Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Exam Grading -- No LLCs as Corporations (So Far)

It has been kind of a unique end of the semester, and I am working feverously to get through my Business Organizations exams. I'm getting there.  So far, I have had zero exams reference a "limited liability corporation."  If this holds, it will be at least three years in a row.  

I have had a couple of folks refer to LLC veil piercing as piercing the "corporate" veil (another no-no), and I did have some other "corporate" references to LLCs (e.g., "an LLC's corporate formalities"), so we're not all the way there. But so far, I am seeing improvement, and I appreciate the effort.  

Here's hoping for 48 of 48 describing the LLC (as an entity) correctly.  I hope the rest of my colleagues are holding up well here in the home stretch. Good luck to all. 

May 22, 2019 in Business Associations, Corporations, LLCs, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 10, 2019

Managing Compliance Across Borders Conference at the University of Miami- June 26-28

 

 

 

Join me in Miami, June 26-28.

 

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Managing Compliance Across Borders

June 26-28, 2019

Managing Compliance Across Borders is a program for world-wide compliance, risk and audit professionals to discuss current developments and hot topics (e.g. cybersecurity, data protection, privacy, data analytics, regulation, FCPA and more) affecting compliance practice in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Latin America. Learn more

See a Snapshot: Who Will Be There?
You will have extensive networking opportunities with high-level compliance professionals and access to panel discussions with major firms, banks, government offices and corporations, including:

  • BRF Brazil
  • Carnival Corporation
  • Central Bank of Brazil
  • Endeavor
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
  • Eversheds Sutherland
  • Fidelity Investments
  • Hilton Grand Vacations
  • Ingram Micro
  • Jones Day
  • Kaufman Rossin
  • LATAM Airlines
  • Laureate Education, Inc.

 

  • MasterCard Worldwide
  • MDO Partners
  • Olin Corporation
  • PwC
  • Royal Caribbean Cruises
  • Tech Data
  • The SEC
  • TracFone Wireless
  • U.S. Department of Justice
  • Univision
  • UPS
  • XO Logistics
  • Zenith Source

 

Location
Donna E. Shalala Student Center
1330 Miller Drive
Miami, FL 33146

 

CLE Credit
Upwards of 10 general CLE credits in ethics and technology applied for with The Florida Bar

 

Program Fee: $2,500 $1,750 until June 1 
Use promo code “MCAB2019” for discount 

Non-profit and Miami Law Alumni discounts are available, please contact:
Hakim A. Lakhdar, Director of Professional Legal Programs, for details

Learn More: Visit the website for updated speaker information, schedule and topic details.

This program is designed and presented in collaboration with our partner in Switzerland

University of St. Gallen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

May 10, 2019 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, International Business, Law Firms, Law School, Marcia Narine Weldon, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

It Is Best to Be Precise When Asking Others to Be Precise (LLC edition)

A recent report and recommendation from a U.S. magistrate recommends that the referring court find that a plaintiff did not provide the facts needed to support taking diversity jurisdiction.  The magistrate is correct, but the recommendation is a little ironic in that it seems to be chiding the plaintiff for a lack of precision, and well, this: 

Here, Peeples' amended complaint contains the bare assertions that the address for Xlibris Publishing is in Bloomington, Indiana, while his address is in Mobile, Alabama. The bare allegation respecting the Defendant is insufficient as it does not identify whether Xlibris is a corporation or, instead, an unincorporated entity such as a limited liability corporation. Moreover, if Xlibris is a corporation, the complaint does not delineate its state(s) of incorporation and the state where it has its principal place of business. See Flintlock Constr. Servs., LLC v. Well-Come Holdings, LLC, 710 F.3d 1221, 1224 (11th Cir. 2013) (“A corporation is considered a citizen of every state in which it has been incorporated and where it has its principal place of business.”). And, if an unincorporated entity such as a limited liability corporation,3 the amended complaint does not allege every state in which each of its members are citizens. See, e.g., Lewis v. Seneff, supra, at *3 (Without the information concerning the citizenship of each limited liability company's membership, Plaintiffs have not shown that this Court has subject matter jurisdiction.”).

3 It appears to the undersigned that Xlibris Publishing is a limitedliability corporation. See www.xlibris.com (last visited, April 4, 2019, at 3:30 p.m.) (Xlibris website shows that it is an LLC).

MARIO ANDJUAN PEEPLES, Pl., v. XLIBRIS PUBLISHING, Def.., CA 19-0070-JB-C, 2019 WL 1983817, at *5 (S.D. Ala. Apr. 8, 2019), report and recommendation adopted sub nom. Peeples v. Xlibris Publg., CV 19-0070-JB-C, 2019 WL 1983055 (S.D. Ala. May 3, 2019).
 
In two spots in the above excerpt, the recommendation refers to a "limited liability corporation" when it clearly means "limited liability company" (the latter being used in other sentences in the excerpt).  
 
As I said, the analysis seems correct, despite the incorrect language. Mistakes happen, but still, it shouldn't be that hard to get it right (and the incorrect term showed up twice!).  As evidence, I haven't seen "limited liability corporation" in more than two years on one of my Business Organizations exams, and I haven't seen it yet this year, either.
 
This mission continues.  
 

May 7, 2019 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Department of Health and Human Services Is Trying to Make Me Sick

Okay, not really. But my daily Westlaw search for "limited liability corporation" recently started delivering contract award announcements from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) related to contract awards. DHHS reconds many "business types" for their records, such as "Minority Owned Business" and "For Profit Organization. And now, apparently, "limited liability coroporation" is one of them.  ARRRRRGHH! LLCs are "limited liability companies" and are not corporations.  An internet search shows that there are at least 78 of these DHHS designations out there (and I'll wager there are more).  

Following is an excerpt of one such announcement.  You'll note that, according to the announcement, Seba Professional Services LLC is both a "Partnership or Limited Liability Partnership" and a "Limited Liability Corporation."  Sigh.  Really, they're making my stomach hurt: 

Department of Health and Human Services awarded contract of IGF::CT::IGF PATIENT MESSENGER AND TRANSPORT SERVICES to SEBA PROFESSIONAL SERVICES LLC

Washington: This contract was awarded to seba professional services llc with a potential award amount of $6,117,056. Of this amount, 100% ($6,117,056) has been obligated.
 
Awarding Agency:
Department of Health and Human Services
 
. . . .
 
Recipient:
SEBA PROFESSIONAL SERVICES LLC
. . . .
 
Business Types
Woman Owned Business
Women Owned Small Business
Economically Disadvantaged Women Owned Small Business
Minority Owned Business
Black American Owned Business
Partnership or Limited Liability Partnership
Limited Liability Corporation
For Profit Organization
DoT Certified Disadvantaged Business Enterprise
Self-Certified Small Disadvantaged Business
8a Program Participant
 
 

May 2, 2019 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Can A Board's Knowing Violation of the Law Also Be Entirely Fair? How About Moral?

Prof. Justin Pace, Haworth College of Business,  Western Michigan University recently sent me his paper, Rogue Corporations: Unlawful Corporate Conduct and Fiduciary Duty. In it, he discusses Delaware's "per se doctrine where the board directs the corporation to violate the law. A knowing violation of positive law is bad faith, which falls under the duty of loyalty. The business judgment rule will not apply and exculpation will not be available under Section 102(b)(7). The shareholders may not even need to show harm." 

In the paper, he considers this concept from a moral and ethical perspective, which are interesting in their own right, though I remain more interested in the doctrine itself.  The paper is worth a look.  A few comments of my own, after the abstract:

Abstract

On February 28, 2018, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that it would no longer sell long guns to 18- to 20-year-olds. On March 8, 2018, Dick’s was sued for violating the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in public accommodations. Dick’s and Walmart were also sued for violating Oregon’s ban on age discrimination. In addition to corporate liability under various state civil rights acts, directors of Dick’s and Walmart face the threat of suit for breaching their fiduciary duties—suits that may be much harder to defend than the more usual breach of fiduciary duty suit.

Delaware corporation law appears to have an underappreciated per se doctrine where the board directs the corporation to violate the law. A knowing violation of positive law is bad faith, which falls under the duty of loyalty. The business judgment rule will not apply and exculpation will not be available under Section 102(b)(7). The shareholders may not even need to show harm.

This paper examines the relevant legal doctrine but also takes a step back to consider what the rule should be from an ethical and a moral standpoint. To do so, rather than apply traditional corporate governance arguments, this paper considers broader moral theories. In addition to the utilitarian calculus that is so ubiquitous in corporate governance scholarship via the law and economics movement, this paper considers the liberalism of both John Rawls and Robert Nozick. But liberalism may seem less persuasive given the rise of illiberalism politically on both the American right and left. Given that, this paper also considers two non-liberal models: one a populist modification of Charles Taylor’s democratic communitarianism and the other Catholic Social Thought.

Unsurprisingly, the proper rule depends on which moral theory is applied. If that theory is liberalism (of either form covered), then a per se approach is troubling. Harm to the corporation must be shown, and either the Delaware legislature or the corporate players, depending on the form of liberalism, must acquiesce to a per se rule. Counterintuitively, it is the per se rule that runs counter to basic democratic norms. It gives the power to litigate in response to harm not to the party harmed but to a third party. Given the divergent results from applying different moral theories, and given the democratic difficulty, the Delaware legislature should clarify the standard. It will likely find that a harsh, per se standard is unjustified.

First, I have always thought that some people read DGCL § 102(b)(7) too literally (or at least broadly).  The statute reads:

(b) In addition to the matters required to be set forth in the certificate of incorporation by subsection (a) of this section, the certificate of incorporation may also contain any or all of the following matters: 

. . . .

(7) A provision eliminating or limiting the personal liability of a director to the corporation or its stockholders for monetary damages for breach of fiduciary duty as a director, provided that such provision shall not eliminate or limit the liability of a director:  (i) For any breach of the director's duty of loyalty to the corporation or its stockholders;  (ii) for acts or omissions not in good faith or which involve intentional misconduct or a knowing violation of law;  (iii) under § 174 of this title;  or (iv) for any transaction from which the director derived an improper personal benefit.  No such provision shall eliminate or limit the liability of a director for any act or omission occurring prior to the date when such provision becomes effective.  All references in this paragraph to a director shall also be deemed to refer to such other person or persons, if any, who, pursuant to a provision of the certificate of incorporation in accordance with § 141(a)of this title, exercise or perform any of the powers or duties otherwise conferred or imposed upon the board of directors by this title.

I have never been one to believe that directors face potential liability for any type of "knowing violation of law."  Anyone who has seen a UPS or FedEx truck in New York City knows that the drivers knowingly park illegally and risk tickets (which they often get) for doing the job. It is a cost of doing business, and I find it hard to believe any court would hold directors liable for such a thing, though directors certainly know (or should) of the practice. That would make for one of the most absurd Caremark-like cases ever, in my view.

Prof. Pace argues in his paper:

A per se standard might prove lucrative. It opens up liability for losses normally insulated by business judgment rule. If Nike loses market share because it made Colin Kaepernick the face of a large marketing campaign, shareholders cannot successfully sue because that decision is protected by the business judgment rule. But if Dick’s Sporting Goods loses market share because it stops selling long guns to 18- to 20-year-olds, shareholders presumably can sue and recover based on that market share, even though civil liability for violating state bars on age discrimination may be negligible.

Perhaps, but I would still think that most courts would likely work around this. First, I think a court could easily calculate damages as the modest civil liability incurred, not the lost market share.  Second, in Dick's Sporting Goods situation, as I observed elsewhere, "it is worth noting that Dick's sales dropped, but profits rose after the decision because the company cut costs by replacing some guns with higher-margin items." If there is no harm, is there a foul? Or maybe better said, it is possible that there is no director liability unless one can show actual harm. 

I will concede that DGCL § 102(b)(7) likely eliminates business judgment rule protection for directors where one can show a knowing violation of the law. However, getting past the business judgment rule does not automatically lead to liability.  It simply allows the court to review the board's decision, but the plaintiff still must show harm. And I am not at all sure one can show harm in the Dick's gun sales circumstance. It is, in my view, entirely fair. I also gather that I am may be in the minority on this one.  But a good conversation, either way.  

April 23, 2019 in Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, April 12, 2019

Why Businesses Should Not Ignore the Operation Varsity Blues Scandal

As a former compliance officer who is now an academic, I've been obsessed with the $25 million Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. Compliance officers are always looking for titillating stories for training and illustration purposes, and this one has it all-- bribery, Hollywood stars, a BigLaw partner, Instagram influencers, and big name schools. Over fifty people face charges or have already pled guilty, and the fallout will continue for some time. We've seen bribery in the university setting before but those cases concerned recruitment of actual athletes. 

Although Operation Varsity Blues concerns elite colleges, it provides a wake up call for all universities and an even better cautionary tale for businesses of all types that think of  bribery as something that happens overseas. As former Justice Department compliance counsel, Hui Chen, wrote, "bribery. . .  is not an act confined by geographies. Like most frauds, it is a product of motive, opportunity, and rationalization. Where there are power and benefits to be traded, there would be bribes." 

My former colleague and a rising star in the compliance world, AP Capaldo, has some great insights on the scandal in this podcast. I recommend that you listen to it, but if you don't have time, here are some questions that she would ask if doing a post mortem at the named universities. With some tweaks, compliance officers, legal counsel, and auditors for all businesses should consider: 

1) What kind of training does our staff receive? How often?

2) Does it address the issues that are likely to occur in our industry?

3) When was the last time we spot checked these areas for compliance ? In the context of the universities, were these scholarships or set asides within the scope of routine audits or any other internal controls or reviews?

4) What factors or aspects of the culture could contribute to a scandal like this? What are our red flags and blind spots? Do we have a cultural permissiveness that could lead to this? In the context of the implicated universities, who knew or had reason to know?

5) How can we do a values-based analysis? Do we need to rethink our values or put some teeth behind them?

6) How are our resources deployed?

7) Do we have fundamental gaps in our compliance program implementation? Are we too focused on one area or another?

8) Are integrity and hallmarks of compliant behavior part of our selection/hiring process?

Capaldo recommends that universities tap into their internal resources of law and ethics professors who can staff  multidisciplinary task forces to craft programs and curate cultures to ensure measurable improvements in compliance and a decrease in misconduct. I agree. I would add that as members of the law and business community and as alums of universities, we should ask our alma maters or employers whether they have considered these and other hard questions. Finally, as law and business professors, we should use this scandal in both the classroom and the faculty lounge to reinforce the importance of ethics, internal controls, compliance with law, and shared values.

 

April 12, 2019 in Business School, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Law Firms, Law School, Lawyering, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Sports, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Court Says No Successor Liability Attaches When There Was No Entity

A 2017 opinion related to successor liability just posted to Westlaw.  The case is an EEOC claim "against the Hospital of St. Raphael School of Nurse Anesthesia (“HSR School”) and Anesthesia Associates of New Haven (“AANH”), alleging gender discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . . . ." The plaintiff was seeking to join Yale New Haven Hospital (“YNHH”). MARGARITE CONSOLMAGNO v. HOSPITAL OF ST. RAPHAEL SCHOOL OF NURSE ANESTHESIA and ANESTHESIA ASSOCIATES OF NEW HAVEN, P.C., 3:11CV109 (DJS), 2017 WL 10966446, at *1 (D. Conn. Mar. 27, 2017). 

 
 
Apparently, the HSR School trained nurse anesthetists was owned and run by AANH a Connecticut “professional corporation.”  The plaintiff was in the HSR School for about six months before she was dismissed, she claimed, because of " gender discrimination and retaliation for reporting a staff member’s inappropriate sexual conduct." Id. The plaintiff sought to join YNHH because that entity took over running an anesthesia school that had been, in some form, the HSR school.  
 
The successor liability part is rather interesting, though largely devoid of facts from the transaction.  The court ultimately concludes that even though YNHH resumed a similar school, it was not a successor entity and could not be joined.  
 
A challenging part about the case is that entities are described, but often not clearly and with conflicting entity-type language.  For example, although AANH was a "professional corporation," the court explained that " [t]he AANH anesthesiologists, who were also partners in AANH, were responsible for deciding how the HSR School would operate." Id. at *2. One of the doctors was also referred to as an "ownership partner in AANH." Id. at *3. I suspect that anesthesiologists, like lawyers, traditionally created firms that were partnerships, so the principals often call themselves "partners," regardless of their actual entity type. Still, it would be nice for courts to clarify the actual roles of those involved.  
 
Furthermore, in describing the HSR School, the court states, 
 
There is no evidence that the HSR School had an existence that was independent of AANH. In fact, the HSR School was going to cease operating due to the fact that AANH was going to cease operating. The HSR School was not a limited liability corporation (“LLC”), private corporation (“P.C.”), or other legal entity registered with the Connecticut Secretary of State. (Tr. 141-142). There is no evidence that the HSR School had its own assets, bank account, or tax identification number. There is no evidence that the HSR School itself (as opposed to AANH) ever paid anyone for rendering services to the HSR School. There is no evidence that anyone other than AANH had operated the HSR School. Consequently, the Court finds that the predecessor in interest, for the purpose of assessing successor liability, is AANH.
Id. at *6. Ultimately, it appears the court has determined this was some version of an asset purchase  (even though neither party provided a copy of the asset purchase agreement), so the liability stayed with AANH.  This appears to be correct, but it's hard to know without that document.
 
And it is hard to know what the obligations are when additional relevant possible parties are.  The court further determined that the potential successor entities, "YNHH and Yale University are two separate corporate entities with separate governance structures."  Except there is no statement as to what types of entities they are, where they were formed, or anything else other than a reference to testimony from a witness who said YNHH was a separate entity from Yale University.  It would seem to me that some of the related documentation would be valuable, but the court has spoken.  
 
And fair enough. But I have to correct this: "The HSR School was not a limited liability corporation company (“LLC”), private professional corporation (“P.C.”), or other legal entity."  

April 9, 2019 in Business Associations, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, LLCs, M&A, Partnership | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Still Howling at the Moon: Not All Businesses Are Corporations!

A new case from the Southern District of Texas recently appeared, and it is yet another case in which the entity type descriptions are, well, flawed. The case opens: 

Before the Court is the defendant’s, Arnold Development Group, LLC (the “defendant”) motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2) and (3) (Dkt. No. 5), the plaintiff’s, Conesco Industries, LTD.; d/b/a DOKA USA, LTD. (the “plaintiff”) response to the defendant’s motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 18) and the defendant’s reply in support of its motion (Dkt. No. 20).
 . . . .
The plaintiff is a New Jersey limited partnership doing business in Texas and throughout the United States. The defendant is a Missouri limited liability corporation.
CONESCO INDUSTRIES, LTD. d/b/a DOKA USA, LTD., Pl., v. ARNOLD DEVELOPMENT GROUP, LLC, Def.., 4:18-CV-02851, 2019 WL 1430112, at *1 (S.D. Tex. Mar. 29, 2019) (emphasis added). 
 
Everybody who reads this blog knew that was coming because I am writing about the case. Arnold Development Group, LLC, is not a limited liability corporation. It is a limited liability company.
 
So, fine, this kind of error is not remarkable, given my numerous posts on the subject. But the opinion, in the discussion section, follows with this gem: 
In the case before the Court, the defendant is a Missouri corporation and the plaintiff is a New Jersey corporation
Id. at *2. Nuh-uh.  The opinion had already established that we're dealing with a Missouri LLC and New Jersey limited partnership. Neither entity is a corporation.  
 
Fortunately, entity status here does not seem to have any clear impact on the personal jurisdiction analysis (this about specific jurisdiction), but still. The case was dismissed without prejudice, which means at least some of this language could come to bear in future versions of the litigation.  Here's hoping that the parties, and the next reviewing court (should there be one), are a little more careful with describing the entity types.  

April 2, 2019 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, LLCs, Partnership | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Nike, Avenatti, and the Business Judgment Rule

 
This Michael Avenatti extortion case is fascinating to me. I am not really sure why, other than it seems so absurd.  You may recall Avenatti as the lawyer who represented Stormy Daniels in her lawsuits against President Trump. He is a big personality and known for being outlandish at times.  
 
According to federal prosecutors, Avenatti tried to extort Nike for millions of dollars because he claimed to have evidence that Nike employees were illegally paying people to help recruit college basketball players.  Apparently, Avenatti believed he would be able to get Nike to pay him millions of dollars in exchange for the evidence. Instead, he ended up with the FBI. 
 
The New York Time reports:
According to people with knowledge of the cases, once Nike heard Mr. Avenatti’s claims, it acted to inform federal officials of the allegation that the company’s employees were paying players. The nature of the discussion with Mr. Avenatti raised the possibility that extortion was taking place.
That is, as soon as Nike was on notice of a potential problem right to the authorities.  How very Allis-Chalmers of them.  I am a fan of that old business judgment rule case, which state “it appears that directors are entitled to rely on the honesty and integrity of their subordinates until something occurs to put them on suspicion that something is wrong. If such occurs and goes unheeded, [only] then liability of the directors might well follow . . . “ Graham v. Allis-Chalmers Mfg. Co., 41 Del. Ch. 78, 85, 188 A.2d 125, 130 (1963).  So, as soon as Nike was on notice of wrongdoing, they disclosed it to officials.  
 
Nike took action to deal with the problem quickly, rather than acting like Caremark did years ago, when "there was an unconsidered failure of the board to act in circumstances in which due attention would, arguably, have prevented the loss [from fines resulting from bad employee behavior]." By taking action, Nike likely insulates the company (or at least mitigates the harm) it could face from alleged wrongdoing. Rather than engaging in a cover up (and potentially paying to hide the problem), the company acted proactively by disclosing the actions.  
 
Was this Avenatti's first attempt at such a thing?  It seems unlikely one would start with a company like Nike, but maybe the potential payoff seemed worth it. On the other hand, maybe such tactics have worked in other circumstances with smaller companies, so it seemed like a good idea. 
 
Regardless, it seems like Nike handled this wisely. The company recognized the issue before it, and fairly quickly realized that any of the alleged bad behavior was already done.  When such things happen, it is disappointing, to be sure, but it can't be undone.  The only question then is, "how are you going to respond."  For my money, going to the authorities was the right call, even though Nike had to know some bad press was going to follow.  
 
Now, I recognize it is possible that Nike knew about the behavior and reported nothing until Avenatti showed up. It would be interesting to find out, and if so, the analysis of whether they should have reported earlier would be an interesting one.  For example, would the company have faced more or less scrutiny had they reported on their own?  Or did they inoculate themselves to some degree by waiting and having the alleged Nike behavior overshadowed by Avenatti's alleged acts? Tough questions that require the exercise of business judgment. Thank goodness there is a rule about that.  

March 28, 2019 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Clue, LLC Edition: This Time, the Judge (or the Judge's Clerk) Did It

Get this, from a March 15 ruling and order on a motion for summary judgment: 

Greenwich Hotel Limited Partnership [GHLP] is a limited partnership organized under the laws of Connecticut, and is the owner of the Hyatt Regency Greenwich hotel. Answer to First Amended Complaint, dated Dec. 16, 2016 (“Am. Ans.”), ECF NO. 62, at 8. Hyatt Equities, L.L.C. (“Hyatt Equities”) is a limited liability corporation incorporated in Delaware, and is the general partner of Greenwich Hotel Limited Partnership. Id. at 9. The Hyatt Corporation (“Hyatt Corp.”) is a limited liability corporation incorporated in Delaware, and is the agent of Greenwich Hotel Limited Partnership. Id. at 9.

Benavidez v. Greenwich Hotel LP, 3:16-CV-191 (VAB), 2019 WL 1230357, at *1 (D. Conn. Mar. 15, 2019). 
 
Once more, for the people in back: LLCs are "limited liability companies," not "limited liability corporations."As such, LLCs are not "incorporated." LLCs are formed or organized. In addition, corporations are entities that provide shareholders limited liability, but they are generally not referred to as "limited liability corporations" because they might be confused with a separate and distinct entity type, the LLC.  
 
Whenever I read a case with this kind of language, I wonder how it happened.  Sometimes, like today, I go to the docket (thanks, Bloomberg Law) to see if the source of the wrongdoing (evil doing) was the party/lawyer or the judge/judge's clerk.  This time, it's pretty clear the lawyer got it right.  The case made it easy, as the ruling cited to the Answer to First Amended Complaint, which I pulled.  Here's how the lawyer's answer framed these "facts": 

"Upon information and belief, defendant Hyatt Equities is a limited liability company organized under the laws of the State of Delaware, and is the general partner of GHLP.

. . . .

Upon information and belief, defendant Hyatt Corporation is a corporation organized under the laws of the State of Delaware and is the agent of GHLP."

Benavidez v. Greenwich Hotel LP, 3:16-CV-191, Answer to First Amended Complaint, dated Dec. 16, 2016 (“Am. Ans.”), ECF NO. 62, at 9. This is all properly stated, but somehow it didn't translate to the ruling and order.  

Kudos to the filing attorneys on getting it right. I wonder if this is something that can be corrected? One would hope.  Okay, at least I hope so. 

March 20, 2019 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, LLCs, Partnership | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

LLCs Are Not Corporations, Spring Break Edition

It is Spring Break at WVU, so I am using this time to finish some paper edits and catch up on my email. Last week, I got an email about a recent case from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. It is a headache-inducing opinion that continues the trend of careless language related to limited liability companies (LLCs). 

The opinion is a civil procedure case (at this point) regarding whether service of process was effective for two defendants, one a corporation and the other an LLC.  The parties at issue, (collectively, “Defendants”) are: (1) Ditech Financial, LLC f/k/a Green Tree Servicing, LLC (“Ditech Financial”) and (2) Ditech Holding Corporation f/k/a Walter Investment Management Corp.’s (“Ditech Holding”). The court notes that it is unclear whether there is diversity jurisdiction, because

“the documents submitted by Defendants with their motion to dismiss suggest that there may be diversity of citizenship in this case. See [12-1, at 2 (stating Ditech Holding is a Maryland corporation with a principal office in Pennsylvania) ]; [12-1, at 2 (stating Ditech Financial is a Delaware limited liability corporation with a principal office in Pennsylvania) ].”

Clayborn v. Walter Investment Management Corp., No. 18-CV-3452, 2019 WL 1044331, at *8 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 5, 2019) (emphasis added).  

Why do courts insist on telling us the state of LLC formation and principal place of business, when that is irrelevant as to jurisdiction for an LLC?  Hmm. I supposed that fact that courts keeping calling LLCs “corporations” might have something to do with it.  The court does seem to know the rule for LLCs is different than the one for corporations, noting that “Plaintiff has not pled or provided the Court with any information regarding the citizenship of each member of Ditech Financial LLC. “ Id.

Despite this apparent knowledge, the court goes on to say:

Under Illinois law, “a private corporation may be served by (1) leaving a copy of the process with its registered agent or any officer or agent of the corporation found anywhere in the State; or (2) in any other manner now or hereafter permitted by law.” 75 ILCS 5/2-204. At least one court to consider the issue has concluded that Illinois state law does not allow service of a summons on a corporation via certified mail. Ward v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, 2013 WL 5676478, at *2 (S.D. Fla. Oct. 18, 2013); see also 24 Illinois Jurisprudence: Civil Procedure § 2:20; 13 Ill. Law and Prac. Corporations § 381. Plaintiff has not cited, nor has the Court located, any support for the proposition that a summons and complaint sent by certified mail constitutes one of the “other manner[s] now or hereafter permitted by law” to effectuate service. Consequently, the Court concludes that Plaintiff has not properly served Ditech Holding under Illinois law, and therefore cannot have served Ditech Financial.2 [see below]

Id. Now the case gets more confusing.  Note that last line above: the court implies that proper service of the corporate parent may have been sufficient to serve the LLC, too. Footnote 2 of the opinion properly clarifies this, though the court then provides another baffling tidbit.

Footnote 2 provides:

Even if Plaintiff had properly served Ditech Holding, it would not have properly effectuated service upon Ditech Financial. Ditech Financial appears to be a limited liability company.[1]; [12]. Under Illinois law, service on a limited liability company is governed by section 1–50 of the Limited Liability Company Act. 805 ILCS 180/1–50John Isfan Construction, Inc. v. Longwood Towers, LLC, 2 N.E.3d 510, 517–18 (Ill. App. Ct. 2016). Under section 1–50 of the Limited Liability Company Act, a plaintiff may only serve process upon a limited liability company by serving “the registered agent appointed by the limited liability company or upon the Secretary of State.” Pickens v. Aahmes Temple #132, LLC, 104 N.E.3d 507, 514 (Ill. App. Ct. 2018) (quoting 805 ILCS 180/1–50(a)). To properly serve Ditech Financial, Plaintiff would have had to deliver a copy of the summons and complaint to Ditech Financial’s registered agent in Illinois: CT Corporation System. [12, at 5.]

The court had already stated the Ditech Financial was an LLC, though it had called it a “limited liability corporation.” Is the court unclear about the entity type?  If entity type is in question, it would seem worthy of note in the body of the opinion. The court properly cites to the LLC Act, but it inconclusive as to whether Ditech Financial is, in fact, an LLC.    

To make matters worse, the court repeats, in footnote 3, its earlier mistake as to  what an LLC really is:

Service on a limited liability corporation, such as Ditech Financial, must be effectuated in the same manner as service on a corporation such as Ditech Holding. See, e.g., Grieb v. JNP Foods, Inc., 2016 WL 8716262, at *3 (E.D. Pa. May 13, 2016) (evaluating the effectiveness of service of process on a limited liability company under Pa. R. Civ. P. 424).

The court ultimately dismisses the claim without prejudice, which seems proper.  But the rest of this? Sigh. If you need me, I’ll be the one in back banging his head on the table. image from media.giphy.com

March 12, 2019 in Agency, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Quick Take on Polsky's Explaining Choice-of-Entity Decisions by Silicon Valley Start-Ups

Gregg D. Polsky, University of  Georgia Law, recently posted his paper, Explaining Choice-of-Entity Decisions by Silicon Valley Start-Ups. It is an interesting read and worth a look. H/T Tax Prof Blog.  Following the abstract, I have a few initial thoughts:

Perhaps the most fundamental role of a business lawyer is to recommend the optimal entity choice for nascent business enterprises. Nevertheless, even in 2018, the choice-of-entity analysis remains highly muddled. Most business lawyers across the United States consistently recommend flow-through entities, such as limited liability companies and S corporations, to their clients. In contrast, a discrete group of highly sophisticated business lawyers, those who advise start-ups in Silicon Valley and other hotbeds of start-up activity, prefer C corporations.

Prior commentary has described and tried to explain this paradox without finding an adequate explanation. These commentators have noted a host of superficially plausible explanations, all of which they ultimately conclude are not wholly persuasive. The puzzle therefore remains.

This Article attempts to finally solve the puzzle by examining two factors that have been either vastly underappreciated or completely ignored in the existing literature. First, while previous commentators have briefly noted that flow-through structures are more complex and administratively burdensome, they did not fully appreciate the source, nature, and extent of these problems. In the unique start-up context, the complications of flow-through structures are exponentially more problematic, to the point where widespread adoption of flow-through entities is completely impractical. Second, the literature has not appreciated the effect of perplexing, yet pervasive, tax asset valuation problems in the public company context. The conventional wisdom is that tax assets are ignored or severely undervalued in public company stock valuations. In theory, the most significant benefit of flow-through status for start-ups is that it can result in the creation of valuable tax assets upon exit. However, the conventional wisdom makes this moot when the exit is through an initial public offering or sale to a public company, which are the desired types of exits for start-ups. The result is that the most significant benefit of using a flow- through is eliminated because of the tax asset pricing problem. Accordingly, while the costs of flow-through structures are far higher than have been appreciated, the benefits of these structures are much smaller than they appear.

Before commenting, let me be clear: I am not an expert in tax or in start-up entities, so my take on this falls much more from the perspective of what Polsky calls "main street businesses." I am merely an interested reader, and this is my first take on his interesting paper. 

To start, Polsky distinguishes "tax partnerships" from "C Corporations."  I know this is the conventional wisdom, but I still dislike the entity dissonance this creates.  Polsky explains: 

Tax partnerships generally include all state law entities other than corporations. Thus, general and limited partnerships, LLCs, LLPs, and LLLPs are all partnerships for tax purposes. C corporations include state law corporations and other business entities that affirmatively elect corporate status. Typically, a new business will often need to choose between being a state-law LLC taxed as a partnership or a state-law corporation taxed as a C corporation. The state law consequences of each are nearly identical, but the tax distinctions are vast.

 As I have written previously, I'd much rather see the state-level entity decoupled from the tax code, such that we would 

have (1) entity taxation, called C Tax, where an entity chooses to pay tax at the entity level, which would be typical C Corp taxation; (2) pass-through taxation, called K Tax, which is what we usually think of as partnership tax; and (3) we get rid of S corps, which can now be LLCs, anyway, which would allow an entity to choose S Tax

As Dinky Bosetti once said, "It's good to want things." 

Anyway, as one who focuses on entity choice from (mostly) the non-tax side, I dispute the idea that "[t]he state law consequences of each [entity] are nearly identical, but the tax distinctions are vast."  From governance to fiduciary duties to creditor relationships to basic operations, I think there are significant differences (and potential consequences) to entity choice beyond tax implications. 

 I will also quibble with Polsky's statement that "public companies are taxed as C corporations."  He is right, of course, that the default rule is that "a publicly traded partnership shall be treated as a corporation." I.R.C. § 7704(a). But, in addition to Business Organizations, I teach Energy Law, where we encounter Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs), which are publicly traded pass-through entities. See id. § 7704(c)-(d).

Polsky notes that "while an initial choice of entity decision can in theory be changed, it is generally too costly from a tax perspective to convert from a corporation to a partnership after a start-up begins to show promise."  This is why those of us not advising VC start-ups generally would choose the LLC, if it's a close call. If the entity needs to be taxed a C corp, we can convert.  If it is better served as an LLC, and the entity has appreciated in value, converting from a C corp to an LLC is costly.  Nonetheless, Polsky explains for companies planning to go public or be sold to a public entity, the LLC will convert before sale so that the LLC and  C Corp end up in roughly the same place:  

The differences are (1) the LLC’s pre-IPO losses flowed through to its owners while the corporation’s losses were trapped, but as discussed above this benefit is much smaller than it appears due to the presence of tax-indifferent ownership and the passive activity rules, (2) the LLC resulted in additional administrative, transactional, and compliance complexity (including the utilization of a blocker corporation in the ownership structure), and (3) the LLC required a restructuring on the eve of the IPO. All things considered, it is not surprising that corporate classification was the preferred approach for start-ups.

This is an interesting insight. My understanding is that the ability pass-through pre-IPO losses were significant to at least a notable portion of investors. Polsky's paper suggests this is not as significant as it seems, as many of the benefits are eroded for a variety of reasons in these start ups.  In addition, he notes a variety of LLC complexities for the start-up world that are not as prevalent for main street businesses. As a general matter, for traditional businesses, the corporate form comes with more mandatory obligations and rules that make the LLC the less-intensive choice.  Not so, it appears, for VC start-ups.  

 I need to spend some more time with it, and maybe I'll have some more thoughts after I do.  If you're interested in this sort of thing, I recommend taking a look.

March 5, 2019 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Partnership, Unincorporated Entities, Venture Capital | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Can You Exclude Experts In Criminal Cases Because They Are "Partners" in the Same LLC?

Westlaw recently posted an interesting Massachusetts case at the intersection of criminal law and business law.  Massachusetts (the Commonwealth) sought to commit a defendant as a sexually dangerous person. Commonwealth v. Baxter, 94 Mass. App. Ct. 587, 116 N.E.3d 54, 56 (2018). The defendant was (at the time) an inmate because of a probation violation related to offenses of rape of a child and other crimes.  The Commonwealth retained Mark Schaefer, Ph.D., for an expert opinion, and Dr. Schaefer concluded that the defendant was, under state law, a sexually dangerous person. The hearing judge found probable cause to think the defendant was a sexually dangerous person and had him temporarily committed for examination by two qualified examiners, as required by law. Dr. Joss determined that the defendant was sexually dangerous, and Dr. Rouse Weir determined he was not.

Here's where the business law part comes in: 

After the reports of the qualified examiners were submitted to the court, the defendant moved to exclude Dr. Joss from providing evidence at trial, or in the alternative, to appoint a new qualified examiner to evaluate the defendant. As grounds therefor, the defendant alleged that Dr. Joss and Dr. Schaefer were both among six “member/partners in Psychological Consulting Services (‘PCS’), a limited liability corporation [LLC] based in Salem, Massachusetts.” He argued that the members of the LLC have a fiduciary duty of loyalty to the company and are necessarily “dedicated to [its] financial and professional success.” Because Dr. Schaefer and Dr. Joss were “intertwined both professionally and financially,” through their partnership in PCS, the defendant claimed that their relationship “create[d] a conflict of interest and raise[d] a genuine issue of Dr. Joss's impartiality in his role as a [qualified examiner].” The defendant offered no affidavit in support of his motion, and did not request an evidentiary hearing.

Commonwealth v. Baxter, 94 Mass. App. Ct. 587, 116 N.E.3d 54, 56 (2018) (emphasis added).  A substitute expert was substituted for Dr. Joss, and that expert determined that defendant was not sexually dangerous, and the Commonwealth appealed. 
 
In addition to the obvious error of calling an LLC a corporation (this is an error was in defendants allegations) and LLC members "partners", there is more here.  
 
The court noted that the expert reported was not admitted in the lower court "based on 'the appearance of an inappropriate and avoidable conflict,'” stating further the lower court judge even stated expressly, "This isn't about actual bias."  The court then states that "where a party seeks to disqualify an attorney for a conflict of interest, the mere appearance of impropriety without attendant ethical violations is insufficient to support an order of disqualification." The defendant was arguing that the "partnership" (meaning membership in the LLC) worked to incentivize Dr. Joss to have the same conclusion as Dr. Schaefer so there would be no "public perception" that Dr. Schaefer was “proven wrong.” Id.
 
The court then explains that this is not a situation where the "reliability or validity" of the expert's methods or experience were in question. As such, "In the absence of evidence suggesting that the reliability of the witness's testimony is in doubt or that the witness is under an actual conflict of interest, the remedy for the defendant's concerns is in forceful cross-examination and argument, not in exclusion." Id. at 59. 

This is interesting to me.  It seems to me this is not like traditional attorney conflicts, where we want to impute knowledge of one attorney to another in the same firm because the knowledge of the first attorney could harm the client of the second.  This case is more analogous to getting a second opinion from a doctor in the same practice (or maybe network). It's possible that the second doctor could be influenced by the first, but it's not clearly the case. 
 
That said, I think there is something to the idea that members of a firm might have a bias in favor of the other members of the firm. But I appreciate the court's point that it needs to be more than a mere association of the doctors.  The fiduciary duty claim here fails, in my view, without more because there is no showing that the firm benefits from a particular outcome. That is, in any given case, multiple qualified experts can come to different conclusions (as this case makes clear) and that's plainly acceptable.  
 
Separately, this case also underscores how close a call such things are. Various experts came to different conclusions, and to some degree, at least in this case, the luck of the draw (of experts) is outcome determinative for both the Commonwealth and the defendant. I am sure there are cases where that's less true, in favor of either side, but I suspect it's close a lot of the time.  
 
Ultimately, this seems like the court got the rule right for future cases, though I am also not entirely clear why the order of discharge cannot stand. That is, it seems to me that just because the lower court ordered another expert review, there is no showing that the replacement expert was somehow not qualified or proper in their report. At least to the extent the standard was unclear, I might have been inclined to let the prior decision stand because I'd apply the same standard of review to all the experts in the case before excluding their work.  Perhaps the reviewing court was concerned that the lower court was expert shopping or something similar, but that's not clear.  Regardless, it's usually interesting when entity law works its way into criminal law. 


 

February 26, 2019 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Partnership | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

New Paper: Business Entities as Skeleton Keys

Christopher G. Bradley at University of Kentucky College of Law has posted his paper, Business Entities as Skeleton Keys.  The paper was also selected for the 2019 AALS Section on Agency, Partnership, LLCs and Unincorporated Associations program, Respecting the Entity: The LLC Grows Up.  

Chris notes the use of business entities to accomplish goals not attainable previously and the use of entities "to accomplish customized transactions and evade legal restrictions that would otherwise prevent them."  His observations and insights are good ones, and his paper is definitely worth the read.  I can't help but think that some of this is occurring more because of an increasing comfort with entities and a willingness to engage in creative transactions. We're seeing in beyond the use of entities, too, with the rise of derivatives over the last 20 or so years, not to mention cryptocurrencies.  Anyway,  it's a good paper and I recommend it. 

Here's the abstract:

This Article identifies the increasingly important phenomenon of what I term “skeleton key business entities” and discusses the ramifications of their rise. Modern business entities, such as LLCs, are increasingly created and deployed to accomplish customized transactions and evade legal restrictions that would otherwise prevent them. Rather than acting as traditional businesses, such entities are tools, or “skeleton keys,” used to open “locked doors” presented by existing bodies of law, including contract, property, bankruptcy, copyright, tax, national security, and even election law.

The Article centers on the example of the “Artist’s Contract,” a fascinating 1971 project, in which artists sought to retain rights in artworks they sold—to obtain a percentage of future appreciation in value, to exhibit the work upon request, and so on. As prior scholarship has noted, the transaction contemplated by the Artist’s Contract could not have been accomplished in regular contract form due to rules concerning privity, servitudes on chattels, and the first sale doctrine, among other things. But this no longer remains true. The emergence of modern business entity law provides the tools—i.e., skeleton key business entities—to “solve” all of these legal problems and allow for bespoke transactions such as those desired by the artists.

The rise of skeleton key business entities may unsettle numerous other bodies of law. They may bring efficiencies but may undermine important policies. After providing a range of examples, I suggest that scholars—including those outside the business and commercial law realm—should turn renewed attention to the remarkable capacities of these flexible, inexpensive, and surprisingly potent transactional tools. We should consider if it makes sense to force parties pursuing newly enabled forms of commerce to bear the costs of filtering transactions through business entities; or alternatively, which traditional doctrines should bind modern entities just as they bind parties outside of those forms.

February 19, 2019 in Contracts, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Partnership, Unincorporated Entities, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Vague Operating Agreement or Not, LLCs are Not Limited Partnerships or Corporations

Sometimes, LLC cases are a mess. It is often hard to tell whether the court is misstating something, whether the LLCs (and their counsel) are just sloppy, or both.  My money, most of the time is on "both." 

Consider this recent Louisiana opinion (my comments inserted): 

The defendant, Riverside Drive Partners, LLC (“Riverside”) appeals the district court judgment denying its motion for a new trial related to its order of January 8, 2018, dismissing all pending claims against three parties in this multiparty litigation: (1) CCNO McDonough 16, LLC (“CCNO”); (2) R4 MCNO Acquisition LLC (“R4”); and (3) Joseph A. Stebbins, II. After review of the record in light of the applicable law and arguments of the parties, the district court judgment is affirmed. . . .

This litigation arises out of a dispute among partners in a real estate development related to the conversion of an existing historic building into an affordable housing complex. Pursuant to the Operating Agreement signed on September 30, 2013, McDonough 16, LLC, was formed to acquire, rehabilitate, and ultimately lease and operate a multi-family apartment project consisting of the historic building and a new construction building. In turn, McDonough 16, LLC had two members, also limited liability entities: (1) the “Managing Member,” CCNO [an LLC] and (2), the “Investor Member,” R4, a Delaware limited liability company with its principal place of business in New York. [Who cares? Jurisdiction of the LLC is based on the citizenship of the LLC member(s).] Likewise, CCNO had two limited liability partnerships as members: (1) CCNO Partners 2, LLC, [thus not an LLP, but and LLC] which was formed by two members who were residents of and domiciled in Orleans Parish: Mr. Stebbins and Michael Mattax; and (2) the appellant, Riverside, a Florida limited liability company [also not an LLP] with its principal place of business in Florida whose sole member, Jack Hammer, is a resident of and domiciled in Georgia. Iberia Bank was lender for the project.

CCNO McDonough 16, LLC v. R4 MCNO Acquisition, LLC, 2018-0490 (La. App. 4 Cir. 11/14/18), 259 So. 3d 1077, 1078 (comments and emphasis added)

The issue was whether Riverside, LLC, as a member of CCNO, was needed to agree for CCNO to enter a settlement agreement. The court noted,

Section 3. 13 of the CCNO Operating Agreement provides:
Overall Management Vested in Members and Managers. Except as expressly provided otherwise in this Operating Agreement or otherwise agreed in writing at a meeting, management of the Company is vested in the Members in proportion to their initial Capital Contributions, and every Member is hereby made a Manager. All powers of the Company are exercised by or under the authority of the Managers and Members and the business and affairs of the Company are managed under the direction of the Members and Managers. The Managers may engage in other activities of any nature. (Emphasis added).
CCNO McDonough 16, LLC v. R4 MCNO Acquisition, LLC, 2018-0490 (La. App. 4 Cir. 11/14/18), 259 So. 3d 1077, 1079.  One thing not clear from the case is the CCNO is a Louisiana LLC, which I was able to find out via a Louisiana commercial entity search. Louisiana LLC law, by default, provides that members manage the business unless the operating agreement says otherwise.  The operating agreement appears to confirm the members as managers. My read of this provision would be that this provision makes management subject to a vote. That is, I read "management of the Company is vested in the Members in proportion to their initial Capital Contributions" to mean management is decided by a vote in proportion to capital contributions.  It is not intended to mean, I don't think, that actual management is divided by voting rights (e.g., that Member A with 60% voting interest makes 60% of the decisions and Member B with 40% makes 40% of the decisions). If management is by vote, it would appear that CCNO, with at least 60% of the voting interest, could proceed to settlelment without Riverside, LLC. 
 
However, the opinion goes on to explain:
In addition, the CCNO Operating Agreement defines “Majority in Interest” as “any referenced group of Managers, Members or persons who are both, a combination who, in aggregate, own more than fifty percent (50%) of the Membership Interests owned by all of such referenced group of Managers and Members.” Notably, Section 2.05 of the CCNO Operating Agreement specifically provides that any amendment to the agreement requires the approval of the beneficiary of any mortgage lien, i.e., Iberia Bank.
Riverside does not dispute that it owns less than fifty per cent of the CCNO shares or that CCNO Partners 2, of which Mr. Stebbins is a member, owns proportionally more of the membership interest in CCNO. Rather, Riverside asserts that this does not matter because, although the CCNO Operating Agreement clearly established CCNO Partners 2 owned 66.67% of CCNO (and, concomitantly, that Riverside only 33.33%), a subsequent amendment altered the proportion of ownership to 60% (CCNO Partners 2) and 40% (Riverside) and redefined “Majority in Interest” to mean “more than 60%,” thereby making any settlement agreement reached without the appellant's consent invalid.
CCNO McDonough 16, LLC v. R4 MCNO Acquisition, LLC, 2018-0490 (La. App. 4 Cir. 11/14/18), 259 So. 3d 1077, 1079–80.
 
Though this lacks some context, it appears that the court is saying that in defining "Majority in Interest," the operating agreement was telling us what vote was needed to "manage" the LLC.  That might make sense, in that initially the agreement gave CCNO the power to manage because it had more than 50% of the voting interest. Then, apparently, there was an amendment to make a majority vote 60%+1, if properly executed, would have required Riverside's consent to settle. However, the operating agreement also required the mortgage lien beneficiary to approve any amendment, which was not apparently done.  
 
This all seems like it is likely the right outcome, but it sure is hard to piece together. Perhaps all LLC cases should require the court to attach the operating agreement to the opinion. After all, LLC decisions are largely driven by the operating agreement, so it would be helpful for all of us trying to learn from the case to have the full context.  

Two closing thoughts:

  1. Jack Hammer as an LLC member of a construction-focused entity sounds like one of my exam characters. Awesome. 
  2. Westlaw's synopsis states: "Managing member of limited liability corporation (LLC) brought action against investor member to enjoin removal as manager."  No. An LLC is a limited liability company, not a corporation. (Regular readers had to see that coming.)
  3. LLCs are not limited partnerships, either, even if they are structured similarly or even use the term "partner."  An LLC is a separate and unique entity.  Really. 

February 12, 2019 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs, Management | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Sixth Circuit, Why Can't You Be More Like Your Sister, Eleventh Circuit? #LLCs

I am wading back into a jurisdiction case because when it to LLCs (limited liability companies), I need to. A new case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit showed up on Westlaw.  Here's how the analysis section begins:

Jurisdiction in this case is found under the diversity statute 28 U.S.C. § 1332. John Kendle is a citizen of Ohio; defendant WHIG Enterprises, LLC is a Florida corporation with its principal place of business in Mississippi; defendant Rx Pro Mississippi is a Mississippi corporation with its principal place of business in Mississippi; defendant Mitchell Chad Barrett is a citizen of Mississippi; defendant Jason Rutland is a citizen of Mississippi. R. 114 (Second Am. Compl. at ¶¶ 3, 5) (Page ID #981–82). Kendle is seeking damages in excess of $75,000. Id. at ¶¶ 50, 54, 58, 64, 71 (Page ID #992–95). The district court issued an order under Rule 54(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that granted final judgment in favor of Mitchell Chad Barrett, and so appellate jurisdiction is proper. R. 170 (Rule 54(b) Order) (Page ID #3021).

Kendle v. Whig Enterprises, LLC, No. 18-3574, 2019 WL 148420, at *3 (6th Cir. Jan. 9, 2019).

No. No. No. An LLC is not a corporation, for starters.  And for purposes of diversity jurisdiction, "a limited liability company is a citizen of any state of which a member of the company is a citizen." Rolling Greens MHP, L.P. v. Comcast SCH Holdings L.L.C., 374 F.3d 1020, 1022 (11th Cir. 2004).  As such the where the LLC is formed doesn't matter and the LLC's principal place of business doesn't matter. All that matters is the citizenship of each LLC member.  

In this case, I can tell from the opinion that Kendle and Rutland are "co-owners" of WHIG Enterprises. The opinion suggests there may be other owners (i.e., members).  The opinion refers to the plaintiff suing "WHIG Enterprises, LLC, two of its co-owners, and another affiliated entity." Kendle v. Whig Enterprises, LLC, No. 18-3574, 2019 WL 148420, at *1. The opinion later refers to Rutland as "another WHIG co-owner."  If we want to know whether diversity jurisdiction is proper, though, we'll need to know ALL of WHIG's members.  

Now, it may well be that there is diversity among the parties, but we don't know, and neither, apparently, does the court. That may not be an issue in this case, but if people start modeling their bases for jurisdiction on the Kendle excerpt above, things could get ugly. The Eleventh Circuit, as noted above. A more recent case further reminds us to check diversity for all members in an LLC.  Thermoset Corporation v. Building Materials Corp. of America et al, 2017 WL 816224 (11th Cir., March 2, 2017).

I figured that I should give a shout out to folks getting right, given all my criticism of those getting it wrong.  Come, Sixth Circuit, let's get it together. 

January 15, 2019 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Best/Worst Depictions of M & A Deals on TV or At The Movies?

I wasn't one of those people who decided to become a lawyer after watching To Kill a Mockingbird, Witness for the Prosecution, and Twelve Angry Men, but they were some of my favorite movies. These movies and TV shows like Suits, How to Get Away with Murder, and Law & Order "teach" students and the general public that practicing law is sexy and/or confrontational. When I teach, I try to demystify and clear up some of the falsehoods, and that's easy with litigation-type courses. When I taught Business Associations, it was a bit tougher but we often used movies or TV shows to illustrate the right and wrong ways to do things. As an extra credit assignment, I asked students to write a critique of what the writers missed, misrepresented, or completely misunderstood.

This semester, I will be teaching a transactional drafting course where the students represent either the buyer or the seller of a small, privately owned business. I would like to recommend movies or TV shows that don't deal with multibillion dollar mergers, but I haven't been watching too much TV lately. I'm looking for suggestions along the lines of Silicon Valley (which past students have loved) or Billions. If you have any suggestions, please comment below or email me at mweldon@law.miami.edu.

 

 

 

January 11, 2019 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Film, Law School, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching, Television | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

There Once was an LLC with a Partnership Agreement Governing the Minority Shareholder's Interest

Sometimes I think courts are just trolling me (and the rest of us who care about basic entity concepts). The following quotes (and my commentary) are related to the newly issued case, Estes v. Hayden, No. 2017-CA-001882-MR, 2018 WL 6600225, at *1 (Ky. Ct. App. Dec. 14, 2018): 

"Estes and Hayden were business partners in several limited liability corporations, one of which was Success Management Team, LLC (hereinafter “Success”)." Maybe they had some corporations and LLCs, but the case only references were to LLCs (limited liability companies).

But wait, it gets worse:  "Hayden was a minority shareholder in, and the parties had no operating agreement regarding, Success."  Recall that Success is an LLC. There should not be shareholders in an LLC. Members owning membership interests, yes. Shareholders, no. 

Apparently, Success was anything but, with Hayden and Estes being sued multiple times related to residential home construction where fraudulent conduct was alleged. Hayden sued Estes to dissolve and wind down all the parties’ business entities claiming a pattern of fraudulent conduct by Estes. Ultimately, the two entered a settlement agreement related to (among other things) back taxes, including an escrow account, which was (naturally) insufficient to cover the tax liability.  This case followed, with Estes seeking contribution from Hayden, while Hayden claimed he had been released. 

Estes paid the excess tax liability and filed a complaint against Hayden, "arguing Hayden’s breach of the Success partnership agreement and that Estes never agreed to assume one hundred percent of any remaining tax liabilities of Success." Now there is a partnership agreement?  Related to the minority shareholder's obligations to an LLC?  [Banging head on desk.] 

The entity structures to these business arrangements are a mess, and it makes the opinion kind of a mess, though I would suggest the court could have at least tried to straighten it out a bit.  It even appears that the court got a little turned around, as it states, "While Estes may have at one time been liable for a portion of Success’s tax liabilities incurred from 2006 to 2010, once the parties signed the Settlement Agreement, his liability ended pursuant to the release provisions contained therein."  I think they meant that Hayden may have been liable but no longer was following the release, especially given that the court affirmed the grant of summary judgment to Hayden.  

For what it's worth, it appears that the court analyzed the release correctly, so the resolution on the merits is likely proper. Still, blindly adopting the careless entity-related language of the litigants is frustrating, at a minimum.  But it does give me something else to write about. As long as these case keeping showing up, and they will keep showing up, Prof. Bainbridge need not wonder, "Is legal blogging dead?"  Not for me, and I don't think for those of us here at BLPB, anyway. 
 



 

December 18, 2018 in Contracts, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, Litigation, LLCs, Partnership | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Not Every CEO Opinion is a Breach of Fiduciary Duty (Most Aren't)

Jack Welch, former GE CEO (1981 to 2001) was revered for his ability to maximize shareholder value.  Yet in 2009, he explained that shareholder value was

“the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy... your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products. Managers and investors should not set share price increases as their overarching goal… Short-term profits should be allied with an increase in the long-term value of a company.”

This runs contrary to how many people think about the role of the CEO and the board of directors.  I think it's spot on, and it is a key reason the business judgment rule, and its role in preserving director primacy, is so critical.   

Last week, a Wall Street Journal article about Dick's Sporting Goods made the rounds. The article reported: 

Ed Stack, the chairman and chief executive of Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc., arrived at work the Monday after a gunman killed 17 people at a school in Parkland, Fla., nearly certain the outdoor retailer should limit sales of some guns.

. . . .

Dick’s Financial Chief Lee Belitsky asked, “So what’s the financial implication here?” according to Mr. Stack. “I basically said, I don’t really care what the financial implication is, but you’re right, we should look.”

Company executives convened the board via teleconference to explain the proposed plan, took some time to reflect, then gathered again a few days later to vote. “It was unanimous that we should do this and stand up and take a stand,” said Mr. Stack, whose family holds a controlling stake in the retailer.

This revelation led many folks to question whether Stack's statement that he did not "really care" about the financial implications was a breach of fiduciary duty.  The concern was buoyed by the reality that store sales had dropped about 3% to  4% for the year, and the drop was linked to the decision to limit certain gun sales. 

That said, a drop in sales does not mean there was a breach of any duty any more than an increase in sales means no breach occurred. Results may be evidence, but that's all they are. Part of the story. Incidentally, though it is not proof, either way, it is worth noting that Dick's sales dropped, but profits rose after the decision because the company cut costs by replacing some guns with higher-margin items. 

It seems like every time a CEO or board issues a decision that is controversial or chooses to say that he or she supports a certain course of action because they think it is the "right thing to do," the questions begin about whether either the duty of care or loyalty has been breached.  I maintain that a statement (or series of statements) like that is not sufficient to overcome the business judgment rule to allow a review of the decision.  

This is especially true where, like in the Dick's situation, there is evidence that the company deliberated appropriately. The WSJ article noted that company executives called together the board to explain the proposed plan, "took some time to reflect, then gathered again a few days later to vote." The vote was unanimous to end all assault-style weapons sales and to and stop selling guns or ammunition to those under 21 years of age. Interestingly, Walmart Inc. and other retailers followed Dick's lead later that day. If the deliberative process is a concern, it would seem those following Dick's should be more vulnerable to a fiduciary duty/business judgment rule challenge than Dick's. 

For what it's worth, I think Dick's or any store deciding NOT to change their sales practice would also be protected by the business judgment rule, just as I think Chick-Fil-A's decision not to open on Sundays should be protected by the business judgment rule (though if it were a Delaware corporation, I am not sure it would be). 

This is not to say I don't believe in fiduciary duties. I very much do. I just also believe in a strong business judgment rule, ideally enforced as an abstention doctrine. (I believe in lots of things.)  

I need more than a few public statements before I think anyone should be looking behind an entity's decision making. Recent examples raising entity fiduciary duty questions, like Dick's and Nike's Colin Kaepernick ads, have had positive financial outcomes of the entities, but it shouldn't matter.  The business judgment rule is there to protect all the decisions of the board that are not the product of fraud, illegality, or self-dealing, not just correct decisions. 

December 11, 2018 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, December 7, 2018

Do Investors Really Care About Environmental, Social, and Governance Factors?

In January 2018, Larry Fink of Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, shocked skeptics like me when he told CEOs:

In the current environment, these stakeholders are demanding that companies exercise leadership on a broader range of issues. And they are right to: a company’s ability to manage environmental, social, and governance matters demonstrates the leadership and good governance that is so essential to sustainable growth, which is why we are increasingly integrating these issues into our investment process. Companies must ask themselves: What role do we play in the community? How are we managing our impact on the environment? Are we working to create a diverse workforce? Are we adapting to technological change? Are we providing the retraining and opportunities that our employees and our business will need to adjust to an increasingly automated world? Are we using behavioral finance and other tools to prepare workers for retirement, so that they invest in a way that will help them achieve their goals?

In October 2018, Blackrock declared, “sustainable investing is becoming mainstream investing.” The firm bundled six existing ESG EFT funds and launched six similar funds in Europe and looked like the model corporate citisen.

So does Blackrock actually divest from companies with human rights violations or that do not provide meaningful disclosures on human trafficking, child slavery, forced labor, or conflict minerals? The company did not publicly divest from gun manufacturers although it did “speak with” them in February after the Parkland school shooting; the company has stated that due to fiduciary concerns, it cannot divest from single companies in a portfolio. 

In theory, a behemoth like Blackrock could have a significant impact on a firm’s ESG practices, if it so chose. It could set an example for companies and for other institutional investors by seeking (1) additional information after reviewing disclosures and/or (2) demanding changes in management if companies did not in fact, show a true commitment to ESG.

But I shouldn’t pick on Blackrock. Based on what I heard last week in Geneva at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, other investors outside of the SRI arena aren’t pressuring companies either.  I attended the Forum for the fourth time with over 2,000 members from the business, NGO, civil society, academic, and governmental communities. There was a heavy focus this year on supply chain issues because 80% of the world’s goods travel through large, international companies.The Responsible Business Alliance and others stressed the importance of eradiating forced labor. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Intel, and Amnesty International focused on tech companies, artificial intelligence, and human rights implications. Rio Tinto and Nestle allowed an NGO to publicly criticize their disclosure reports in painstaking detail. An activist told the entire plenary that states needed to stop killing human rights defenders. In other words, business as usual at the Forum. Here are some of the takeaways from some of the sessions:

  1. NGO PODER warned that investors should not divest when companies are not living up to their responsibilities  but instead should engage companies on ESG factors and demand board seats.
  2. The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights observed that rating agencies can and should be a fast track to the board on ESG issues. 
  3. A representative from the Sustainable Stock Exchanges Initiative, a joint initiative of UNCTAD, PRI, the UN Global Compact, and UNEP-FI, indicated that investors want to know if ESG information is material. It may be salient, but not material to some. 79 stock exchanges around the world have partnered with the SSEI. 39 have voluntary ESG disclosures and 16 have mandatory disclosures.
  4. The Business and Human Rights Resources Center noted that of 7,200 corporate statements mandated by the UK Modern Slavery Act, only 25% met the minimum requirements required by law. As they shocked the audience with this statistic, news alerts went out the Australia had finally passed its own anti slavery law.
  5. 40% of companies in apparel, agricultural, and extractive industries have a 0 (zero) score for human rights due diligence, indicating weak implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The average score in the benchmark was only 27%.
  6. French companies must respond to the French Duty of Vigilance Law and the EU Nonfinancial Disclosure regulations, which have different approached to identifying risks. It could take six months to do an audit to do the disclosure, but investors rarely question the companies directly or the data. 
  7. SAP Ariba found that 66% of consumers believe they have a duty to buy goods that are good for society and the environment and that sustainability is mostly driven by millennials and generation Z consumers. 
  8. Nestle, the biggest food and beverage company in the world, requires its 165,000 suppliers to follow responsible sourcing standard especially for child and forced labor. The conglomerate partners with NGOs to conduct human rights impact assessments for their upstream suppliers. 
  9. Apple has returned 30 million USD in recruitment fees to workers since 2008 to address forced labor and illegal practices. HP has also returned fees. The hotel industry has banded together to fight forced labor. Most responsible businesses have banned the use of recruitment fees but many workers still pay them to personnel agencies in the hopes of getting jobs with large companies. 
  10. Many companies are now looking at human rights and ESG issues throughout their own supply chains but also with their joint venture, merger, and other key business partners.
  11. Rae Lindsay of Clifford Chance noted that avoiding legal risk is not the main role of human rights due diligence but lawyers working across disciplines can make sure that clients don’t inadvertently add to legal risk in deals. She encourages deal lawyers to become familiar with the risks and law and business students to learn about these issues. 

So do investors care about ESG? Are these disclosure rules working? You wouldn’t think so by hearing the speakers at the Forum. On the other hand, proxy advisory firm ISS recently launched an Environmental and Social Quality Score to better evaluate the ESG risks in its portfolio companies. I’ll keep an eye out for any divestments or shareholder proposals. 

I’m not holding my breath for too much progress next year at the Forum. While I was encouraged by the good work of many of the companies that attended, I remain convinced that the disclosure regime is ineffective in effectuating meaningful change in the world’s most vulnerable communities. Unless governments, rating agencies, investors, or consumers act, too many companies will continue to pay lip service to their human rights commitments.  

 

 

 

December 7, 2018 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (1)