, District of Columbia, a court messes up the entity (referring to one of the parties as “Howard Town Center Developer, LLC, is a limited liability corporation (‘LLC’)") and also does a fine job of improperly stating (or really, failing to state) the law for veil piercing. 

I took the initiative to pull the initial complaint and the answer to see if either of the parties were responsible for calling the LLC a corporation. Both sides properly referred to the LLC as a “limited liability company,” so it appears the corporation reference is a court-created issue.

In the case, a property developer brought action to require a university landowner to reinstate a ground lease and development agreement between developer and university, after the university sent notices of termination. The University counterclaimed to recover unpaid rent. The court determined, among other things, that the university was entitled to the damages it sought of $1,475,000 for unpaid rents and to attorney fees related to the developer's breach of a ground lease and development agreement. But the opinion doesn’t stop there.

It is quite clear that the developer LLC does not have the funds to pay the judgment, so the question of whether the LLC’s veil could be pierced was also raised.  The court, I think properly, determined that “a targeted asset or individual must be named before veil-piercing may be considered.” Howard Town Ctr. Developer, LLC v. Howard U., CV 1075 (BAH), 2017 WL 3493081, at *56 (D.D.C. Aug. 14, 2017). The court continued: “The University should not lament, nor the Developer celebrate, that conclusion, however, on the erroneous assumption that the University has waived its right to veil-piercing in this matter.” Id.  

The court then determined that, because of “considerations of justice and equity,” the university could later seek a veil-piercing action if it were unable to satisfy its judgment. “Any such action will be fairly straightforward given the instant decision, including the Court's observations regarding the inadequacy of the Developer's capitalization . . . and the University may then be entitled to the additional discovery it presently seeks.” Id.

 Wow.  That’s some heavy dicta.  First, the court never states what the rule is for veil piercing an LLC, so it is a pretty bold assertion to say veil-piercing will be “straightforward.” Is the sole test adequate capitalization? What does that mean?  And what is that test? Well, the court gives us an explanation in footnote 22:

The Developer's status as an inadequately capitalized shell company is an ongoing demonstration of bad faith. LLCs are a legitimate corporate form, and the societal benefits of such entities are significant. Dickson testified that the use of such entities in transactions like this one is “typical[ ],” explaining that “single-asset entities are established as borrowers” so that “the borrower[ ] contains one asset,” the advantage from a “liability standpoint” being that “on a transaction of this size, the asset couldn't be pulled into bankruptcy.” Trial Tr. Day 7 AM at 49:25–50:7. Yet, even a single-asset entity must be capitalized to the extent necessary to satisfy its obligations to the project it was created to support. See Lawlor v. District of Columbia, 758 A.2d 964, 975 (D.C. 2000) (noting inadequate capitalization as factor in determining whether a given entity's corporate form should be respected). Consequently, abuse of the corporate form to render a company judgment-proof is impermissible and reflects bad faith.

Um, no.  First, the LLC is not a corporate form. And an entity not being able to pay its debts is not, in and of itself, a showing of bad faith.  Otherwise, what’s the point of limited liability? The court seems to think that being judgment proof because of a lack of funds is not allowed. But it is specifically allowed. If there is fraud or deception, that is not allowed. But an inability to pay the bills is not, alone, at all improper.  It is unfortunate, and perhaps awful, but it is not improper. 

Ultimately, it may be that veil piercing could be justified under DC law, but first, we’d need to know what that law is.  And it should be clear that it is LLC-veil-piercing law that is to be applied, and not the “corporate” veil piercing this court has apparently relied upon.  Once again, I will repeat my call for courts to state specifically the law (and the test) they are applying in LLC-veil-piercing cases, explain why the factors of the test are appropriate in the LLC setting, and then apply that test. 

Instead, the court suggests that veil piercing is essentially inevitable, which could have a strong role in forcing a settlement. This language amounts to phantom veil piercing.  The court never stated a veil-piercing test, never ran the test, and yet, there it is: the specter of a pierced limited liability veil. 

The court seemed frustrated with the developer, and that may be well founded.  Maybe the developer committed fraud. Maybe the developer and other representatives made binding promises that should make them all guarantors. The case also suggests that there may be an argument for enterprise liability among some of the entities mentioned.  And those are all issues that should have been considered.  But none of them are veil piercing claims, and if the court is going to go down that road, the court needs to be more precise to ensure justice and equity prevail.  

August 29, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

August 15, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, LLCs, Shareholders, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

LLCs Are Not Corporations: "Corporate" Disclosure Edition

Regular readers know that I monitor courts and other legal outlets for improper references to LLCs as "limited liability corporations" when the writer means "limited liability companies." I get a Westlaw update every day. Really. Every day. So while it may seem that I write about examples a lot, I tend to think I am showing great restraint.  

At times, this is just a semantic issue, or at least a more amorphous "how one thinks about entities" issue.  Usually, at a minimum such cases can cause confusion about entity type and what laws apply, which may eventually lead courts to an improper analysis and application of the wrong laws.  It certainly leads some lawyers to incorrectly characterize their clients and their cases.  

For example, a recent case from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington gets the law right, but still creates some potential confusion. Consider this excerpt: 

Cash & Carry asserts that the court's jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship. (Not. at 2.) For purposes of assessing diversity, the court must consider the domicile of all members of a limited liability company. Johnson v. Columbia Props. Anchorage, LP, 437 F.3d 894, 899 (9th Cir. 2006) (“[A]n LLC is a citizen of every state of which its owners/members are citizens.”); see also Local Rules W.D. Wash. LCR 101(e). Plaintiff Deborah Markham alleges that she is a Washington resident. (Compl. (Dkt. # 2) ¶ 1.2.) However, neither the complaint nor the notice of removal identifies Cash & Carry's members or the domicile of those members. (See id. ¶ 1.3 (alleging that Cash & Carry is “a limited liability corporation formed under the laws of the State of Washington”); Not. at 2.)
DEBORAH MARKHAM, Plaintiff, v. CASH & CARRY STORES, LLC, et al., Defendants., No. C17-0746JLR, 2017 WL 2241136, at *1 (W.D. Wash. May 23, 2017) (emphasis added).  It'd have been great for the court to note that Cash & Carry's claim it was "a limited liability corporation" was incorrect.  Instead, the court then stated, "Furthermore, Cash & Carry's corporate disclosure statement fails to establish Cash & Carry's domicile. (CDS (Dkt. # 4).)" Id. As an LLC, Cash & Carry isn't "corporate," but because of the local rules for the Western District of Washington, it does have an obligation to make a "corporate disclosure." See U.S. Dist. Ct. Rules W.D. Wash., Civ LR 7.1.
 
Rule 7.1. Disclosure Statement

(a) Who Must File; Contents. A nongovernmental corporate party must file 2 copies of a disclosure statement that:

(1) identifies any parent corporation and any publicly held corporation owning 10% or more of its stock; or

(2) states that there is no such corporation.

(b) Time to File; Supplemental Filing. A party must:

(1) file the disclosure statement with its first appearance, pleading, petition, motion, response, or other request addressed to the court; and

(2) promptly file a supplemental statement if any required information changes.

However, in Washington, the Local Rule 7.1 adds to the requirements of the federal "disclosure statement":

CORPORATE DISCLOSURE STATEMENT

(a) Who Must File; Copies

Any nongovernmental party, other than an individual or sole proprietorship, must file a corporate disclosure statement identifying:

  1. any parent corporation and any publicly held corporation owning more than 10% of its stock;

  2. any member or owner in a joint venture or limited liability corporation (LLC);

  3. all partners in a partnership or limited liability partnership (LLP); or

  4. any corporate member, if the party is any other unincorporated association

If there is no parent, shareholder, member, or partner to list in response to items (1) through (4), a corporate disclosure statement must still be filed stating that no such entity exists.

In this instance, the Local Rule changes the disclosure to "corporate disclosure," when it would appear this is really an "ownership" or "financial interest" disclosure.  (And, while I am being picky, isn't it odd to have a subpart "a," when there is not subpart "b?" I suspect this subpart notation is to track subpart a of Federal Rule 7.1, but it still looks odd to me.)  
 
This is not the first time a local rule has created some potential trouble with regard to Federal Rule 7.1.  Back in January of this year I posted Oops: Oregon District Court Rule For LLCs that are Defined as Corporations, which discussed some different concerns for the Oregon District Court's expansion of Rule 7.1. I will note that the LLC reference in the Oregon District Court Local Rule remains incorrect
 
I am prepared for the "no harm, no foul" comment. And maybe that's right. But it still seems like courts (and lawyers) should be able to get this right more often. 

May 30, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Does the Bar Exam Put Business Clients At Risk?

The Legal Skills Prof Blog has posted an article entitled Our Broken Bar Exam by Deborah Jones Merritt. The post discusses Merritt’s proposal for a task force on the bar exam. Merritt’s article states, among other things:

The bar exam is broken: it tests too much and too little. On the one hand, the exam forces applicants to memorize hundreds of black-letter rules that they will never use in practice. On the other hand, the exam licenses lawyers who don’t know how to interview a client, compose an engagement letter, or negotiate with an adversary.
 
This flawed exam puts clients at risk. It also subjects applicants to an expensive, stressful process that does little to improve their professional competence... The bar examination should test the ability of an applicant to identify legal issues in a statement of facts, such as may be encountered in the practice of law, to engage in a reasoned analysis of the issues, and to arrive at a logical solution by the application of fundamental legal principles, in a manner which demonstrates a thorough understanding of these principles... Why doesn’t our definition of minimum competence include cognitive skills that are essential for effective client representation? The answer does not lie in the fact that these skills are difficult to test on a written exam. Research, fact gathering, interviewing, and other lawyering skills are cognitive abilities.

We could test for these skills by directing test-takers to outline a research plan, interview approach, or negotiation strategy based on a mock client file. Test-takers could also identify potential pitfalls, fall back positions, and ethical issues associated with their plan. These questions are no more difficult to draft and grade than classic issue-spotter essay questions. The primary reason we don’t test bar candidates on these skills is that law schools don’t stress them. Schools teach some professional competencies (like appellate advocacy) quite effectively, but relegate others to a corner of the curriculum. Employers and state supreme courts have urged law schools to teach a fuller range of lawyer competencies, but most schools have resisted…

Here are some of the many ideas that the task force could consider:

  • Develop MBE and essay questions that test fundamental principles and legal reasoning, rather than memorization. As proposed above, practicing lawyers could serve as test subjects to validate these questions.
  • Allow test-takers to refer to notes, codes, and other sources while taking the bar exam. This practice would more accurately measure professional knowledge.
  • Develop tests for more of the competencies that new lawyers perform.
  • Replace some (or all) multiple-choice and essay questions with performance-oriented case files like those presented on the Multistate Performance Test (MPT).
  • Allow examinees to take portions of the exam at different times, including after the first year of law school.
  • Work with law schools to create lawyering classes that would substitute for portions of the bar exam, as the University of New Hampshire has done. Bar examiners could audit these classes for content and rigor.
  • Encourage bar associations, law schools, and other organizations to develop postgraduate lawyering institutes to replace some (or all) of the bar exam. Law graduates currently spend more than $100 million annually on bar review courses—in addition to the fees they pay to take the bar. That money could support six to eight week intensive summer programs to teach and assess new graduates’ lawyering competence.

I thought about these criticisms and recommendations as I graded my Business Associations exam this week. Every year, I dutifully spend time on GPs, LPs, and LLPs in class and test on them during exam time because the Florida bar tests on these business subjects every year. The bar pays scant attention to LLCs even though that’s the fastest growing business entity in my state. Indeed, I have had almost a dozen guest speakers in my startup law skills class, and all of the attorneys indicated that they deal almost exclusively with LLCs and corporations. I worry when I spend time on interviewing and negotiation skills in the doctrinal class because the bar won’t test on these topics, but these are precisely the skills my students will need in practice.

Perhaps I worry for nothing. After the administration of every bar exam, I receive notes from students indicating that they felt prepared for both the exam and for life after law school. But I fear that schools do too little to prepare students for either. I highly recommend that you read Merritt’s article and if you agree with her, work with your state bar and the NCBE on reform.


 


 

 

May 11, 2017 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Law School, Lawyering, LLCs, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Fake News! Trump's LLCs Are Not Corporations

It's exam-grading time, so my focus is largely on that.  I did do my usual peruse of the news, though, and I found a whole host of news outlets discussing President Trump's tax plan, which proposes to lower income tax rates on pass-through entities.  As one of the pieces explains

Pass-through income, for those of you who aren’t tax nerds, is business income that’s reported on a personal return. It comes from partnerships, limited-liability corporations and other closely held businesses, including Trump’s own family real estate operation.

First of all, knowing about pass-through income does not make you a tax nerd. I don't think. 

Beyond that, though, limited liability corporations are not a thing.  And, limited liability companies (LLCs) are generally chosen for pass-though tax status, but they don't have to be. They can chose to be taxed as C corporations at the federal level, if they wish.  Furthermore, partnerships, such as MLPs, and LLCs don't have to be closely held. They can be publicly traded.  

Multiple outlets got on the incorrect"limited-liability corporations" bandwagon. Even Barron's! Oh, well.. For now, I guess I will just continue to note that LLCs are still limited liability companies.  

Happy grading to those in the same boat, and good thoughts to the students taking our exams.  We really do want you to succeed, so please, show us what you know. 

 

May 2, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Partnership | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Why Do So Many People Assume States Can Disregard Series LLCs?

The Uniform Law Commission is in the process of considering the Limited Liability Company Protected Series Act (f/k/a Series of Unincorporated Business Entities Act), and the final reading is schedule to take place in July 2017.  (Draft is here.) I have been discussing the challenges of Series LLCs with a variety of folks, and it strikes me that a consistent theme about the Series LLC is a concern about asset protection between each LLC in there Series. That is, there is concern that some courts may disregard the separateness of each LLC in the Series and treat the entire Series as a single entity.  I share this concern, but it strikes me that it is a rather outlandish concern that a court would do so without some significant level of fraud or other injustice to warrant whatever the state version of veil piercing would mandate. 

One source goes so far as to state: 

Case law has not been developed on Series LLCs yet, and there is much fear in the professional world that the assets may not be as protected as when the entity is formed. What is clear is that the “corporate formalities” must be carefully followed, such that:

  1. Separate books and records should be maintained for each series;

  2. Creditors need to be made specifically aware of the separate existence of each series; and

  3. The assets of each must be unambiguously identified as belonging to that series.

I don't consider these corporate formalities as at all, given that we're talking about an LLC, but it's true that any Series LLC would be well served to follow the entity formalities we'd expect of any entity seeking to protect limited liability.  Perhaps because the Series LLC as an entity is new, there is a need for heightened vigilance, but I am of the mind these kinds of measures are proper for all entities, if one wants to reduce the likelihood of veil piercing, enterprise liability, or other agency/guarantor concerns.  

Another source warns of the risks of the Series LLC:

The biggest problem with series LLCs is that many states (including California) don’t have series legislation and may choose to ignore the laws of the state where the series was created. That’s because you’re subject to their rules when doing business in their state. The example of the attitude of the California Franchise Tax Board applies to fees, but liability protection is also an issue. Since series LLCs are so new they’ve never been tested by courts, even in the states that permit them. That means there’s no guarantee that limited liability protection will be extended to each series until every state rules on the subject. It’s hard to see how a court would choose to grant this kind of protection inside one entity, and only time will tell if courts will do this. But do you want this type of uncertainty when you are trying to protect your assets?

Again, perhaps valid, but the idea that a state would simply ignore a properly created entity formed in another state is an outrageous proposition, in my mind.  If a state sees fit to define an entity, and such an entity is properly formed, that should be sufficient to follow the entity rules.  That might be different if a state were to write a law that specifically disallows certain kinds of entity structures. (I'd likely have a problem with that, too, but on the merits of such a law.)  And some laws clearly change the analysis, like bankruptcy. But to simply disregard another state's entity structure if the business is properly operating? That's not right.  

Anyway, I agree with those who are cautious about the relative limited liability protections of the Series LLC, especially outside of the eight(?) states that have such laws (Delaware, Nevada, Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Utah). But I do find it disturbing that so many people are comfortable with the idea that courts would (and perhaps should) be so inherently skeptical of a structure chosen by a state legislature that the court would disregard the concept completely.  I am all for requiring entities to be clear which entity is to bound (and I think those doing business with those entities should seek guarantees, co-signers, or other assurances where they want them).  Courts allowing plaintiffs to expand limited liability beyond a Series entity to include other entities, based only on the use of the Series structure, is different. Like haphazard veil piercing, such decisions run the risk of incentivizing careless or ambiguous drafting and give creditors a chance to pursue a windfall in the form of an un-negotiated guarantee. 

As I often remind my students, to argue against the concept of limited liability is a very different thing than arguing that the current law allows one to disregard an entity in a particular circumstance. One asks, "What should be?,"  while the other asks, "What is?"  And to dislike the idea of a Series LLC is very different than suggesting a Series LLC law is invalid.  There, the former says what the law should be,"  while the latter says that what is, is not.  

 

April 11, 2017 in Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Abolishing Veil Piercing Is for Legislatures, Not Courts

I write often about how courts often incorrectly treat LLCs as corporations.  Last week, I reported on a case about a court that misstated, in my view, the state of the law regarding LLCs and veil piercing.  When I do so, I often get comments about how veil piercing should go away. Prof. Bainbridge replies similarly here

I am on record as being open to the elimination of veil piercing (I am actually, at least in theory, working on an article tentatively called Abolishing Veil Piercing Without Abolishing Equity), and I am especially open to the idea of abolishing veil piercing with regard to contract-based claims.  (Texas largely does this by requiring "actual fraud" for cases arising out of contract. For a great explanation of Texas law on the subject, please see Elizabeth Miller's detailed description here.)

Several courts over the years, most notably the Wyoming court in Flahive, have extended the concept of veil piercing to LLCs, even where a statute did not explicitly provide the concept of veil piercing. Although I think these courts got it wrong, now that concept of veil piercing is well established for corporations and LLCs in virtually all (if not all) U.S. jurisdictions, I think any rollback must properly be done by statute. 

In the past, I have been critical of courts like the one in Flahive, because I agree with Prof. Bainbridge and others who argue that veil piercing, when not expressly stated, may well have not been intended.  Minnesota, for example, has at least made the concept clear. Minnesota LLC law provides: 

322B.303 PERSONAL LIABILITY OF MEMBERS AS MEMBERS.

Subdivision 1. Limited liability rule. 

Subject to subdivision 2, a member, governor, manager, or other agent of a limited liability company is not, merely on account of this status, personally liable for the acts, debts, liabilities, or obligations of the limited liability company.

Subd. 2. Piercing the veil.

The case law that states the conditions and circumstances under which the corporate veil of a corporation may be pierced under Minnesota law also applies to limited liability companies.  . . . .

Like most states, Minnesota courts are willing to pierce the corporate veil where (1) an entity ignores corporate formalities and serves as the alter ego of a shareholder and (2) enforcing the liability limitations of the corporate form leads to injustice or is fundamentally unfair. I have often used this example of how a state should, if they want to have LLC veil piercing, proceed. That is, although I would not advocate for doing so, if a state is going to have veil piercing of LLCs, it should be expressly stated. The statute may be flawed in concept, but that's a call for the legislature.  

The Minnesota statute is well crafted to achieve its apparent goals, in that it makes clear that one can, in fact, be "personally liable for the acts, debts, liabilities, or obligations of the limited liability company" merely on account of being a member of an LLC.  That is, the general rule is that members are not liable for the LLC's debts, but where an LLC veil is pierced, all members become personally liable for the debts, regardless of the their actions.  In Minnesota, this includes "corporate formalities" as a factor for corporate veil piercing and thus it applies to LLCs, even though LLCs have few, if any, statutory formalities (and many states disclaim formalities as an obligation to maintain limited liability for an LLC).  

This seems wrong to me, especially the part about making those who did not participate in the bad behavior potentially liable and adding a corporate-formalities requirement to an entity that is not supposed to have them.  As Prof. Bainbridge argues in Abolishing Veil Piercing,  "Abolishing veil piercing would refocus judicial analysis on the appropriate question-did the defendant-shareholder do anything for which he or she should be held directly liable."  I agree.  

Still, because veil-piercing of entities is well-settled law, I don't think judges have latitude to eliminate it. Judges must focus on proper limitations and clarity of the law that is still subject to interpretation (or plainly inconsistent with the law), where possible.  At this point, abolishing veil piercing must be done by statute. Maybe some bold legislators will heed the call.

March 21, 2017 in Corporate Personality, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Perpetuating the Hot Mess of LLC Veil Piercing Law

A new case, out just yesterday from the Southern District of Ohio, makes a mess of LLC veil piercing law. It appears that the legal basis put forth by the court in granting a motion to dismiss a veil piercing claim was probably right, but the statement of veil piercing law was not quite there.  

The case is ACKISON SURVEYING, LLC, Plaintiff, v. FOCUS FIBER SOLUTIONS, LLC, et al., Defendants., No. 2:15-CV-2044, 2017 WL 958620, at *1 (S.D. Ohio Mar. 13, 2017).  Here are the parties: the defendant is FTE Networks, Inc. (FTE), which filed a motion to dismiss claiming a failure to state a claim. FTE is the parent company of another defendant, Focus Fiber Solutions, LLC (Focus). The plaintiff, Ackison Surveying, LLC (Ackison) filed  a number of claims against Focus, added an alter ego/veil piercing claim against FTE. Thus, Ackison is, among other things, seeking to pierce the veil of an LLC (Focus). Focus appears to be a Pennsylvania LLC, based on a search here.

Pennsylvania law provides the liability cannot be imposed on a member of an LLC for failing to observe formalities. The law states: 

The failure of a limited liability partnership, limited partnership, limited liability limited partnership, electing partnership or limited liability company to observe formalities relating to the exercise of its powers or management of its activities and affairs is not a ground for imposing liability on a partner, member or manager of the entity for a debt, obligation or other liability of the entity.
15 Pa. Stat. and Consol. Stat. § 8106 (2017). 
 
However, the S.D. Ohio court states that a threshold question of whether an LLC's veil can be pierced includes an assessment of the following factors: 
(1) grossly inadequate capitalization,
(2) failure to observe corporate formalities,
(3) insolvency of the debtor corporation at the time the debt is incurred,
(4) [the parent] holding [itself] out as personally liable for certain corporate obligations,
(5) diversion of funds or other property of the company property [ ],
(6) absence of corporate records, and (7) the fact that the corporation was a mere facade for the operations of the [parent company].
ACKISON SURVEYING, LLC, Plaintiff, v. FOCUS FIBER SOLUTIONS, LLC, et al., Defendants., No. 2:15-CV-2044, 2017 WL 958620, at *3 (S.D. Ohio Mar. 13, 2017) (alterations in original). 
 
The opinion ultimately find that the complaint made only legal conclusions and failed to provide any facts to support the allegations of the LLC as an alter ego of its parent corporation, and further determined that a proposed amended claim was equally lacking.  As such, the court dismissed FTE from the case.  This conclusion appears correct, but it still suggests that, in another case, one could support a veil piercing claim against an LLC by showing that the LLC's "failure to observe corporate formalities," formalities it may have no legal obligation to follow.  
 
This remains my crusade. When courts get cases like this, they should (at a minimum) provide a clear veil piercing law for LLCs that accounts for the differences between LLCs and corporations.  I keep saying it, again and again, and I will keep beating the drum. If state law allows for LLC veil piercing, then fine, but get the law right. LLCs and corporations provide limited liability for their residual interest holders, but they are not the same entity. You Can’t Pierce the Corporate Veil of an LLC Because It Doesn't Have One, but the LLC does have a limited liability veil.  In cases such as these, courts should take the time make the law clearer so that future courts can stop applying the incorrect standards.  And lawyers bringing such cases could help, too, by framing their claims and responses appropriately.  Please.  

March 14, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Few Irritating Things

I don't know if it's the time of year or if I am just a little off, but I am generally grumpy today. So, I am going to vent a bit.  

First, a regular irritation that is no shock to regular readers is the "limited liability corporation." I probably should have stopped the Westlaw alert for that terms, which comes through nearly every single day with multiple cases and news items.  A new case from the U.S. District Court in Kansas, Pipeline Prods., Inc. v. Horsepower Entm't, No. CV 15-4890-KHV, 2017 WL 698504, at *1 (D. Kan. Feb. 22, 2017), is typical.  The court states: 

Pipeline Productions, Inc. is a Kansas corporation with its principal place of business in Lawrence, Kansas. Backwood Enterprises, LLC is an Arkansas limited liability corporation with its principal place of business in Lawrence, Kansas. . . . 

The Madison Companies, LLC is a Delaware limited liability company with its principal place of business in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Horsepower Entertainment, a Delaware limited liability company, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Madison with its principal place of business in Greenwood Village, Colorado.

Irritation 1: Arkansas does not have an entity called a "limited liability corporation." Arkansas, as is typical, has a corporation entity and a limited liability company entity.  They are different.  The fact that the court gets the entity right for the two Delaware LLCs suggests to me that the filings from Backwood Enterprises, LLC, is the likely source of the language.  Still, courts should be getting this right.  (It won't shock me if my obsession with this is irritating more than one reader. C'est la vie.) 

Irritation 2: The case also references a "wholly-owned subsidiary."  This is a common reference, but "wholly owned" does not need a hyphen when used a compound adjective.  This source cites the one I tend to follow, from my public relations days: 

When a compound modifier–two or more words that express a single concept–precedes a noun, use hyphens to link all the words in the compound except the adverb very and all adverbs that end in -ly. —AP Stylebook, 2013 edition. Boldface added.

Spot on.  The site also provides a good hint:

*Warning: Not every word that ends in -ly is an adverb. Watch out for nouns like family and supply, and adjectives like only. For example, “family-oriented websites”; supply-side economics”; “only-begotten son.”

Since Americans (in particular) love threes, I will follow the Rule of 3s, and add one more. 

Irritation 3: The word "articulate."  Yeah, this is kind of random, but I am done with that word. I cannot come up with a time when another word won't serve as a good substitute, and the loaded way in which the term has evolved means it should be skipped.  See, e.g., here.  This article provides more good background and quotes Condoleezza Rice's former communications counselor, Anna Perez: 

The word perfectly conveys, to quote George Bush, the soft bigotry of low expectations. It literally comes down to that. When people say it, what they are really saying is that someone is articulate ... for a black person.

Before anyone wants to get mad at me for being too "PC," calm down.  I am not saying you can't say it. I am saying you will irritate me if you do.  And if you say it to or about an African-American person, you probably are showing the bias Ms. Perez described. And, yeah, I have heard it said about and to African-Americans in my presence, and it's usually pretty clear the bias is there.  It's an irritation to me, and it's demeaning, even though I think it is, from time to time, well intentioned, if ignorant.  Time to move forward.  What was once "progressive thinking" is not anymore.  Try to catch up if you're really trying to be nice.

I know, everyone has things that irritate them.  It's good to vent now and again. No person attacks or freak outs. Just a good, old-fashioned vent.  Happy Mardi Gras.  

 

February 28, 2017 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Alaska LLC Veil Piercing at Crossroads: A Chance to Get it Right

Friend and co-blogger Marcia Narine Weldon sent me a news article from Alaska discussing a "piercing of the corporate veil" claim for an LLC.  

The City and Borough of Juneau demolished the Gastineau Apartments and is trying to get hold members of Gastineau Apartments LLC, apparent owners of the building liable for the $1.4 million demolition costs. Demolition cost more than the land is worth, so the suit is seeking to have the owners of the LLC, Camilla and James Barrett, pay the bill because they missed deadlines to repair or demolish the property.

 

The article reports:

At issue before Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg is the legal concept of “piercing the corporate veil.” It would allow legal action against the Barretts, who controlled Gastineau Apartments LLC.

Defense Attorney Robert Spitzfaden had argued that the Barretts should remain shielded from liability. But the judge noted that the defendants had allowed their limited liability corporation to be dissolved after missing filing deadlines with the state.

“It’s clear that the Barretts were not always clear to observe the formal legal requirements of their LLC,” Judge Pallenberg said from the bench.

A quick review of Alaska LLC law did not make clear to me that LLCs in the state have formal requirements that would be implicated in this case.  If the main reason that the LLC did not pay the bills was a mere lack of money, there is no reason to pierce the veil. It's just a failed venture.  Sure, the Barretts should have gone followed the appropriate processes, but it cannot be that the fact that the Barretts "allowed their limited liability corporation [author's note: it's an LLC] to be dissolved after missing filing deadlines with the state" is sufficient to support veil piercing."  

Imagine the same scenario, but the building had value. Would missing deadlines and allowing the land owned by LLC to be automatically transferred to the Barretts?  Even if there were other creditors?  I think not.  

Perhaps there is more to this case than the article reveals, but this looks a lot like a lack of entity funds is the only issue, and a lack of funds (on its own) should not be sufficient for veil piercing, especially in a property case where the property can be forfeited.  If the city or state wants to make a law making individuals liable, then fine, but this looks like a bad case for veil piercing and a possible summary judgment case. I look forward to seeing if Alaska analyzes this one right at trial.  

January 24, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Oops: Oregon District Court Rule For LLCs that are Defined as Corporations

Here we go again. The Oregon Federal District Court has a rule with an incorrect reference to LLCs on the books: 

In diversity actions, any party that is a limited liability corporation (L.L.C.), a limited liability partnership (L.L.P.), or a partnership must, in the disclosure statement required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 7.1, list those states from which the owners/members/partners of the L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership are citizens. If any owner/member/partner of the L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership is another L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership, then the disclosure statement must also list those states from which the owners/members/partners of the L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership are citizens.
U.S. Dist. Ct. Rules D. Or., Civ LR 7.1-1 (emphasis added). This rules is designed to assist with earlier disclosure to assist in determining diversity jurisdiction and other related issues. As the Practice Tip explains, 
The certification requirements of LR 7.1-1 are broader than those established in Fed. R. Civ. P. 7.1. The Ninth Circuit has held that, “[L]ike a partnership, an LLC is a citizen of every state of which its owners/members/partners are citizens.” Johnson v. Columbia Properties Anchorage, LP, 437 F.3d 894, 899 (9th Cir. 2006). Early state citizenship disclosure will help address jurisdictional issues. Therefore, the disclosure must identify each and every state for which any owner/member/partner is a citizen. The disclosure does not need to include names of any owner/member/partner, nor does it need to indicate the number of owners/members/partners from any particular state.
The problem is that the rule defines an LLC as a limited liability corporation, while the Ninth Circuit case cited in the Practice Tip was referring to limited liability companies, which are different entities than corporations. The language from Johnson v. Columbia Properties is correct, but the Oregon District Court rule does not include traditional LLCs. It includes corporations, as per the rule's definition of LLC.  Corporations, of course, have shareholders, not members or partners, and for diversity jurisdiction purposes, "a corporation shall be deemed to be a citizen of every State and foreign state by which it has been incorporated and of the State or foreign state where it has its principal place of business." 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (2016).  Shareholders are not part of the equation. Cf. Hertz Corp. v. Friend, 559 U.S. 77, 88 (2010). 

For federal law purposes, it appears that the rule has excluded LLCs, despite the intent (and likely specific purpose) of the rule. Interestingly, Oregon law, has extended "unless context requires otherwise" the concept of LLCs to apply to partnership and corporate law. Oregon law provides: 
Unless the context otherwise requires, throughout Oregon Revised Statutes:
(1) Wherever the term “person” is defined to include both a corporation and a partnership, the term “person” shall also include a limited liability company. 
(2) Wherever a section of Oregon Revised Statutes applies to both “partners” and “directors,” the section shall also apply:
(a) In a limited liability company with one or more managers, to the managers of the limited liability company.
(b) In a limited liability company without managers, to the members of the limited liability company.
 (3) Wherever a section of Oregon Revised Statutes applies to both “partners” and “shareholders,” the section shall also apply to members of a limited liability company.
 
Beyond potentially leaving limited liability companies out of the disclosure requirement, the rule could have another effect. The way the rule reads, although it does not change the underlying jurisdictional law, it could be read to change disclosure requirements. Though not the only possible reading, one could certainly read "owner" to include shareholders, which would require a corporation to disclose the states of citizenship of all shareholders.  
 
This is pretty obviously an error in drafting, as the court almost certainly intended to define LLCs as "limited liability companies." See Or. Rev. Stat. § 63.002 (2015).  And the court almost certainly did not intend to compel disclosure of all shareholders' states of citizenship.  Nonetheless, courts generally read statutes for what they say, not for what they meant to say.  This might just get a little interesting, if anyone (besides me) is paying attention.   

January 17, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, Legislation, Litigation, LLCs, Partnership, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)