Friday, November 20, 2015
The micro-symposium has generated interest in a broad range of topics, so we are adding the following post by Peter Molk & Verity Winship discussing their recent scholarship on dispute resolution in LLC operating agreements and its intersection with the "contract is king" discussion this week.
This post highlights a particular area of private ordering within the LLC and other alternative entities: contractual provisions within the operating agreement that set the rules for resolving internal disputes. These terms determine how disputes are resolved, such as by specifying when claims must be submitted to arbitration, where disputes can be heard, and whether parties waive the jury right or impose fee-shifting of litigation costs. They apply to internal disputes, meaning they govern the dispute process among the LLCs’ members, managers, and the LLC itself.
How do these provisions fit with the debate over whether contract should be king? The broadest connection is straightforward. Dispute resolution provisions allocate rights and duties within LLCs, so the debate about the proper bounds of freedom of contract in the LLC space has implications for them as well. But how firms set the rules for internal disputes is also relevant to the particular debate about the imposition of fiduciary duties. Suppose that fiduciary duties were to become mandatory in publicly traded LLCs and LPs, as Delaware Chief Justice Strine and Vice Chancellor Laster have proposed and as Sandra Miller and Mohsen Manesh discuss in their posts in this micro-symposium. Imposing fiduciary duties, by expanding the actions that disgruntled members can bring, in turn puts particular pressure on the dispute resolution clauses.
To see the connection, look no further than the debate in the corporate context about private ordering of shareholder litigation in corporate charters and bylaws. Contract is not king in the corporate context – a host of mandatory rules, including fiduciary duties, are imposed to protect investor rights. Since corporations cannot respond by waiving fiduciary duties, some have instead taken the step of nevertheless effectively eliminating these protections by contracting out of enforcement mechanisms. Recent efforts at imposing fee shifting can be characterized as indirectly weakening mandatory protections by reducing the probability of enforcing them.
For corporations, the Delaware legislature eventually stepped in to ban fee-shifting provisions in the organizational documents of Delaware stock corporations. The legislative response is telling. It targets only stock corporations, using the business form as a proxy for characteristics that trigger a need for additional protections. This takes us back to the question of whether contract should be king, and whether business form is a good rough indicator of characteristics (sophistication, consent) that we care about.
In an empirical study we are conducting, we identified dispute resolution provisions in a sample of operating agreements of privately owned Delaware LLCs. More than a third of the agreements in our sample selected the forum for resolving disputes, primarily through exclusive forum provisions or mandatory arbitration provisions. The agreements also modified litigation processes through terms that imposed fee-shifting, waived jury trials, and, less commonly, through other means like books and records limitations.
We can think of these practices as altering the calculus parties engage in when deciding whether to enforce their rights that exist under the agreement. While looking at dispute resolution provides a more accurate picture for LLCs’ governance regimes, it also complicates the contract-as-king debate. Strengthening LLC members’ mandatory protections beyond the duty of good faith and fair dealing, as several earlier posts propose, does little good if LLCs respond by cutting back parties’ ability to enforce these protections.