Wednesday, February 6, 2019
Entity Lesson: Be Explicit When Changing Default Voting Rules
Tom Rutledge at Kentucky Business Entity Law Blog writes:
As a general proposition, LLC operating agreements may change the default rules provided for in the LLC Act. A recent decision from Pennsylvania found that a general provision as to decision making by majority vote did not alter the statutory default of unanimous approval to amend the operating agreement. Saltzer v. Rolka, No. 702 MDA 2017, 2018 WL 5603050 (Pa. Super. Ct. Oct. 30, 2018).. . . .Under the Pennsylvania LLC Act, the default rule for amendment of the operating agreement is unanimous approval of the members. 15 Pa.C.S.A § 8942(b). That rule may be altered in a written operating agreement. Id. The LLC’s operating agreement provided that it could be amended by the members at a regular or special meeting, but in that section did not address the threshold for the required vote. Another section of the agreement provided “Except as otherwise provided in the [LLCA], or this Agreement, whenever any action is to be taken by vote of the members, it shall be authorized upon receiving the affirmative vote of a majority of the votes cast by all Members entitle to vote upon.” 2018 WL 5603050, *4. The court found that this provision was of itself insufficient to alter the statutory default as to amending the operating agreement. Unfortunately the decision did not detail why it was insufficient or what more it would have needed to be sufficient.
This outcome is consistent with some similar limited partnership cases. Courts tend to look for clear and unambiguous statements of intent when operating agreements and partnership agreements change default rules of voting when it comes to fundamental rights that go to the purpose of the entity, like adding new investors (partners/members), dissolution, etc. For example, in In Re Nantucket Island Associates Ltd., 810 A.2d 351 (Del. Ch. 2002), the court considered whether a General Partner in a limited partnership "had the unilateral authority to: i) issue a new class of preferred units having superior claims to capital and income distributions and ii) amend the partnership agreement to subordinate the contractual distribution rights of the existing limited partners to those new claims." Although" the general partner had the freedom to draft a clear and explicit grant of authority to itself to amend the partnership agreement in these circumstances," Vice Chancellor Strine determined that the general partner failed to do so:
This case therefore stands as yet another example of how important it is to draft limited partnership agreements carefully. Although our law permits a limited partnership agreement to invest far-ranging authority in a general partner, it also requires a clear and unambiguous articulation of that authority so that investors are given fair warning of the deal they are making by buying units. When a general partner drafts an agreement that is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation, the one most favorable to the public investors will be given effect.
The lesson: when you want to take broad and far-reaching powers, especially those with a default rule requiring unanimity, be very, very clear.