Tuesday, March 21, 2017
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.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
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.
(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].
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
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.
Tuesday, January 24, 2017
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.
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Here we go again. Oregon Federal District Court has a new rule 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.
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.
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.
Tuesday, January 3, 2017
Today is my annual check-up on the use of "limited liability corporation" in place of the correct “limited liability company.” I did a similar review last year about this time, and revisiting the same search led to remarkable consistency. This is disappointing in that I am hoping for improvement, but at least it is not getting notably worse.
Since January 1, 2016, Westlaw reports the following using the phrase "limited liability corporation":
- Cases: 363 (last year was 381)
- Trial Court Orders: 99 (last year was 93)
- Administrative Decisions & Guidance: 172 (last year was 169)
- Secondary Sources: 1116 (last year was 1071)
- Proposed & Enacted Legislation: 148 (last year was 169)
As was the case last year, I am most distressed by the legislative uses of the phrase, because codifying the use of "limited liability corporation" makes this situation far murkier than a court making the mistake in a particular application.
New York, for example, passed the following legislation:
Section 1. Subject to the provisions of this act, the commissioner of parks and recreation of the city of New York is hereby authorized to enter into an agreement with the Kids' Powerhouse Discovery Center Limited Liability Corporation for the maintenance and operation of a children's program known as the Bronx Children's Museum on the second floor of building J, as such building is presently constructed and situated, in Mill Pond Park in the borough of the Bronx. The terms of the agreement may allow the placement of signs identifying the museum.
NY LEGIS 168 (2016), 2016 Sess. Law News of N.Y. Ch. 168 (S. 5859-B) (McKINNEY'S).
This creates a bit of a problem, as Kids' Powerhouse Discovery Center Limited Liability Corporation does not exist. The official name of the entity is as Kids' Powerhouse Discovery Center LLC and it is, according to state records, an LLC (not a corporation). Does this mean the LLC will have to re-form as a corporation so that the commissioner of parks and recreation has authority to act? It would seem so. On the one hand, it could be deemed an oversight, but New York law, like other states, makes clear that an LLC and a corporation are distinct entities.
Several other states enacted legislation using “limited liability corporation” in contexts that clearly intended to mean LLCs. Hawaii, West Virginia (sigh), Minnesota, Alabama, California, and Rhode Island were also culprits.
There was one bit of federal legislation, too. The “Communities Helping Invest through Property and Improvements Needed for Veterans Act of 2016” or the “CHIP IN for Vets Act of 2016." PL 114-294, December 16, 2016, 130 Stat. 1504. This act authorizes the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to carry out a pilot program in which donations of certain property (real and facility construction) donated by the following entities:
(A) A State or local authority.
(B) An organization that is described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 and is exempt from taxation under section 501(a) of such Code.
(C) A limited liability corporation.
(D) A private entity.
(E) A donor or donor group.
(F) Any other non-Federal Government entity.
I have to admit, it is not at all clear to me why one needs any version of (C) if one has (D) as an option. Nonetheless, to the extent it was not intended to be redundant of (D), part (C) would appear to be incorrect.
I addition, I'd be remiss not to note the increase to 1116 uses in secondary sources last year, though only 43 were in law reviews and journals. That part is, at least a little, encouraging.
Last year, I wished “everyone a happy and healthy New Year that is entirely free of LLCs being called ‘limited liability corporations.’” This year, I have learned to temper my expectations. I still wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year, but as to the use of “limited liability corporations” I am hoping to reduce the uses by half in all settings for 2017, and I hope at least three legislatures will fix errors in their existing statutes. That seems more reasonable, if not any more likely.
Thursday, December 8, 2016
A friend of mine is considering teaching his constitutional law seminar based almost entirely on current and future decisions by the President-elect. I would love to take that class. I thought of that when I saw this article about Mr. Trump’s creative use of Delaware LLCs for real estate and aircraft. Here in South Florida, we have a number of very wealthy residents, and my Business Associations students could value from learning about this real-life entity selection/jurisdictional exercise. Alas, I probably can’t squeeze a whole course out of his business interests. However, I am sure that using some examples from the headlines related to Trump and many of his appointees for key regulatory agencies will help bring some of the material to life.
Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Far from alleging that FCRC used B2 Owner to perpetrate a fraud, plaintiff, a sophisticated party, admits that it knowingly entered into the CM Agreement with B2 Owner, an entity formed to construct the project. Nowhere in the complaint does plaintiff allege that it believed it was contracting with or had rights vis-à-vis FCRC or any entity other than B2 Owner. Indeed, plaintiff could have negotiated for such rights. Having failed to do so, plaintiff cannot now claim that it was tricked into contracting with B2 owner only and thus should be allowed to assert claims against FCRC . . . . Thus, the veil-piercing claim should be dismissed.
Tuesday, October 4, 2016
Here we go again:
Plaintiff seeks to collect the outstanding balance owed from Defendant Healthcare Enterprises, L.L.C. d/b/a Princesse Pharmacy and Defendant Octavio RX, Enterprises, L.L.C., d/b/a Christian's Pharmacy & Medical Supplies (collectively “Corporate Defendants”) as well as Defendant Christian. (Dkt. No. 13 at 3). Plaintiff alleges that Corporate Defendants “are shell corporations or alter egos of [Defendant] Christian, owner of the different establishments known as Princesse Pharmacy, [and] Christian's Pharmacy & Medical Supplies.”
The defendants Octavio Rx Enterprises, LLC and Healthcare Enterprises, LLC are shell corporations or alter egos of Gerard Christian, owner of the different establishments known as Princesse Pharmacy, Christian’s Pharmacy & Medical Supplies.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
On Monday, Doug Moll posted a great question about RUPA 404(e), which also got some great comments. I started to write a reply comment, but it got so long, I though it worked better as a separate post. Doug asks the following (whole post here):
Under the “cabining in” language of RUPA (1997), the action has to fit within § 404(b) to be considered a breach of the duty of loyalty. Section 404(b)(1) prevents the “appropriation of a partnership opportunity.” When a partner attempts to block the partnership from taking an opportunity to protect the partner’s own related business, can it be argued that the partner is, at least indirectly, seeking to appropriate the opportunity for himself?
Alternatively, might the partner’s vote violate the § 404(b)(3) obligation to “refrain from competing with the partnership”?
Here's where I come out it:
As I think about it, I am with Frank Snyder's comment that "a partner is entitled to pursue her own interests in voting her partnership interest, unless there's some agreement to the contrary." I also think, though, that § 404(e) sanctions self-interested votes, subject to “the obligation of good faith and fair dealing” required under § 404(d).
So, I am not that troubled by the example from the comments that Doug cites, though I see where his concern comes from. To repeat the comment:
For example, a partner who, with consent, owns a shopping center may, under subsection (e), legitimately vote against a proposal by the partnership to open a competing shopping center.
First, because it’s clear that the partner first got consent to own the shopping center, the partner is not competing with the partnership, as I see it. Actually, the partnership wants to compete with the existing center, which one partner owns with consent of the partnership. As such, because of the consent, I don’t think § 404(b)(3) is a concern here. Section 404(e) says a self-interested vote is permissible, so the question is whether such a vote is consistent with the obligation of good faith and fair dealing from § 404(d).
Given that the partnership consented to ownership of the shopping center, it seems that the rest of the partnership would reasonably expect that the partner would not be excited to create a competitive shopping center. With this knowledge on both sides, it seems to me that casting a vote against a new shopping center can occur in good faith and mean the partner dealt fairly. The rest of the partnership can still proceed with the plan if they have enough votes under the partnership agreement, and if not (e.g., unanimous vote was needed), too bad.
Even without disclosure and consent, this might be permissible. Suppose existing partnership A owns a car dealership. The dealership was a Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Saturn, dealer, and they are done and new use for the property will be needed. Suppose that one of the partners also owns a shopping center with another group of people, as part of partnership B. Should that partner be precluded from voting against converting the dealership in partnership A to a shopping center? I don’t think so.
In addition, Gottacker v. Monnier, 697 N.W.2d 436 (Wis. 2005) provides an interesting LLC parallel to this situation. Under the Wisconsin LLC act, the court says:
We determine that the WLLCL does not preclude members with a material conflict of interest from voting their ownership interest with respect to a given matter. Rather, it prohibits members with a material conflict of interest from acting in a manner that constitutes a willful failure to deal fairly with the LLC or its other members. We interpret this requirement to mean that members with a material conflict of interest may not willfully act or fail to act in a manner that will have the effect of injuring the LLC or its other members. This inquiry contemplates both the conduct along with the end result, which we view as intertwined. The inquiry also contemplates a determination of the purpose of the LLC and the justified expectations of the parties.
Id. ¶ 31. In that case, two members effectively transferred property from one entity to another, leaving a third member out. There was no question they were conflicted in their votes, but the test was not whether they could act vote in a conflicted manner (as they did). Instead, the question was whether they dealt fairly and in good faith, which had to be decided on remand (the court said they did). In assessing whether the entity or other members are injured, then, as long at the voting was done consistent with the organizing agreement, I think the test is whether the partner in question is getting something unfairly to the detriment of the other members.
Lastly, to Doug's example, in the comments to his post, he said: “[W]hen I vote to, for example, block the partnership from raising the rent on a property that I originally leased several years ago from the partnership (and with the partnership's permission), it is hard for me to understand why that vote should not be considered a breach of duty.” It seems to me that should not be a breach of fiduciary duty unless it violates some express agreement to the contrary.
There can be good faith and fair dealing under § 404(d) in such a case, and the partnership agreed to the terms up front. The question to me is simply, what kind of vote is needed to raise the rent? Again, if it requires unanimous consent, that’s the partnership’s problem. They could have changed that when they originally agree to the deal. If it’s majority vote, the other partners can change the rent despite the conflicted partner's no vote. I see no need to protect this kind of transaction with mandatory fiduciary duties. There’s not a disclosure or fair dealing problem to me, so I would sanction it, and I think that's the specific intent of § 404(e).
I admit, I am sometimes amazed at how much of a contractarian I have become.
Tuesday, September 20, 2016
Here’s a new one on the “LLC as corporation” front. A court in the Southern District of New York says the following:
[T]his Court has subject matter jurisdiction, since the parties are diverse and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. Hermes and Swain are “citizens” of different states; Hermes, a French limited liability corporation, has its headquarters in New York, while Swain is a New Jersey resident.
Hermés of Paris, Inc. v. Swain, 2016 WL 4990340, at *2 (S.D.N.Y., 2016)
In most such circumstances, when a court refers to a “limited liability corporation,” it meant to say “limited liability company.” See, e.g., Avarden Investments, LLC v. Deutsche Bank Nat'l Trust Co., No. 16-CV-014-LM, 2016 WL 4926155, at *2 (D.N.H. Sept. 15, 2016) (“Avarden is a limited liability company organized under the laws of New Hampshire. New Hampshire law permits a limited liability corporation to assign management responsibility of a limited liability company to a ‘manager.’ RSA 304-C:13.”). But not this time.
Bloomberg says Hermès of Paris, Inc. operates as a subsidiary of Hermes International SA. The French version of an LLC is not an SA, it often viewed as an SARL.
So, technically, a corporation is a “limited liability corporation” because corporations come with a grant of limited liability. The source of this language in this opinion is, in seems, the petition to compel arbitration, which states in paragraph 10: “Petitioner Hermés, an entity engaged in ‘commerce’ as defined in the FAA §1, is a limited liability corporation, with its United States headquarters in New York, New York.”
Another interesting (to me) note is that that court and the pleadings don’t ever say where Hermés is incorporated. They just say where it is headquartered. I see nothing that says its state of origin. I am not as up on my civil procedure (jurisdiction) as maybe I should be, but couldn’t that matter? That is, if Hermés of Paris, Inc., is a New Jersey corporation with headquarters in New York, might that not be a problem for diversity jurisdiction? (It looks like it’s not, though. I looked. But they do have a New Jersey warehouse. Still, the state of formation seems mildly important to note.)
Anyway, although I don’t like the use of the term at all, because it creates potential for confusion (is it an LLC or a corporation?), at least this time the words are correct, even if that’s not generally how we refer to the entity type. I’d still prefer the court to have just called it a corporation, though.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Private Ordering in the Uncorporation: Modified and Eliminated Fiduciary Duties Are Often the Same Thing
What does it mean to opt out of fiduciary duties? In follow-up to my co-blogger Joan Heminway's post, Limited Partnership Law: Should Tennessee Follow Delaware's Lead On Fiduciary Duty Private Ordering?, I will go a step further and say all states should follow Delaware's lead on private ordering for non-publicly traded unincorporated business associations.
Here's why: At formation, I think all duties between promoters of an unincorporated business association (i.e., not a corporation) are always, to some degree, defined at formation. This is different than the majority of other agency relationships where the expectations of the relationship are more ingrained and less negotiated (think employee-employer relationship).
As such, I'd make fiduciary duties a fundamental right by statute that can be dropped (expressly) by those forming the entity. I'd put an additional limit on the ability to drop fiduciary duties: the duties can only be dropped after formation if expressly stated in formation documents (or agreed unanimously later). That is, if you didn't opt out at formation, tell all those who could potentially join the entity how you can change fiduciary duties later. This helps limit some (though not all) freeze-out options, and I think it would encourage investors to check the entity documents closely (as they should).
At formation, the concerns we might have of, for example, an employee without fiduciary duties, are not the same as they are for co-venturers. Those starting an entity have long negotiated what is a breach of the duty of loyalty, for example. In contrast, I think fiduciary duties in most employer-employee (and similar) relationships reflect the majoritarian default and they facilitate the relationship existing at all. For LLCs and partnership entities, I think that's less clear. Entity formation is relatively rare compared to how often we enter other agency relationships, and they almost always involve significant negotiation (if not planning). And if they don't, the rules we expect traditionally should be the default. But where the parties talk about it, and they usually do, allowing a more robust sense of freedom of contract has value.
Even in Delaware, where one can negotiate out of fiduciary duties, there remains the duty of good faith and fair dealing. I think of that as meaning that the parties still have a right to the essence of the contract. That is, the contract has to mean something. It has to have had a purpose and potential value at formation, and no party can eliminate that. But, the parties only have a right to what was bargained for. As such, what we might traditionally consider a breach of the duty of loyalty could also breach the duty of good faith and fair dealing, but a traditional breach of the duty of loyalty might not be sufficient to find liability where there is expressly no duty of loyalty. Instead, the act must so contradict the purpose of the contract that it rises to the level of a breach the duty of good faith and fair dealing.
Part of the reason I support this option is that I think case law has already validated it, but in such an inartful manner that it confuses existing doctrine. See, e.g., McConnell v. Hunt Sports Enterprises, 132 Ohio App. 3d 657, 725 N.E.2d 1193 (Ct. App. 1999) (“An LLC, like a partnership, involves a fiduciary relationship. Normally, the presence of such a relationship would preclude direct competition between members of the company. However, here we have an operating agreement that by its very terms allows members to compete with the business of the company.”).
In closing, I will note that I am all for express provisions that require investors to pay attention at the outset. I don't believe in helping cheaters hide the ball. I just think law that encourages investors and others joining new ventures to pay attention is useful and will provide long-term value to entities. I don't think that eliminated fiduciary duties at formation raise any more of a risk than we already have with limited or modified fiduciary duties at formation. With the more limited protections described above, freedom of contract should reign.
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
Although we review claims of insufficiency de novo, United States v. Harvey, 746 F.3d 87, 89 (2d Cir. 2014), it is well recognized that “a defendant mounting such a challenge bears a heavy burden” because “in assessing whether the evidence was sufficient to sustain a conviction, we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, drawing all inferences in the government's favor and deferring to the jury's assessments of the witnesses' credibility.” . . .
[W]e reject Jasmin's challenge to her Hobbs Act conviction. The evidence presented at trial more than sufficiently describes the consideration received by Jasmin in exchange for her official actions as Mayor, including the $5,000 in cash from Stern, “advance” cash for their partnership, and shares in the limited liability corporation that would develop the community center.
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Just in case you haven't gotten the message yet: Delaware law means fiduciary duty freedom of contract for alternative entities. In May 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court upheld a waiver of fiduciary duties in a master limited partnership. In Employees Retirement System of the City of St. Louis v. TC Pipelines GP, Inc., Vice Chancellor Glasscock upheld challenges to an interested transaction (sale of a pipeline asset to an affiliated entity) that was reviewed, according to the partnership agreement, by a special committee and found to be fair and reasonable. The waiver has been described as "ironclad" to give you a sense of how straight forward this decision was. No close call here.
Vice Chancellor Glasscock's letter opinion starts:
Delaware alternative entity law is explicitly contractual;1 it allows parties to eschew a corporate-style suite of fiduciary duties and rights, and instead to provide for modified versions of such duties and rights—or none at all—by contract. This custom approach can be value enhancing, but only if the parties are held to their bargain. Where equity holders in such entities have provided for such a custom menu of rights and duties by unambiguous contract language, that language must control judicial review of entity transactions, subject only to the cautious application of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Such is the case in the instant matter, which involves a master limited partnership (“MLP”) created with interested transactions involving the general partner as part of its business model.....
The Defendants point out that the [transaction] was approved by a special committee (the “Conflicts Committee”), which approval, in accordance with the partnership agreement, creates a conclusive presumption that the transaction is fair and reasonable to the Partnership. I find that the Conflicts Committee’s approval, in these circumstances, precludes judicial scrutiny of the substance of the transaction and grant the Defendants’ Motion.
Importantly, the contractual safe harbor for interested transactions established a process which, if followed, created a fair and reasonable transaction outside of judicial scrutiny and without recourse by the other partners. The court found that the partnership agreement precluded a good faith analysis of the Conflicts Committee's review and limited the court's review purely to matters of process.
The relevant portions of the Special Approval provision, importantly, are silent as to good faith.....According to the contractual language, the Special Approval of a duly constituted and fully informed Conflicts Committee is conclusive evidence that such transaction is fair and reasonable, and such approval is, therefore, preclusive of further judicial review. The Plaintiff does not allege that the Conflicts Committee was not duly constituted—that is, directors who are neither security holders nor employees or officers of the General Partner or its affiliates. Nor does the Plaintiff allege that the Conflicts Committee was not fully informed. Thus, the approval here is conclusive that the [transaction] is “fair and reasonable” to TCP. According to the explicit language of the LPA, when a conflicted transaction is deemed “fair and reasonable” by the terms of the agreement, such conflicted transaction is incapable of breaching the LPA.
Get the message? LOUD and CLEAR!
The opinion contains more analysis and excerpts of the relevant portions of partnership agreement. Look for an excerpt on this case in my ChartaCourse (electronic platform) Business Organizations casebook.
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have issues with how people mess up the distinction between LLCs (limited liability companies) and corporations. In some instances, it is a subtle, likely careless, mistake. Other cases seem to be trolling me. Today, I present you such a case: Sky Cable, LLC v. Coley, 2016 WL 3926492 (W.D.Va., July 18, 2016). H/T: Jay D. Adkisson. The case describes the proceedings as follows:
DIRECTV asks the court to reverse-pierce the corporate veil and declare that Randy Coley is the alter ego of his three limited liability companies, such that the assets held by those LLCs are subject to the judgment in this case.
Okay, so claiming to pierce the "corporate veil" of an LLC is wrong (it doesn't have a "corporate" anything), but it's also exceedingly common for lawyers and courts to make such an assertion. This case takes the improper designation to the next level.
First, the court describes the LLCs in questios as "the Corporate Entities." It then goes on to discuss "Coley's limited liability companies." Ugh. The court further relates, "DIRECTV stated that in a forthcoming motion, it would ask the court to reverse-pierce the corporate veil given Coley's abuse of the corporate form." No such form, but perhaps we can now blame DIRECTV's counsel, in part, for this hot mess.
Here's the court's Legal Framework:
Generally, corporations are recognized as entities that are separate and distinct from their officers and stockholders. [Author's note: THERE ARE NO SHAREHOLDERS IN LLCS!] "But this concept of separate entity is merely a legal theory, 'introduced for purposes of convenience and to subserve the ends of justice,' and the courts 'decline to recognize [it] whenever recognition of the corporate form would extend the principle of incorporation "beyond its legitimate purposes and [would] produce injustices or inequitable consequences.' "" DeWitt Truck Brokers, Inc. v. W. Ray Flemming Fruit Co., 540 F.2d 681, 683 (4th Cir. 1976) (citations omitted). When appropriate, and " 'in furtherance of the ends of justice,' " a court may pierce the corporate veil and treat the corporation and its shareholders as one, id. (quoting 18 Am. Jur. 2d at 559), if it finds a corporation and its shareholders have misused or disregarded the corporate form, United States v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 926 F. Supp. 2d 794, 815 (E.D. Va. 2013). This is often referred to as an "alter ego theory."
The court continues: "Delaware courts take the corporate form and corporate formalities very seriously.... " Case Fin., Inc. v. Alden, No. CIV. A. 1184-VCP, 2009 WL 2581873, at *4 (Del. Ch. Aug. 21, 2009)." The opinion then states that veil piercing concepts"apply equally to limited liability companies which, like corporations, have a legal existence separate and distinct from its members." The concept may, but LLCs do not have to follow the same formalities as corporations to maintain separate existence. Even if veil piercing were appropriate here, the entire case continues to misstate the law of veil piercing LLCs. Note: Delaware courts do hold some blame here: Westmeyer v. Flynn, 382 Ill. App. 3d 952, 960, 889 N.E.2d 671, 678 (2008) ("[U]nder Delaware law, just as with a corporation, the corporate veil of an LLC may be pierced, where appropriate.").
Based on the opinion, it does seems as though the defendant here was being shady, at best, and perhaps outright fraudulent. I don't suggest that, based on the facts presented, the defendant shouldn't be held accountable for his debts. Still, in addition to the misstatements of the law, I am not sure veil piercing was necessary. As the court notes, "veil piercing is an equitable remedy and an extraordinary one, exercised only in exceptional circumstances "when 'necessary to promote justice.'" It seems to me, then, the court (and the plaintiff) should discuss other remedies first, relying only on veil piercing where "necessary."
As such, I'd like to see a discussion of fraudulent or improper transfer before veil piercing -- did the defendant improperly move assets that should have been available to the plaintiff into an entity? Before veil piercing three entities, it seems to me the court should determine what should have been available to the plaintiff -- if the answer is "nothing" then no amount of shady behavior should support veil piercing. If there should be assets, then the question should still be "which ones?" If the answer is all of the assets in all of then entities, then okay. But if the court is veil piercing three entities merely to ensure adequate recovery, that's an overreach, it seems to me. In addition, how about reviewing if there was actual fraud in how the defendant acted? That, too, could support recovery without the extraordinary veil piercing remedy.
Ultimately, it's possible the court got the outcome right here. But it clearly got the law wrong. A lot.
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
Today I will pose a simple question: Is Entity Type Material?
Of course, context matters, so here's where this is coming from: On July 1, 2016, Canterbury Park Holding Corporation filed an 8-K making the following announcement:
SHAKOPEE, Minnesota (July 1, 2016) - Canterbury Park Holding Corporation, a Minnesota corporation (Nasdaq Global Market: CPHC) (the “Company”), today announced that it has completed its previously announced reorganization of the Company’s business into a holding company structure (the “Reorganization”), pursuant to which a recently-formed Minnesota corporation with the same name, Canterbury Park Holding Company (“New Canterbury”), has replaced the Company as the publicly held corporation owned by the Company’s shareholders. At the market open today, July 1, 2016, the shares of common stock of New Canterbury will commence trading on the Nasdaq Global Market under the ticker symbol “CPHC,” the same ticker symbol previously used by the Company.
As a result of the Reorganization, the Company has been merged into a limited liability company subsidiary, Canterbury Park Entertainment LLC. In addition, the Company’s shareholders have automatically become shareholders of New Canterbury on a one-for-one basis, holding the same number of New Canterbury shares and the same ownership percentage after the Reorganization as they held immediately prior to the Reorganization. The business operations, directors and executive officers of the company will not change as a result of the Reorganization.
The exhibits list, though, provides:
Exhibit No. Description 2.1 Agreement and Plan of Merger, dated March 1, 2016, among Canterbury Park Holding Corporation, a Minnesota corporation, New Canterbury Park Holding Corporation, a Minnesota corporation, Canterbury Park Entertainment LLC, a Minnesota limited liability corporation. (Incorporated by reference to Exhibit 2.1 to the Registration Statement on Form S-4 (File No. 333-210877) filed with the SEC on April 22, 2016.)
A what? You probably guessed it: a "Minnesota limited liability corporation." No, it's a limited liability company, as properly noted in the press release.
Okay, so I suspect it's not really material to the SEC or most other investors in the sense that this is a mistake, as long as the filing and exhibit are otherwise accurate. I looked at the May 27, 2016, DEF 14A, which did list the LLC correctly. However, in searching that document I found this was part of the 14A:
GGCP Holdings is a Delaware limited liability corporation having its principal business office at 140 Greenwich Avenue, Greenwich, CT 06830.
Sigh. Well, it may not matter to the SEC, but it's material to me.
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
This is just me musing a bit, but in following up my post on how LLCs can choose to “be corporations” for federal tax purposes, meaning they get C corp tax treatment, I was thinking that maybe the IRS could just stop using state-law designations at all. That is, stop having “corporate” tax treatment at all.
My proposal is not abolishing corporate tax – that’s a much longer post and one I am not sure I’d agree with. Instead, the proposal is to have entities choose from options that are linked the Internal Revenue Code, and not to a particular entity. Thus, we would have (1) entity taxation, called C Tax, where an entity chooses to pay tax at the entity level, which would be typical C Corp taxation; (2) pass-through taxation, called K Tax, which is what we usually think of as partnership tax; and (3) we get rid of S corps, which can now be LLCs, anyway, which would allow an entity to choose S Tax.
This post deals with the tax code, which means I am in over my head, and because this is tax related, it means the solution is a lot more complicated than this proposal. But now that the code provisions are not really linked to the state law entity, I think we should try refer to state entities as state entities, and federal tax status with regard to federal tax status. Under such a code, it would be a little easier for people to understand the concept behind state entity status, and it would make more sense to people that a “C Corp” does mean “publicly traded corporation” (a far-too common misunderstanding). Thus, we could have C Tax corporations, S Tax LLCs, K Tax LLCs, for example. We'd know tax status and state-entity status quite simply and we'd separate the concepts.
A guy can dream, right?
Tuesday, July 5, 2016
So, readers of this blog know that I despise the misuse of the term "limited liability corporation" when the writer or speaker means "limited liability company," which is the correct term for an LLC. There is a time, though, when an LLC can be a corporation, and that is for federal tax purposes if the entity makes such a choice.
Entity choice is a state law decision, but and LLC can elect to be treated as a corporation under the Internal Revenue Code. The Internal Revenue Service recently issued Publication 3402, which explains:
Classification of an LLC Default classification.
An LLC with at least two members is classified as a partnership for federal income tax purposes. An LLC with only one member is treated as an entity disregarded as separate from its owner for income tax purposes (but as a separate entity for purposes of employment tax and certain excise taxes). Also, an LLC's federal tax classification can subsequently change under certain default rules discussed later.
An LLC can elect to be classified as an association taxable as a corporation or as an S corporation. After an LLC has determined its federal tax classification, it can later elect to change that classification. For details, see Subsequent Elections, later. LLCs Classified as Partnerships If an LLC has at least two members and is classified as a partnership, it generally must file Form 1065, U.S. Return of Partnership Income. Generally, an LLC classified as a partnership is subject to the same filing and reporting requirements as partnerships. See the Instructions for Form 1065 for rep
Still, this should really be called an LLC that has elected federal tax status as a corporation or an "LLC FCorp." Or something like that. But at least in this situation, an LLC is something of a corporation.
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Last week, a federal court determined that an insurance disclosure that asked about an "applicant's" criminal history did not apply to an LLC member's individual criminal past. In Jeb Stuart Auction Servs., LLC v. W. Am. Ins. Co., No. 4:14-CV-00047, 2016 WL 3365495, at *1 (W.D. Va. June 16, 2016), the court explained:
“Question Eight” on the [insurance] application asked, “DURING THE LAST FIVE YEARS (TEN IN RI), HAS ANY APPLICANT BEEN INDICTED FOR OR CONVICTED OF ANY DEGREE OF THE CRIME OF FRAUD, BRIBERY, ARSON OR ANY OTHER ARSON-RELATED CRIME IN CONNECTION WITH THIS OR ANY OTHER PROPERTY?” Hiatt, on behalf of Jeb Stuart (who [sic] was the sole [LLC] applicant for the insurance policy), answered, “No.” Hiatt signed the application and left.
As you might imagine, Hiatt had been convicted of "hiring individuals to wreck cars so that he could receive the proceeds from the applicable insurance policies," and, yep, about a month later, the building burned down. Id. at *2.
The insurance company cancelled the policy because it claimed Hiatt had lied on the application, and Hiatt sued for the improper cancellation of the policy because he did not lie (he prevailed) and for attorneys fees claiming “the insurer, not acting in good faith, has either denied coverage or failed or refused to make payment to the insured under the policy.” Id. at *3. Judge Kiser determined that not attorneys' fees were warranted:
Neither party was able to rely on a case on point regarding the issue of whether questions on an LLC's insurance application asking about criminal history applied to the members of the LLC, to the corporate entity, or to both. Although I believe the answer to that question is clear, I am not aware of any other court being called upon to answer it. Therefore, although it was unsuccessful in asserting its defense to Jeb Stuart's claim, West American's position did present a novel legal question. As such, the final Norman factor weighs in favor of a finding of good faith.
Monday, June 13, 2016
This past week, I completed the second leg of my June Scholarship and Teaching Tour. My time at "Method in the Madness: The Art and Science of Teaching Transactional Law and Skills" at Emory University School of Law last week was two days well spent. I had a great time talking to attendees about my bylaw drafting module for our transaction simulation course, Representing Enterprises, and listening to others talk about their transactional law and skills teaching. Great stuff.
This week's portion of my academic tour begins with a teaching whistle-stop at the Nashville School of Law on Friday, continues with attendance (with my husband) at a former student's wedding in Nashville on Saturday evening, and ends (my husband and I hope) with Sunday brunch out with our son (and his girlfriend if she is available). Specifically, on Friday, I teach BARBRI for four hours in a live lecture. The topics? Well, I drew a short straw on that. I teach agency, unincorporated business associations (including a bit about both extant limited liability statutes in Tennessee), and personal property--all in four hours. Ugh. Although I am paid for the lecture and my expenses are covered, I would not have taken (and would not continue to take) this gig if I didn't believe that I could be of some help to students. These topics--especially agency and partnership law, but also personal property--often are tested on the bar exam. So, on I press.
I also am completing work this week on the draft article that I will present in Chicago and Seattle on the last two stops of my tour. I will say more about that article in next week's post. In the mean time, let me know if you have any suggestions (or good jokes) on the law of agency, partnerships, LLCs, or personal property (e.g., tenancies, gifts, bailments, adverse possession, replevin) for my lecture on Friday . . . . It's so hard to make these speed-lectures somewhat engaging for the students. [sigh]