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.
Wednesday, November 2, 2016
General Electric (GE) and Baker Hughes (BHI) announced on Monday, October 31st, a proposed merger to combine their oil and gas operations. GE and Baker Hughes will form a partnership, which will own a publicly-traded company. GE shareholders will own 62.5% of the "new" partnership, while Baker Hughes shareholders will own 37.5% and receive a one-time cash dividend of $17.50 per share. The new company will have 9 board of director seats: 5 from GE and 4 from Baker Hughes. GE CEO Jeff Immelt will be the chairman of the new company and Lorenzo Simonelli, CEO of GE Oil & Gas, will be CEO. Baker Hughes CEO Martin Craighead will be vice chairman.
Reuters is describing the business synergies between the two companies as leveraging GE's oilfield equipment manufacturing ("supplying blowout preventers, pumps and compressors used in exploration and production") and data process services with Baker Hughes' expertise in " horizontal drilling, chemicals used to frack and other services key to oil production."
Baker Hughes had previously proposed a merger with Halliburton (HAL), which failed in May, 2016, after the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit to block the merger. Early analysis suggests that the proposed GE & Baker Hughes will pass regulatory scrutiny because of the limited business overlap of GE and Baker Hughes.
As I plan to tell my corporations students later today: this is real life! A high-profile, late-semester merger of two public companies is a wonderful gift. The proposed GE/Baker Hughes merger illustrates, in real life, concepts we have been discussing (or will be soon) like partnerships, the proxy process, special shareholder meetings, SEC filings, abstain or disclose rules, and, of course, mergers.
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 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.
Monday, September 5, 2016
Limited Partnership Law: Should Tennessee Follow Delaware's Lead On Fiduciary Duty Private Ordering?
I originally was going to write about overconfidence today. But I will reserve that post for a later date. Instead, for today, I am sharing with you a Tennessee legislative drafting issue on which my voice (together with the voices of others) has been solicited and asking for your views and comments.
A committee of the Tennessee Bar Association has been working on proposed revisions to the Tennessee Revised Uniform Limited Partnership Act. Several thorny issues remain for consideration and final decision making, among them, whether Tennessee law, like Delaware limited partnership and limited liability company law, should allow for the elimination of general partner fiduciary duties. The committee soon will be voting on this issue, and we are circulating among us our current views (having earlier debated the matter in telephone conference calls). I took a shot at writing down my views for the group and circulated them last night. I am including the main substantive part of what I wrote here, minus some typos that I caught after the message was sent (and please forgive the disfluencies in places), and requesting comments from you:
Monday, August 29, 2016
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.
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]
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
California is the back on my short list for the state's inability to successfully differentiate between corporations and limited liability companies (LLCs). Last week, an "unpublished/noncitable" decision that was published on Westlaw provided a good example.
The opinion states:
A corporation—including a limited liability corporation—may be served by effecting service on its agent for service of process. (Code Civ. Proc., § 416.10, subd. (a); see also Corp.Code, § 17701.16, subd. (a) [allowing service on limited liability corporations under Code Civ. Proc., § 413.10 et seq.].)7
*12 One of the ways a limited liability corporation can be served is by substituted service. (1 Weil & Brown, Cal. Practice Guide: Civil Procedure Before Trial (The Rutter Group 2015) ¶ 4:172, p. 4–26.) This requires that a copy of the summons and complaint be left at the office of the person to be served (or, in some cases, at the mailing address of the person to be served), in the presence of a person who is apparently in charge, “and by thereafter mailing a copy of the summons and complaint by first-class mail, postage prepaid to the person to be served at the place where a copy of the summons and complaint were left.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 415.20, subd. (a).)
No, no, no. First, even in California, an LLC is a "limited liability company." It says so right in the act. Cal. Corp. Code § 17701.01 (West) ("This title may be cited as the California Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act.").
And, yet, I have to admit, if you note the cite to the LLC act, California lawmakers have made this less clear than in other states. Yes, that's right. In California, the LLC Act is part of the California Corporations Code. Cal. Corp. Code §§ 17701.16 - 17713.13 (West). For that matter, so are partnerships, under Title 2. Sigh.
Would it be so terrible if the Corporations Code were called what it is: the Business Entities Code? As currently structured, LLCs and partnerships are arguably types of corporations under California law, as the above cases suggests. One could argue the headings don't change the meaning or intent of the laws. See Cal. Corp. Code § 6 (West) ("Title, division, part, chapter, article, and section headings contained herein do not in any manner affect the scope, meaning, or intent of the provisions of this code."). The problem with that is that the code text says otherwise: "This act shall be known as the Corporations Code." Cal. Corp. Code § 1 (West).
To reinforce that notion, the Code Commission notes from the 2014 main volume explain:
This code was listed in the appendices of Code Commission reports showing code classification as the “Corporations, Partnerships, and Associations Code.” The 14 syllables of that title appear to make it impractical, but no shorter phrase indicative of the full subject-scope has been found. Therefore, resort has been had to the rhetorical device of synecdoche, and the entire code designated by the name of longest part.
I admit I had to look up synecdoche to be sure I was on the right track, but the term supports, I think, my point that California is treating LLCs and partnerships as corporations (or some subset thereof). See, for example, this explanation:
Synecdoche is a literary device in which a part of something represents the whole or it may use a whole to represent a part.
Synecdoche may also use larger groups to refer to smaller groups or vice versa. It may also call a thing by the name of the material it is made of or it may refer to a thing in a container or packing by the name of that container or packing.
Still, even if it were accurate to says LLCs and partnerships are "types" of corporations under the California code, one thing is still clear: an LLC is a limited liability company, which is, at a minimum, a specific type of "limited liability corporation."
I suppose I can see how "14 syllables" might be deemed "impractical," but not at the cost of imprecision. The "Business Entities" -- or even just "Entities" or "Associations" -- Code would seem like a better, more accurate, option.
Oh well. At least the court cited the part of the California code for service of an LLC. That much, they got right.
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
At the 2017 AALS annual meeting, January 3-7 in San Francisco, the AALS Sections on Agency, Partnerships LLCs, and Unincorporated Associations & Nonprofit and Philanthropy Law will hold a joint session on LLCs, New Charitable Forms, and the Rise of Philanthrocapitalism.
In December 2015, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, pledged their personal fortune—then valued at $45 billion—to the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), a philanthropic effort aimed at “advancing human potential and promoting equality.” But instead of organizing CZI using a traditional charitable structure, the couple organized CZI as a for-profit Delaware LLC. CZI is perhaps the most notable example, but not the only example, of Silicon Valley billionaires exploiting the LLC form to advance philanthropic efforts. But are LLCs and other for-profit business structures compatible with philanthropy? What are the tax, governance, and other policy implications of this new tool of philanthrocapitalism? What happens when LLCs, rather than traditional charitable forms, are used for “philanthropic” purposes?
From the heart of Silicon Valley, the AALS Section on Agency, Partnerships LLCs, and Unincorporated Associations and Section on Nonprofit and Philanthropy Law will host a joint program tackling these timely issues. In addition to featuring invited speakers, we seek speakers (and papers) selected from this call.
Any full-time faculty of an AALS member or fee-paid school who has written an unpublished paper, is working on a paper, or who is interested in writing a paper in this area is invited to submit a 1- or 2-page proposal by June 1, 2016. The Executive Committees of the Sections will review all submissions and select two papers by July 1, 2016. If selected, a very polished draft must be submitted by November 30, 2016. All submissions and inquiries should be directed to the Chairs of the Sections at the email addresses below:
University of Oregon School of Law
Garry W. Jenkins
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
John C. Elam/Vorys Sater Professor of Law
Moritz College of Law,State University
Tuesday, March 22, 2016
March has provided a slate of mistakes as to entity form, focusing (as it almost always does) on limited liability companies (LLCs) and various outlets calling such entities "corporations." These are not in any particular order, but lists are neat. Enjoy!
(1 ) Politifact Checks Trump Facts, Forgets to Check Entity Law Facts
In an article on Politifact.com, Donald Trump incorrectly says Virginia winery is the largest on East Coast, which determines that Trump's claims about the size of a winery that his son runs to be false and notes some statements are incorrect. Ironically, the article also claims:
A legal disclaimer on the winery website says the GOP presidential candidate doesn’t own the winery. The venture is a limited liability corporation, and its owners are not a matter of public record.
Wrong. The winery site says, "Trump Winery is a registered trade name of Eric Trump Wine Manufacturing LLC, which is not owned, managed or affiliated with Donald J. Trump, The Trump Organization or any of their affiliates." An LLC is still not a corporation.
(2) Big Bang Theory: Big Brains Don't Know Entity Law
I don't watch the Big Bang Theory, but my colleague at Valparaiso University, Professor Rebecca J. Huss, is a reader of this blog who also cares about precise language with regard to LLCs alerted me to this one. The story line of the March 10 show (the show can be found here) related to a the creation of a partnership agreement for some of the characters. One thing that is realistic is that the folks think it's a good idea to form an entity and draft contract language without a lawyer. One character says he has some concerns about the partnership, and another replies with this "joke": "Are you suggesting a limited liability corporation, because I did not LLC that coming." (The offending segment is roughly 14 minutes into the show.) (This was also covered at Kentucky Business Entity Law Blog, here, which noted, "Ughhhh. LLC ≠ limited liability corporation. Rather, LLC = limited liability company.")
(3) Ghost LLCs Masquerading as Corporations
The Washington Post last week ran a story, How ‘ghost corporations’ are funding the 2016 election. The article discusses how entities can be used to shield those backing political candidates. The article states:
Advocates for stronger campaign-finance enforcement fear there will be even more pop-up limited liability corporations (LLCs) funneling money into independent groups, making it difficult to discern the identities of wealthy players seeking to influence this year’s presidential and congressional contests.
. . . .
Many corporate givers this cycle are well-established hedge funds, energy companies and real estate firms. But a significant share of the money is coming from newly formed LLCs with cryptic names that offer few clues about their backers.
(4) Pass-Through Tax Law Isn't Really About Corporations (mostly)
The Topeka Capital-Journal Editorial Board wrote on March 20: LLC loophole needs plugging: Even some small business owners think the tax exemption should be eliminated. The editorial is related to a 2012 Kansas law, HB 2117, which eliminated taxes on pass-though entities like LLCs, S corps, partnerships, farms, and sole proprietorships. (So, I admit, S corps are corporation, but they are essentially partnerships for federal tax purposes.) Even though I agree with some their concerns, the board makes a couple mistakes here when they assert that the bill "was simply an unconditional gift from the state for anyone who has created an entity called a limited liability corporation (LLC)."
First, it assumes that just LLCs get the benefit, which is not true. All pass-though entities benefit. Second, of course, the "limited liability corporation" is a corporation, not an LLC, and the corporation (other than one chosen to be an S corp) does not get the benefit of the law.
(5) Court Gets Entity Right, Regulations Not Quite
I'm not one to leave the courts out of this. Judge Robert M. Dow, Jr., of the United States District Court, Northern Illinois has an incredible resume. A member of Phi Beta Kappa and a Rhodes Scholar, his credentials are impressive. In a recent decision, though, his opinion refers to a defendant LLC correctly, but then goes on to say that Treasury Regulations are silent on treatment of "limited liability corporations." Alas, that's not accurate. Here's the passage:
It is undisputed that, as of the date of Anderson Bros.' withdrawal from the fund, Anderson Bros. (an Illinois corporation) was 100% owned by Anderson. Anderson therefore had a “controlling interest” in Anderson Bros. 29 U.S.C. § 1.414(c)-2(b)(2)(A). At the same time, Defendant (an Illinois limited liability company) was also solely owned by Anderson. Section 1.414(c)-2 of the Treasury Regulations does not address specifically the treatment of limited liability corporations, and the Board does not address this issue in its brief. According to the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”), “an LLC with only one member is treated as an entity disregarded as separate from its owner for income tax purposes * * *, unless it files Form 8832 and affirmatively elects to be treated as a corporation.” IRS, Single Member Limited Liability Companies, https://www.irs.gov/Businesses/Small-Businesses-&-Self-Employed/Single-Member-Limited-Liability-Companies (last visited Mar. 16, 2016).
Bd. of Trustees of the Auto. Mechanics' Local No. 701 Union & Inustry Pension Fund v. 6516 Ogden Ave., LLC, No. 14-CV-3531, 2016 WL 1043422, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 16, 2016) (emphasis added).
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
In my Energy Business: Law & Strategy course, I use Larry A. DiMatteo's article, Strategic Contracting: Contract Law as a Source of Competitive Advantage, 47 Am. Bus. L.J. 727 (2010). I have been using the article in the class since 2012 (this is the third time I have taught it), and I think it does a great job of providing a theoretical backdrop for practical application. I teach the article in combination with a one-sided proposed Memorandum of Understanding to help students think about the contracting process and and the long-term implications of what might seem like a small-scale negotiation. I highly recommend the piece.
In reading the article this time around, though, I was struck by how differently the piece treats limited liability companies (LLCs) and corporations and the way concerns about opportunistic behavior are raised in the context of the latter. In one portion of the article, DiMatteo notes:
Corporate strategy that fails to take account of the strategic use of law is likely to waste opportunities for competitive advantages. A corporate legal strategy can be used to gain competitive advantages both internally and externally.
I wholeheartedly agree, and this is part of the reason I teach my course. Although I don't think this is true of just "corporate" strategy, because the same applies to other entities, such as educational institutions, environmental organizations, LLCs, and even governments. Regular readers will not be surprised that I would choose to start the sentence "entity strategy" instead of "corporate strategy, " but his point is still well taken.
Later in the piece, Prof. DiMatteo takes the following position with regard to LLCs:
The freedom of contract paradigm that underlies LLCs allows for broad flexibility in strategically drafting the operating agreement. I will make a distinction here between proper and improper strategic drafting, because a distinction based on legality is insufficient. That is, improper terms may be perfectly legal under some states’ LLC statutes. The argument here is that the freedom of contract construct can lead to contractual abuse, albeit a legally sanctioned abuse. For example, a combination of clauses could be inserted into the operating agreement that strips nonmanager members of all power and protections, such as removal of fiduciary duties relating to the managing member, an indemnification clause to protect the managing member from liability for malfeasance, and a clause providing that the nonmember managers have no right to withdraw or to seek dissolution. These types of provisions may be legal under some statutory schemes, but strict enforcement of these clauses by the managing member would be abusive.
I fail to see why strategic use of law in this context is more problematic than the strategic use of law in other contexts. I do understand and validate concerns about on-going expectations of fiduciary protections related to entities, and that is why, as I have suggested previously, that the lack of fiduciary duties and post-formation changes to fiduciary duties (especially loyalty) should include disclosure and perhaps other structural protections. (I am less concerned about those forming the entity agreeing to limit or eliminate fiduciary duties because they are agreeing to the option at formation when they can object or walk away.) Still, I don't see any reason that freedom of contract in LLCs is fundamentally different from freedom of contract in any other setting, at least as along as you account for a potential knowledge gap about fiduciary duties. In contrast, I liked how Larry Ribstein framed the question of possible promoter liability for LLCs in New York, where he argued that one could make a complaint that "alleged a misrepresentation which would be actionable without implying a fiduciary duty."
I do agree with Prof. DiMatteo when he says, "In the end, contracts can be a strategic tool in obtaining a competitive advantage, or they can be a tool to support collaboration by minimizing the opportunities for advantage taking." Freedom of contract in LLC formation embraces both of these concepts, too. I just think that those forming the entity should be the ones to determine which path they will take.
Thursday, February 25, 2016
Our Kentucky "brother," Tom Rutledge, sent me a link to a super blog post yesterday on Mortgage Grader Inc. v. Ward & Olivo, a limited liability partnership case currently before the New Jersey Supreme Court. Tom's focus in his post was the limited liability aspect of the case, which is fascinating--and more than a bit unsettling for those practicing in jurisdictions like New Jersey and Kentucky that require law firms organizing limited liability partnerships to maintain malpractice insurance. The question before the court: whether, in the absence of an express provision in the partnership statute, the failure of a law firm organized as a limited liability partnership to maintain required malpractice insurance results in the loss of the partnership's limited liability status. The trial court ruled that the lapse of malpractice insurance caused a loss of limited liability status; the appeals court reversed.
But Tom also mentions another aspect of the case in his post that I want to call out here. Specifically, he notes references in the appellate court opinion to the conversion of a partnership to a limited liability partnership. Here's what he says on that point:
One potentially disturbing aspect of the language used by the Court of Appeals and in the oral argument is the notion that the loss of LLP status and the treatment of the firm as a general partnership is some sort of conversion. But it isn’t. An LLP is a general partnership that has elected into a special status – it is still a general partnership but for the rule of partner limited liability. . . .
This comment reminded me of co-blogger Josh Fershee's super-helpful obsession (maybe too strong a word?) with "limited liability corporation" as an incorrect judicial (and other) descriptor of the limited liability company business form. (See, e.g., his December 2015 post here.) And far be it from me to disagree with either of these guys in making their respective points about these labeling inaccuracies!
As a separate point, I want to call out the fact that this area of partnership law can be important both for bar examinations (thinking of all those folks suffering through that test this week . . .) and IRL. In fact, I was asked a question recently about the Tennessee provision on limited liability elections by a BARBRI student. (Little-known fact: I teach the Tennessee BARBRI segments on agency, unincorporated entities, and personal property.) The student's question did not inappropriately refer to a conversion of a partnership into a limited liability partnership, but it did point out several differences in Tennessee law in this area that I want to mention.
Friday, February 19, 2016
I love your most recent post, Josh, and have been truly enjoying the ensuing commentary/conversation. I took on the “is it a contract?” issue in the LLC context because of questions similar to those raised in your post and in the comments it generated. I admit that the partnership issue on which you posted has fascinated me for quite some time. (I first encountered it when I undertook to teach Business Associations almost 16 years ago . . . .)
I have to push back on your analysis a bit, however. In particular, here’s the part of your post with which I have some trouble:
There must be an agreement to associate for a purpose. To me, that requires consideration and assent. If one has associated sufficiently under the law to make one both a partner and an agent of another (and thus liable for the partner), I don’t see how there is a lack of sufficient consideration or assent to form a contract.
Why does an association for a purpose require an agreement? To "associate" is to combine, connect, or link. The concept of an association builds from that: "connection or combination" or "an organization of people with a common purpose and having a formal structure." It is clear in the comments to the RUPA that the drafters use "associate" and "association" in these common forms. In fact, the drafters refer to various forms of association created under other statutes, including “corporations, limited partnerships, and limited liability companies.” See RUPA Section 202, cmt 2.
It is the association--of two or more persons to carry on as co-owners a business for profit--that creates an agency relationship and third-party liability for the obligations of the firm (unless the parties separately agree to those matters--which they may do independently or coincident with the formation of a partnership). Those parts of the relationship are attributes of a partnership--aspects of the relationship that flow from the legal conclusion that a partnership has been formed. In other words, because of the formation of a partnership, the partners are agents of the partnership and are liable for partnership obligations.
Even assuming an agreement, however, it certainly is true that not every agreement is a contract. Offer, acceptance, and (as you note) consideration would be required at common law to form a contract. (Mohsen adds value to that analysis as well in his comment, even if he refers to the partnership agreement as opposed to partnership formation.) Partners may and do, in fact, contract with each other under that legal meaning. But I am not confident that a contract is required.
Tell me what I am missing in all this . . . .
Parenthetically, I will note that I am extending my work on LLC operating agreements as contracts (referenced favorably at the outset in your post, for which I thank you) in future work, and I will be presenting the preliminary ideas on that at KCON XI next weekend in San Antonio. It will be interesting to share some of these ideas with folks for whom contracts is their primary area of legal inquiry. And since my associate dean is making noises about me teaching contracts sometime soon, I'd best get myself up to speed with the experts in any case . . . .
Tuesday, February 16, 2016
My co-blogger Joan Heminway a short while back wrote a great article, The Ties That Bind: LLC Operating Agreements as Binding Commitments, 68 SMU L. Rev. 811 (2015). (symposium issue)
I often (and perhaps even usually) agree with Joan on issues of law and life, but there’s a spot in Joan’s article with which I disagree. Joan says:
Although partnership law varies from state to state, as a general matter, partners are not expressly required to contract to form a partnership,88 and a partnership agreement is not defined in a manner that mandates adherence to the common law elements of a contract.89
- Under the Revised Uniform Partnership Act, a partnership exists when two or more persons associate as co-owners to carry on a business for profit. REVISED UNIFORM PARTNERSHIP ACT § 101(6), 202(a) (1997).
- See, e.g., Sewing v. Bowman, 371 S.W.3d 321, 332 (Tex. App.-- Houston [1st Dist.] 2012, no pet.). The Revised Uniform Partnership Act provides the following definition for a partnership agreement: “the agreement, whether written, oral, or implied, among the partners concerning the partnership, including amendments to the partnership agreement.” REVISED UNIFORM PARTNERSHIP ACT § 101(7).
Joan has case law support, so at least in some jurisdictions, she’s right (as usual), but I think the opinion she relied on got it wrong. That is, I disagree with the idea that "partners are not expressly required to contract to form a partnership” because I think the partnership definition — see footnote 88 above — satisfies (and must satisfy) the requisites for a contract. Unlike an LLC, partnerships can be formed by mere agreement of the parties, which is an agreement I think must rise to the level of a contract.
Partnership law is such that "the association of two or more persons to carry on as co-owners a business for profit forms a partnership, whether or not the persons intend to form a partnership.” § 202. Formation of Partnership., Unif. Partnership Act 1997 § 202. There must be an agreement to associate for a purpose. To me, that requires consideration and assent. If one has associated sufficiently under the law to make one both a partner and an agent of another (and thus liable for the partner), I don’t see how there is a lack of sufficient consideration or assent to form a contract.
Another Texas case, which the Sewing court decided not to apply, provided:
Clearly, an offer and its acceptance in strict compliance with the offer's terms are essential to the creation of a binding contract. American Nat'l Ins. Co. v. Warnock, 131 Tex. 457, 114 S.W.2d 1161, 1164 (1938); Smith v. Renz, 840 S.W.2d 702, 704 (Tex.App.—Corpus Christi 1992, writ denied). However, even if an offer and acceptance are not recorded on paper, dealings between parties may result in an implied contract where the facts show that the minds of the parties met on the terms of the contract without any legally expressed agreement. Smith, 840 S.W.2d at 704; City of Houston v. First City, 827 S.W.2d 462, 473 (Tex.App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1992, writ denied). Accordingly, the parties' conduct may convey an objective assent to the terms of an agreement, and whether their conduct evidences their agreement is a question to be resolved by the finder of fact. Estate of Townes v. Townes, 867 S.W.2d 414, 419 (Tex.App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1993, writ denied). If the finder of fact determines that one party reasonably drew the inference of a promise from the other party's conduct, then that promise will be given effect in law. E–Z Mart Stores, Inc. v. Hale, 883 S.W.2d 695, 699 (Tex.App.—Texarkana 1994, writ denied).
Ishin Speed Sport, Inc. v. Rutherford, 933 S.W.2d 343, 348 (Tex. App. 1996)
I see the formation of a partnership—the agreement to carry on a business as co-owners for profit—to be a higher level agreement than a contract (i.e., contract plus), not less than a contract. We view partnership as a more significant connection between parties than an agency relationship, which does not require consideration. How would it be possible for me to agree with another person to carry on a business as a co-owner seeking profit, without meeting the minimal requirements contract formation? I simply can’t see it. Once a court finds there is a partnership, the agreement that satisfied the partnership threshold carried reciprocal obligations that I must have agreed to, even if I did not knowingly agree at the time to all the obligations that then occur by operation of law because I made the agreement.
A partnership is more than just a contract, and I might even be willing to concede that some of the obligations of a partnership under partnership law are outside or independent of contract law. But to me, if there is a partnership, somewhere, there is an underlying contract. Thus, the question is not whether there is a contract where there is a partnership. The question is what is the scope of the contract?
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Still grading, and (in the process) reflecting on the line in Marcia Narine's post from last week on the references to “creepy tender offers” and “limited liability corporations” in her students' final exam submissions . . . . I thought I might share today a few of my own favorite outtakes from my students' Business Associations exams. I know that the time crunch and the nature of the exam software contribute mightily to the typing errors in student submissions, but on the reading end, some of the answers submitted are just . . . well . . . funny. As you'll no doubt note, today's post focuses mostly on closely held corporations (with one typo relating to limited partnerships).
First , there are, of course, the transposed letters. Most of these don't warrant more than a brief mention. The limited partnership act references to UPLA and RUPLA, instead of ULPA and RULPA fit into this category. Similar are the inevitable variants of case names (Donahue becoming Danahue, Donahur, and Donaue, etc.).
Then, there are the many misspelling of fiduciary(ies)--which I have come to believe may just be a hard word to type. (Or maybe no one actually knows how to spell it.) Uncommon misspellings of this often misspelled exam word include three versions that I found in one exam, in the same paragraph: foiducaries, fidurcairy, and fiducaiys. (I should note that all of these correct to "fiduciary" or "fiduciaries" in the spellcheck, which I had to override to make this post. Hmm. Maybe they were not as far off as I thought.)
Perhaps my favorite submission from the closely held corporation parts of the exam, however, was the one from the student who (repeating at the outset of his/her answer a short-form version of the prompt from my exam question) simply wrote: "What is the f duty?" There was a bit of blank space after the letter "f" in that submission, so, given the possible existence of some exam period frustration . . . . I think you can see where my mind went as I read that. (Or maybe that would be--with words transposed--"What the f is duty?") :>) Please forgive the irreverance!
Anyway, more on exams next week, when I am done. Can't wait. To be finished with grading, that is. Look for my holiday post for you all on my state of mind in that regard tomorrow morning. Ho, ho, ho.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
As I continue my mission to solidify the limited liability company (LLC) as its own entity, and not a corporation or corporate derivative, I have come to realize that U.S.-based distinctions are usually easier than international ones. One challenge we have is that we often try to find direct entity analogies from country to country, when none may exist.
Case in point: Over at Lexology.com lat week, an article titled Is litigation funding in peril? appeared. The article states, "In its ruling (KKO 2015:17), the Finnish Supreme Court found that under certain criteria it is possible to hold the shareholders of a limited liability company liable for the company's liabilities." So, if this were a U.S. LLC, we'd know there are no "shareholders" of an LLC. We have members (or should). But, I am no expert in Finnish law, but it is different than U.S. law. According to Wikipedia (that all-knowing source), Osakeyhtiö, abbreviated Oy, means "stock company," thought others sources says it means "limited company" or limited stock company." Nonetheless, the shareholder characterization appears acceptable for a Finnish (but not a U.S.) entity.
Finnish entities do not break down the same way as U.S. entities (this is not surprising). Thus, in Finland, there are limited partnerships, limited companies, and public limited companies. My suspicion is that the Osakeyhtiö is actually more like a corporation, as "the management is provided by the management board," but general parlance is that it is an LLC because of how it translates.
The Lexology article discusses limited liability companies, but then repeatedly discusses piercing the "corporate" veil and the "corporate structure" of the entities in questions. To draw a direct analogy to U.S. entities, and to try to hold my overseas colleagues to U.S. language, would be unfair. It may be that in a non-U.S. jurisdiction, "limited liability companies" in such an instance means the more general "limited liability entities," and is not intended as a term of art for the LLC. However, there is language that can be employed globally to help make entity distinctions more clear, particularly when talking about general concepts for a more general audience. Avoiding terms of art where specificity is not intended would be helpful.
For example, if we talk about a "limited liability veil," we can use that to apply to all limited liability entities. This is particularly apt when discussing situations where multiple entities are in play, and perhaps we're discussing veil piercing of a partner corporation and its subsidiary LLC.
Similarly, we can talk about "entity structure," instead of "corporate structure," to ensure we're not assigning specific rules and obligations to the wrong entity type.
Cross-border entity issues are inherently complex, and understanding how foreign courts will view various business arrangements is always a challenge. Foreign courts often have to grapple with foreign entities, and must decide how to reconcile the entity choice with domestic law. I appreciate the challenge, and recognize that there are rarely easy answers. I do think, though, that avoiding specific entity language when more general language will suffice, it's a good idea, because we can avoid inadvertently attaching domestic rules to a foreign entity.
We use analogies as anchors to help us understand concepts. That can be good, and it can be helpful. But we must be careful not to overdo it. Despite some similarities, LLCs are distinct from corporations and LLPs. And the Oy is different than the GmbH or the S.A. or the NV. Comparisons are inevitable, and often helpful. But, if we get more specific than we need to, before we need to, we run the risk of framing the question incorrectly and prematurely.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
This post concludes the Contract Is King, But Can It Govern Its Realm? Micro-symposium. The symposium was hosted as part of the AALS section on Agency, Partnership, LLCs and Unincorporated Associations in advance of the section meeting on January 7th at 1:30 where the conversation will be continued.
I summarized the conversation and provided links to all of the individual posts. Bookmark this page-- there is great commentary at your finger tips on a range of topics. Please keep reading (and commenting) on these great contributions by our insightful participants to whom we are very grateful.
Jeffrey Lipshaw kicked off the symposium conversation with his post (available here) questioning, in practice, how different LLCs are from traditional corporations. He used a great map analogy to talk about the role of formation documents and default rules as gap fillers.
“The contractual, corporate, and uncorporate models are always reductions in the bits and bytes of information from the complex reality, and that’s what makes them useful, just as a map of Cambridge, Massachusetts that was as complex as the real Cambridge would be useless.”
After asserting that LLCs differ from corporations only in matters of degrees, Jeff went on to to them illustrate how degrees of difference may still matter. He provided a good example of a situation where the ability to eliminate fiduciary duties may produce the right result—an option only available in alternative entities not corporations.
Mohsen argued that if contract is king, business revenue rules the reign in Delaware. Franchise taxes and revenues generated from being the business domicile of so many businesses, in all forms, is a source of riches, one that Mohsen argued will be protected by preserving a commitment to freedom of contract.
“Delaware’s annual tax charged to alternative entities is flat. All LLCs and LPs, no matter how large or small, whether publicly traded or closely held, pay the state only $300 annually for the privilege of being a Delaware entity. Thus, unlike the corporate context, where Delaware’s business is dependent on attracting large, publicly traded corporations, in the alternative entity context, Delaware’s business depends on volume alone.”
In his first post, Mohsen also addressed Delaware Chief Justice Strine and Vice Chancellor Laster’s provocative “Siren Song” book chapter, where the pair advocate for mandatory fiduciary duties in publicly traded LLCs and LPs. Mohsen questioned the limitation arguing that
“[M]any of critiques that Strine and Laster levy at publicly traded alternative entities– unsophisticated investors, the absence of true bargaining, and confusing contract terms that often unduly favor the managers—could be levied at many private entities as well. If so, then why should Strine & Laster’s proposal be limited to public entities?”
Sandra Miller blogged here about investor sophistication and its relationship to fiduciary duty waivers. She highlighted her scholarship in the area and provided helpful links to her papers discussing her points in greater detail.
“[T]here are asymmetries in the marketplace that make it unlikely that the marketplace will efficiently discount the effects of waivers. Given the investor profile, at a very minimum, the duty of loyalty should be non-waivable for publicly-traded entities.”
Joan Heminway questioned whether LLC operating agreements are contracts, and if not the implication for fiduciary duties, statue of frauds, capacity and public policy challenges and enforceability against third parties.
“[W]ith judicial and legislative attention on freedom of contract in the LLC, the status of the LLC as a matter of contract law may shed light on the extent to which contract law can or should be important or imported to legal issues involving LLC operating agreements...So, while contract may be king in LLC law, we may question whether a contract even exists under LLC law.”
Joan also highlighted her recent appearance at the ABA LLC Institute in a related post available here and shared the many functions of an operating agreement (whether contract or not!).
Daniel Kleinberger contributed to the conversation in four parts (appearing in three separate posts here (1), here (2) and here(3)). Daniel focused on Delaware’s implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing and the covenant’s role in Delaware entity law. He carefully distinguished the covenant from the UCC implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing and from the corporate standards of good faith as articulated in Stone v. Ritter and Smith v. Van Gorkum. Thirdly he addressed waivers of good faith and fair dealing both in the governing agreement and arising from contract in Delaware and under the Uniform Limited Partnership Act.
“Perhaps ironically (or some might even say “counter-intuitively”), the Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (2006) (Last Amended 2013) permits an ULLCA operating agreement to go where a Delaware operating agreement cannot.”
In his final post, available here, Kleinberger addressed interpretation questions with implied covenants analogizing the analysis to that used with impracticability.
“For impracticability or a breach of the implied covenant to exist, the situation at issue must have been fundamentally important to the deal and yet unaddressed by the deal documents. Put another way: the notion of a “cautious enterprise” means that only a condition that is egregious or at least extreme is capable of revealing a gap to be remedied by the implied covenant.”
BLPB editor, Joshua Fershee, was inspired by the topic and contributed his own post to the micro-symposium. In his post, he declared himself a Larry Ribstein devotee and highlighted how the structural differences in the LLC form, as opposed to the corporate form, provide business benefits for LLC members.
“The flexibility of the LLC form creates opportunity for highly focused, nimble, and more specific entities that can be vehicles that facilitate creativity in investment in a way that corporations and partnerships, in my estimation, do not.”
Greg Day, another BLPB-generated contribution to the conversation, blogged about sophisticated parties’ utilization of freedom of contract in LLC, and sophisticated investors demand for the conformity of traditional corporate formation over LLCs.
“[W] hen Delaware LLCs become big, and attract big funds, a condition of investment almost always requires an LLC to convert into a Delaware corporation. It seems that the lack of predictability associated with the freedom of contract scares potential investors who prefer the comforts of fiduciary duties, among other corporate staples. …So the parties who ostensibly are best served by contractual freedoms—i.e., sophisticated parties—appear to be the ones most likely to demand the traditional corporate form. And on a related note, this helps to explain why such a paltry number of LLCs and LPs have become public companies.”
Finally, Peter Molk & Verity Winship also contributed a last-minute addition to the symposium highlighting their empirical work on LLC operating agreement dispute resolution provisions as it relates to the question of contracting rights in unincorporated entities. They reported some of their early findings and linked it to the discussion about contractual freedom and the implications of mandatory fiduciary duties.
“More than a third of the agreements in our sample selected the forum for resolving disputes, primarily through exclusive forum provisions or mandatory arbitration provisions. The agreements also modified litigation processes through terms that imposed fee-shifting, waived jury trials, and, less commonly, through other means like books and records limitations.”
Participants in the Micro-Symposium were asked to respond to a series of questions (available here) that will be further discussed at the AALS section meeting. Joan MacLeod Heminway (BLPB editor), Dan Kleinberger, Jeff Lipshaw, Mohsen Manesh, and Sandra Miller.will be panelists at the AALS meeting and joined by Lyman Johnson and Mark Loewenstein.
Monday, November 23, 2015
Daniel Kleinberger: Delineating Delaware’s Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing (Contract Is King Micro-Symposium)
Guest Post by Daniel Kleinberger
Part IV– Delaware’s Implied Contractual Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing
Delaware case law applying the implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing to a limited partnership dates back to at least 1993,[i] and Delaware’s limited partnership and limited liability company acts have expressly recognized the covenant since 2004.[ii] However, the contents of the implied covenant have not always been crystal clear.[iii]
A passage from a 2000 Chancery Court decision is illustrative:
The implied covenant of good faith requires a party in a contractual relationship to refrain from arbitrary or unreasonable conduct which has the effect of preventing the other party to the contract from receiving the fruits of the contract. This doctrine emphasizes faithfulness to an agreed common purpose and consistency with the justified expectations of the other party. The parties' reasonable expectations at the time of contract formation determine the reasonableness of the challenged conduct. [C]ases invoking the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing should be rare and fact-intensive. Only where issues of compelling fairness arise will this Court embrace good faith and fair dealing and imply terms in an agreement.[iv]
This formulation was correct as far as it went, but it omitted the all-important frame of reference. In the “fact-intensive” inquiry, what types of facts matter? Where does the court look to determine “the agreed common purpose” and “the justified expectations of the [complaining] party”? What evidence is admissible to prove the expected “fruits of the bargain”?
The answers to these questions determine whether “implying obligations based on the covenant of good faith and fair dealing [remains] a cautious enterprise.”[v] The broader the frame of reference, the more likely is the covenant to become “a judge's roving commission for determining fairness.”[vi]
Fortunately, over the past five years the Court of Chancery and the Delaware Supreme Court have provided both clarity and context. The frame of reference is confined to the actual words of the agreement; the reasonable expectations must be gleaned from those words.[vii]
Thus, the actual words of the agreement control the application of the implied covenant, both as to “fair dealing” and “good faith”:
“Fair dealing” is not akin to the fair process component of entire fairness, i.e., whether the fiduciary acted fairly when engaging in the challenged transaction as measured by duties of loyalty and care …. It is rather a commitment to deal “fairly” in the sense of consistently with the terms of the parties' agreement and its purpose. Likewise, “good faith” does not envision loyalty to the contractual counterparty, but rather faithfulness to the scope, purpose, and terms of the parties' contract. Both necessarily turn on the contract itself and what the parties would have agreed upon had the issue arisen when they were bargaining originally.[viii]
When a court considers a fiduciary claim, the “court examines the parties as situated at the time of the [alleged] wrong…. [and] determines whether the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, considers the defendant's obligations (if any) in light of that duty, and then evaluates whether the duty was breached.”[ix] In contrast, because the actual words of the agreement control the application of the implied covenant:
An implied covenant claim ... looks to the past. It is not a free-floating duty unattached to the underlying legal documents. It does not ask what duty the law should impose on the parties given their relationship at the time of the wrong, but rather what the parties would have agreed to themselves had they considered the issue in their original bargaining positions at the time of contracting.[x]
A successful implied covenant claim depends on finding a gap in the contractual language; therefore, an implied covenant claim cannot override an express contractual provision.[xi] For example, if a limited partnership agreement creates options for limited partners under specified circumstances and not otherwise, the implied covenant will not extend the option right to circumstances not specified.[xii] Expressio unius est exclusio alterius.[xiii] There is no gap.
But inevitably gaps will exist:[xiv]
No contract, regardless of how tightly or precisely drafted it may be, can wholly account for every possible contingency. Even the most skilled and sophisticated parties will necessarily fail to address a future state of the world ... because contracting is costly and human knowledge imperfect. In only a moderately complex or extend[ed] contractual relationship, the cost of attempting to catalog and negotiate with respect to all possible future states of the world would be prohibitive, if it were cognitively possible. And parties occasionally have understandings or expectations that were so fundamental that they did not need to negotiate about those expectations.[xv]
For example, suppose that: (i) a limited partnership agreement authorizes the general partner to restructure the organization as the general partner sees fit provided a competent expert provides a “fairness opinion” stating that the restructuring is fair to the limited partners; (ii) a competent expert furnishes the opinion; but (iii) the expert omits to consider the value of certain contingent assets of the limited partnership, namely the value of pending derivative litigation.[xvi] Because the limited partnership agreement “[does] not specify whether the fairness opinion [has] to consider the value of derivative litigation,” the expert’s omission reveals “a gap for the implied covenant to fill.”[xvii] The gap is filled with what the court concludes “the parties would have agreed to themselves had they considered the issue in their original bargaining positions at the time of contracting.”[xviii]
In this respect, the implied covenant analysis resembles the analysis for determining whether a party’s contractual duties are discharged by supervening impracticably. “In order for a supervening event to discharge a duty …, the non-occurrence of that event must have been a ‘basic assumption’ on which both parties made the contract.”[xix] For impracticability or a breach of the implied covenant to exist, the situation at issue must have been fundamentally important to the deal and yet unaddressed by the deal documents. Put another way: the notion of a “cautious enterprise”[xx] means that only a condition that is egregious or at least extreme is capable of revealing a gap to be remedied by the implied covenant.[xxi]
[i] Desert Equities, Inc. v. Morgan Stanley Leveraged Equity Fund, II, L.P., 624 A.2d 1199, 1207 (Del. 1993) (“Desert Equities alleges that the defendants breached their implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing when they, in bad faith, breached the Partnership Agreement.”).
[ii] 74 Del. Laws, c. 265, §15 (revising Del. Code tit. 6, § 17-1101(d) to provide inter alia that “the partnership agreement may not eliminate the implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing”). The same change was made to the limited liability company act by 74 Del. Laws, c. 275, § 13 (revising Del. Code tit. 6, § 18-1101(c) to provide inter alia that “the limited liability company agreement may not eliminate the implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing”).
[iii] Cincinnati SMSA Ltd. P'ship v. Cincinnati Bell Cellular Sys. Co., 708 A.2d 989, 992 (Del. 1998) (stating that “[t]he articulation of the standard for implying terms through application of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing represents an evolution from previous Delaware case law” and that “Delaware Supreme Court jurisprudence is developing along the general approach that implying obligations based on the covenant of good faith and fair dealing is a cautious enterprise”). See also, e.g., Desert Equities, Inc. v. Morgan Stanley Leveraged Equity Fund, II, L.P., 624 A.2d 1199, 1207 (Del. 1993) (reversing the Chancery Court’s dismissal on the pleadings of plaintiff’s implied covenant claim; accepting the seemingly redundant notion that bad faith breach of the partnership agreement could breach the implied covenant; and suggesting the general partner may have acted in bad faith by “act[ing] unreasonably”). For a decision that addresses the redundancy issue, see Painewebber R & D Partners, L.P. v. Centocor, Inc., No. C.A. 96C-04-194, 1998 WL 109818, at *4 (Del. Super. Feb. 13, 1998) (“The Court is satisfied that the payment obligations of Centocor are encompassed by the express terms of the PPA and, as a matter of law, cannot be the subject of any implied covenant.”)
[iv] Cont'l Ins. Co. v. Rutledge & Co., 750 A.2d 1219, 1234 (Del. Ch. 2000) (internal quotations and footnotes omitted).
[v] Cincinnati SMSA Ltd. P'ship v. Cincinnati Bell Cellular Sys. Co., 708 A.2d 989, 992 (Del. 1998).
[vi] Daniel S. Kleinberger, Two Decades of "Alternative Entities": From Tax Rationalization Through Alphabet Soup to Contract as Deity, 14 Fordham J. Corp. & Fin. L. 445, 469 (2009) (first presented as the keynote address at the 2lst Century Commercial Law Forum – Seventh International Symposium 2007 – sponsored by School of Law, Tsinghua University, Beijing, People’s Republic of China). See also Nemec v. Shrader, 991 A.2d 1120, 1128 (Del. 2010) (“Crafting, what is, in effect, a post contracting equitable amendment that shifts economic benefits from [one set of shareholders to another] would vitiate the limited reach of the concept of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing…. The policy underpinning the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing does not extend to post contractual rebalancing of the economic benefits flowing to the contracting parties.”); Lonergan v. EPE Holdings, LLC, 5 A.3d 1008, 1019 (Del. Ch. 2010) (criticizing and rejecting attempts to “re-introduce fiduciary review through the backdoor of the implied covenant” of good faith and fair dealing). This point is precisely what divided the majority and dissent in Nemec. The core of the dissent is this statement: “[U]nder Delaware case law, a contracting party, even where expressly empowered to act, can breach the implied covenant if it exercises that contractual power arbitrarily or unreasonably.” Nemec, at 1131 (Jacobs, J. dissenting). The statement does not recognize that the frame of reference must be the words of the contract. Cf. ULLCA (2013) § 409(d), cmt. (stating that “the purpose of the contractual obligation of good faith and fair dealing is to protect the arrangement the members have chosen for themselves, not to restructure that arrangement under the guise of safeguarding it”). But cf. HB Korenvaes Inv., L.P. v. Marriot Corp., Del. Ch., C.A. No. 12922, Mem. Op. at 11, Allen, C., (June 9, 1993) (“Indeed the contract doctrine of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing may be thought in some ways to function analogously to the fiduciary concept.”) (quoted in Gale v. Bershad, No. CIV. A. 15714, 1998 WL 118022, at *5 n. 24(Del. Ch. Mar. 4, 1998); Gale v. Bershad, No. CIV. A. 15714, 1998 WL 118022, at *5 (“The function of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in defining the duties of parties to a contract, is analogous to the role of fiduciary law in defining the duties owed by fiduciaries.”); Blue Chip Capital Fund II Ltd. P'ship v. Tubergen, 906 A.2d 827, 832 (Del. Ch. 2006) (stating that “[t]he court [in Gale v. Bershad] explained that the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing defines the duties of parties to a contract and is analogous to the role of fiduciary law in defining the duties owed by fiduciaries”) (citing Gale v. Bershad, No. CIV. A. 15714,.1998 WL 118022 at *5, (Del.Ch. Mar. 3, 1998)).
[vii] These points are analogous to Professor Williston’s four corners approach to determining ambiguity for the purposes of the parol evidence rule. See, e.g., Wallace v. 600 Partners Co., 86 N.Y.2d 543, 548, 658 N.E.2d 715, 717 (1995) (stating that “[t]he question whether a writing is ambiguous is one of law to be resolved by the courts” and that “excursion beyond the four corners of the document” is warranted only when the wording is not “clear and complete”) (citing Williston, 4 Williston, Contracts, § 610A, at 513 [3d ed.]). The “roving commission” notion resembles Professor Corbin’s approach to the ambiguity question. “According to Corbin, the court cannot apply the parol evidence rule without first understanding the meaning the parties intended to give the agreement. To understand the agreement, the judge cannot be restricted to the four corners of the document.” Taylor v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 175 Ariz. 148, 153, 854 P.2d 1134, 1139 (1993) (citation omitted). Delaware takes the Williston approach. GMG Capital Investments, LLC v. Athenian Venture Partners I, L.P., 36 A.3d 776, 781-84 (Del. 2012) Schwartz v. Centennial Ins. Co., No. CIV. A. 5350 (1977), 1980 WL 77940, at *5 (Del. Ch. Jan. 16, 1980) (stating that “parol evidence may not be used to show an ambiguity in the first place”).
[viii] Gerber v. Enter. Products Holdings, LLC, 67 A.3d 400, 418-19 (Del. 2013) (quoting ASB Allegiance Real Estate Fund v. Scion Breckenridge Managing Member, LLC, 50 A.3d 434, 440–42 (Del. Ch. 2012), aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other grounds, 68 A.3d 665 (Del. 2013)) (footnotes omitted) (citations omitted) (internal quotations omitted without ellipsis by Gerber).
[ix] Gerber v. Enter. Products Holdings, LLC, 67 A.3d 400, 418 (quoting ASB Allegiance Real Estate Fund v. Scion Breckenridge Managing Member, LLC, 50 A.3d 434, 440–42 (Del. Ch. 2012), aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other grounds, 68 A.3d 665 (Del. 2013)) Del. 2013). Gerber was overruled on other grounds by Winshall v. Viacom Int'l, Inc., 76 A.3d 808 (Del. 2013). See also Gilbert v. El Paso Co., 575 A.2d 1131, 1142-43 (Del. 1990) (enforcing express conditions pertaining to a tender offer; stating that “[a]lthough an implied covenant of good faith and honest conduct exists in every contract … such subjective standards cannot override the literal terms of an agreement”).
[x] Gerber v. Enter. Prods. Holdings, LLC, 67 A.3d 400, 418 (Del. 2013) (quoting ASB Allegiance Real Estate Fund v. Scion Breckenridge Managing Member, LLC, 50 A.3d 434, 440–42 (Del. Ch. 2012), aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other grounds, 68 A.3d 665 (Del. 2013)) (emphasis added) (footnotes omitted) (citations omitted) (internal quotations omitted without ellipsis by Gerber). In this respect, the implied covenant parallels the contract law doctrine of unconscionability. See Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 208 (1981) (stating that the unconscionability analysis addresses whether “a contract or term thereof is unconscionable at the time the contract is made”) (emphasis added); UCC § 2-302 (stating that the doctrine applies only if “the court finds the contract or any clause of the contract to have been unconscionable at the time it was made”) (emphasis added).
[xi] Nemec v. Shrader, 991 A.2d 1120, 1127 (Del.2010) (“The implied covenant will not infer language that contradicts a clear exercise of an express contractual right.”).
[xii] See Aspen Advisors LLC v. United Artists Theatre Co., 843 A.2d 697, 707 (Del. Ch.) aff'd, 861 A.2d 1251 (Del. 2004) (“By specific words, the parties to the Stockholders Agreement and the Warrants identified particular transactions that would provide the Warrantholders with the right to receive the same consideration paid to common stockholders (e.g., in mergers involving United Artists) and the right (if they had exercised their Warrants) to tag along (i.e., in certain change of control transactions). Similarly, the parties also (by omission) defined the freedom of action other parties to those contracts (such as United Artists, the UA Holders, and Anschutz) had to engage in transactions without triggering rights of that nature.”).
[xiii] “[T]o express or include one thing implies the exclusion of the other.” EXPRESSIO UNIUS EST EXCLUSIO ALTERIUS, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014).
[xiv] However, whether a gap matters depends on whether a party’s conduct makes the gap apparent – i.e., whether one party’s conduct exposes an issue on which the parties would have agreed had the issue arisen when the deal was being made.
[xv] Allen v. El Paso Pipeline GP Co., L.L.C., No. CIV.A. 7520-VCL, 2014 WL 2819005, at *11 (Del. Ch. June 20, 2014) (internal quotations and citations omitted).
[xvi] In simplified form, this example reflects one of the transactions – the 2010 merger – addressed in Gerber v. Enter. Products Holdings, LLC, 67 A.3d 400 (Del. 2013), overruled on other grounds by Winshall v. Viacom Int'l, Inc., 76 A.3d 808 (Del. 2013).
[xvii] Allen v. El Paso Pipeline GP Co., L.L.C., No. CIV.A. 7520-VCL, 2014 WL 2819005, at *14 (Del. Ch. June 20, 2014). The opinion refers to the omission “creating a gap,” id. but the author respectfully disagrees. The gap existed ab initio. It remained hidden until revealed by the expert’s omission.
[xviii] Gerber v. Enter. Prods. Holdings, LLC, 67 A.3d 400, 418 (Del. 2013) (quoting ASB Allegiance Real Estate Fund v. Scion Breckenridge Managing Member, LLC, 50 A.3d 434, 440–42 (Del. Ch. 2012), aff'd in part, rev'd in part on other grounds, 68 A.3d 665 (Del. 2013)) (emphasis added) (footnotes omitted) (citations omitted) (internal quotations omitted without ellipsis by Gerber). It might be more consistent with actual practice to revise the quoted language so that the sentence read: “The gap is filled with what the court concludes the now complaining party would have insisted on as a condition to going forward with the deal, if the party had then considered the issue in the party’s original bargaining position at the time of contracting.”
[xix] Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 261, cmt. b (1981)
[xx] See n. 66.
[xxi] In this respect, the implied covenant is similar to the unconscionability doctrine of contract law. See Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 208. cmt. b (1981) (“Traditionally, a bargain was said to be unconscionable in an action at law if it was ‘such as no man in his senses and not under delusion would make on the one hand, and as no honest and fair man would accept on the other….”) (quoting Hume v. United States, 132 U.S. 406 (1889), which in turn was quoting Earl of Chesterfield v. Janssen, 2 Ves.Sen. 125, 155, 28 Eng.Rep. 82, 100 (Ch.1750)).
Thursday, November 19, 2015
Regular readers of this blog know that I am fervent that the distinction between entities matters, particularly when it comes to LLCs and corporation. I’m happy to be a part of this micro-symposium, and I have enjoyed the input from the other participants.
My comments relate primarily to the role of contract in LLCs and how that is different that corporations. Underlying my comments is my thesis that LLCs and corporations are meaningfully distinct. This view is in contrast to Jeff Lipshaw, who argued in his post:
[I]f uncorporations differ from corporations, it’s more a matter of degree than of any real difference. Both are textual artifacts. We have created or assumed obligations pursuant to the text at certain points in time, and we use the artifacts and their associated legal baggage opportunistically when we can. I am not convinced that organizing in the form or corporations or uncorporations makes much difference on that score.
I tend to be more of a Larry Ribstein disciple on this, and I wish I had the ability to articulate the issues as eloquently and intelligently as he could. Alas, you’re stuck with me. (Editor's note: As Jeff Lipshaw says in his comment below, he did not say the forms of LLCs and corporations are not distinct. He is, of course, correct, and I know very well he knows the difference between the forms. In fact, a good portion of what I understand of the practical implications of the LLC comes from him. I do believe that the choice of form matters, and at least should matter in how courts review the different entities, as I explain below. And I do think the LLC is better, or should be (if courts will allow it), because of what the form allows interested parties to do with it. The flexibility of the LLC form creates opportunity for highly focused, nimble, and more specific entities that can be vehicles that facilitate creativity in investment in a way that corporations and partnerships, in my estimation, do not.]
In his book, The Rise of the Uncorporation, Ribstein stated, “Uncorporations [his term for noncorporate entities] come in all shapes and sizes, and are increasingly encroaching on traditionally ‘corporate’ domain. The thesis is that form matters.” He goes on to explain that the differences between corporations and noncorporate entities have practical implications for those in business (and their lawyers). I think he was right.
It seems that some view the limited liability protection that comes with both an LLC and a corporation as the main, if not sole, defining function of the firm. If that were true, then it would be accurate that LLCs and corporation are functionally the same. I think the evolution and purposes of the limited partnership, the LLC, and the corporation suggest that these entities at least should (if they don’t in fact) serve different purposes and roles for those who create them.
The LLC Revolution helped facilitate formation of entities with pass-through taxation and limited liability protection. And it is true, that limited liability one chief benefit of the corporation, and the rise of the corporation can be tracked to that benefit. But, entity choice is more that just liability and taxation, too, at least where there are real entity choices that provide options.
Corporations are far more off-the-rack in nature, and they have a tremendous number of default rules. These rules facilitate start up, and help skip a number of conversations that promoters and initial investors might otherwise need to have. (Of course, they probably should have these conversations, but if they don’t, there are more significant gap fillers than for other entities.)
Ribstein observed, “Uncorporations not only explicitly permit, but also indirectly facilitate contracts. A firm’s contractual freedom should be evaluated not only in terms of the flexibility permitted by a given business association statute, but in light of the alternative available standard forms.” As such, the clearer and more distinct the terms of the various entity-form statutes are, the more significant a firm’s choice of form can be. And if the choice is an LLC, that choice should be respected.
As my countless posts lamenting the fact that courts can’t seem to get the distinction between LLCs and corporations clear, there’s evidence that Lipshaw is right as to the current state of the law, or some meaningful portion of it. But that doesn’t make it right.