Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Tennessee Court Subtly Affirms that LLCs Are Not Corporations

A recent Tennessee court decision subtly notes that limited liability companies (LLCs) are not, in fact corporations. In a recent Tennessee federal court opinion, Judge Richardson twice notes the incorrect listing of an LLC as a "limited liability corporation."  

First, the opinion states:

The [Second Amended Complaint] alleges that Defendant Evans is a resident of Tennessee, Defendant #AE20, LLC is a California limited liability company, and Defendant Gore Capital, LLC is a Delaware limited liability “corporation.”3

Gore Capital is in fact a limited liability company.

FERNANDO CAMPS, Pl., v. GORE CAPITAL, LLC, KARL JAMES, ANGELA EVANS, and #AE20, LLC, Defendants., 3:17-CV-1039, 2019 WL 2763902, at *1 and n.3 (M.D. Tenn. July 2, 2019) (emphasis in original). 

Judge Richardson later notes, in footnote 11:

Plaintiff states that he was sent documents that listed Gore’s (not #AE20’s) principal place of business as being in Chattanooga, Tennessee, although the SAC lists Gore as a “Delaware limited liability corporation (sic)[.]”
Id. 2019 WL 2763902, at *6 n.11 (M.D. Tenn. July 2, 2019). 
 
Given all the times I have complained about courts not correcting such mistakes, I figured I should give this opinion a well-deserved shout out for getting this right.  Thank you. 

July 9, 2019 in Business Associations, Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

If Sole Ownership of an Entity Means Alter Ego, then Veil Piercing Will Be Inevitable

Veil piercing continues its randomness. Back in April, in Hawai'i Supreme Court decision, Calipjo v. Purdy, 144 Hawai'i 266, 439 P.3d 218 (2019), the court determined that there was evidence to support a trial court jury's decision to pierce the veil of an multiple entities and hold the sole member/shareholder of the entities liable.  (An appellate court had determined that there was insufficient evidence to support veil piercing.)

The decision may be sound, but the evidence for the decision makes the outcome seemingly inevitable. In determining there was evidence to support the jury's decision, the court notes the plaintiff's allegations were that "sole ownership and control is one of many factors that can establish alter ego and, therefore, evidence of Purdy’s ownership and control was pertinent to this claim."  The court then explains, 

In this case, the jury was presented with evidence that Purdy exercised exclusive ownership and control over Regal Corp. and Regal LLC. Purdy testified that he was the sole shareholder, director, and officer of Regal Corp. and the sole member and manager of Regal LLC. This court has held that “sole ownership of all of the stock in a corporation by one individual” is one relevant factor to determine alter ego. Id. (quoting Associated Vendors, 26 Cal. Rptr. at 814). Purdy’s testimony supports the jury’s determination that Purdy exercised exclusive ownership and control over Regal Corp. and Regal LLC; it constitutes evidence that Purdy was the sole owner and manager of either company.

Note, though, that the plaintiff claimed that "sole ownership and control ... can establish alter ego."  The court more accurately  states that ownership and control are a factor.  They are not dispositive or else limited liability for a single-member LLC, corporation, or other limited liability entity would be a fiction.  The jury instructions, though, seem to eliminate the possibility that an entity and a single shareholder or member could be separate.  The jury was told: 

You should consider the following facts in determining whether or not to disregard the legal entity of Regal Capital Corporation and return a verdict in favor of plaintiff against Defendant Jack Purdy, as an individual.

One, whether or not defendant Jack Purdy owned all or substantially all the stock in Regal Capital Corporation; two, whether or not Jack Purdy exercised discretion and control over the management of Defendant Regal Capital Corporation; three, whether or not Defendant Jack Purdy directly or indirectly furnished all or substantially all of the financial investment in Defendant Regal Capital Corporation; four, whether or not Regal Capital Corporation was adequately financed either originally or subsequently for the business in which it was to engage.

Five, whether or not there was actual participation in the affairs of Regal Capital Corporation by its stockholders and whether stock was issued to them. Six, whether or not Regal Capital Corporation observed the [formalities] of doing business as a corporation such as the holding of regular meetings, the issuance of stock, the filing of necessary reports and similar matters. Seven, whether or not Defendant Regal Capital Corporation [dealt] exclusively with Defendant Jack Purdy, directly or indirectly in the real estate sales development activities in this case. Eight, whether or not Defendant Regal Capital Corporation existed merely to do a part of business of Defendant Jack Purdy.

So, here was have an undercapitalization factor, and that could be separate from the shareholder/member, and we have the traditional "corporate formalities" test, but even there, these instructions imply that the entity must have additional shareholders to be "real." For numbers one, two, three, five, seven, and eight, a jury would almost always have to find that those factors would support veil piercing for any sole shareholder corporation or single-member LLC.  I don't think that's either the intent or the substance of current law in most jurisdictions, though the Hawai'i Supreme Court clearly disagrees with me. 

In this case, there seems to be at least some evidence of fraud, and I'm more than willing to defer to a jury if they determined that the defendant had sole control of his entities and he used those entities to commit fraud.  I just object to court's apparent comfort level with the idea having sole control of an entity or entities, and exercising that control, on its own suggests something nefarious.  

I know people use LLCs and corporations to engage in all sorts of bad behavior, and I'd like to see that punished more often than it seems to be.  But relaxing the application of legal standards to get there is not a good way to do it.  If the law should be changed, then legislatures should get to work on that.  If we think single-owner entities are a bad idea (I don't think they are inherently so), let's deal with that through legislation so that at least everyone knows the rules. 

Ultimately, it's not as though current veil piercing jurisprudence has been clear or sound or predictable. There has always been a random nature to it. However, for single-member entities, if the current trends continue, the randomness of veil piercing will not attach not to the outcome of a lawsuit -- it will attach to whether or not someone brings suit at all.  

July 2, 2019 in Contracts, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 31, 2019

What Law Should Govern Enforcement or Invalidation of Standard Consumer Contract Terms?

Last week, I attended the American Law Institute (ALI) Annual Meeting in Washington, DC.  (I am back in The District this week for the Law and Society Association Annual Meeting.  More on that in a later post.)  Many important project drafts and projects were vetted at the ALI meeting.  As many readers know, however, the tentative draft of the Restatement of the Law, Consumer Contracts generated some significant debate in advance of and at the conference.  The membership approved part of the draft of the project at the meeting, but much still is to come.  

I want to briefly pick up a small thread here from the portions of the proposed Restatement discussed at the meeting that relates to some of the work I have done on crowdfunding.  Crowdfunding platforms, like most web-based service businesses, use standard form "terms of use" that the service provider and customer end-user may desire to enforce under contract law.  Unsurprisingly, many of the terms of use for websites of this kind (and crowdfunding platform sites are no exception to the rule) are protective of the interests of the service provider.  These terms include, for example, mandatory arbitration provisions and waivers of jury trial and class action rights.

As many of you likely know, there has been significant litigation about the enforceability of these kinds of provisions in form agreements--and whether a valid contract has been formed at all.  See, e.g., this article from earlier this year.  As the debates on the Restatement proceeded at the meeting, I found myself thinking about whether the common law of contracts is the best way to handle legal challenges to standard form contracts.  Something inside me just kept screaming for a more tailored legislative solution . . . .

After conclusion of the ALI Annual Meeting, I found this testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee from Myriam Gilles, Paul R. Verkuil Research Chair and Professor at Cardozo Law.  She notes in that testimony:

[W]hen pre-dispute arbitration clauses and class action bans are forced upon consumers and employees in take-it-or-leave-it, standard-form agreements, “the probability of litigation positions is highly asymmetrical: the seller is far more likely to be the defendant in any dispute, and the consumer the plaintiff.” There is no negotiation, no choice, and the resulting arbitration procedures are not, in truth, intended to provide a forum to resolve claims. The one and only objective of forced, pre-dispute, class-banning arbitration clauses is to suppress and bury claims. The whole point is that consumers and employees seeking redress for broadly distributed small- value harms cannot and will not pursue one-on-one arbitrations.

(footnotes omitted) Professor Gilles recommended a legislative solution.

I do not teach contracts.  Perhaps those of you who do have comments on this matter that negate what I have written here.  If so, please share them.  In general, as a corporate finance lawyer, I favor private ordering.  But consumer contracts are a whole other animal, distinct from merger or acquisition and other corporate finance agreements.  Perhaps we should decrease pressure on the courts by focusing some legislative attention on the appropriate form of standardized terms in consumer contracts that operate as contracts of adhesion or otherwise offend public policy.  I am not sure quite what that looks like overall, but the idea seems to bear further thought . . . .

 

May 31, 2019 in Contracts, Crowdfunding, Joan Heminway, Litigation | 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, 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, 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)

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Service of Process for LLCs (Which Are Still Not Corporations)

I just don't get the fascination that courts have with calling LLCs (limited liability companies) limited liability corporations. Yes, at this point, I can no longer claim to be surprised, but I can remain appalled/disappointed/frustrated/etc. Today I happened upon a U.S. District Court case from Florida that made just such an error.  This one bugs me, in part, because the court's reference immediately precedes a quotation of the related LLC statute, which repeatedly refers to the "limited liability company."  It's right there! 
 
That said, the court assesses the situation appropriately, and (I think) gets the law and outcome right.  The court explains: 
In this case, Commerce and Industry served the summons on Southern Construction by serving the wife of the manager of Southern Construction. Doc. No. 10. Because Southern Construction is a limited liability corporation, service is proper under Fla. Stat. § 48.062 . . . .
*2 (1) Process against a limited liability company, domestic or foreign, may be served on the registered agent designated by the limited liability company under chapter 605. A person attempting to serve process pursuant to this subsection may serve the process on any employee of the registered agent during the first attempt at service even if the registered agent is a natural person and is temporarily absent from his or her office.
(2) If service cannot be made on a registered agent of the limited liability company because of failure to comply with chapter 605 or because the limited liability company does not have a registered agent, or if its registered agent cannot with reasonable diligence be served, process against the limited liability company, domestic or foreign, may be served:
 
(a) On a member of a member-managed limited liability company;
(b) On a manager of a manager-managed limited liability company; or
(c) If a member or manager is not available during regular business hours to accept service on behalf of the limited liability company, he, she, or it may designate an employee of the limited liability company to accept such service. After one attempt to serve a member, manager, or designated employee has been made, process may be served on the person in charge of the limited liability company during regular business hours.
 
(3) If, after reasonable diligence, service of process cannot be completed under subsection (1) or subsection (2), service of process may be effected by service upon the Secretary of State as agent of the limited liability company as provided for in s. 48.181.
In the proof of service, the process server attests that he served Kenneth W. Jordan, the manager of Southern Construction, by serving Kimberly Jordan, Kenneth Jordan’s wife, at an address in Midway, Georgia. Doc. No. 10. Neither the process server nor counsel for Commerce and Industry provided any evidence that Southern Construction did not have a registered agent or, if it did, that service could not be made on the registered agent. There is also no evidence that Kimberly Jordan is a member, a manager or an employee of Southern Construction designated to accept service. Finally, there is no evidence regarding the address at which service was made, i.e., at the office of the registered agent, at the office of Southern Construction or at a residence. Therefore, based on the present record, the Court cannot conclude that service of process has been properly perfected.
COMMERCE & INDUSTRY INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiff, v. SOUTHERN CONSTRUCTION LABOR SERVICES, LLC, Defendant., No. 617CV965ORL31KRS, 2017 WL 10058577, at *1–2 (M.D. Fla. July 26, 2017) (emphasis added). 
 
The court here gets this right by both following the procedures (e.g., the presumption is to serve the LLC's agent) and the also does not make any assumptions that a spouse is a member or employee, so that's a good one.  This case led me to take a look at my home state's process rules for LLCs. 
 
West Virginia's process is less clear.  For example, West Virginia's rules for service of process do not include a mention of LLCs specifically. The rules provide for service to a "domestic private corporations" and "unincorporated associations" (among others). For a domestic private corporation, service can be completed by serving "an officer, director, or trustee thereof; or, if no such officer, director, or trustee be found, by delivering a copy thereof to any agent of the corporation . . . ." or by serving an authorized agent or attorney.  

Service of unincorporated associations is much more complicated.  Service is made 

Upon an unincorporated association which is subject to suit under a common name, by delivering a copy of the summons and complaint to any officer, director, or governor thereof, or by delivering or mailing in accordance with paragraph (1) above a copy of the summons and complaint to any agent or attorney in fact authorized by appointment or by statute to receive or accept service in its behalf; or, if no such officer, director, governor, or appointed or statutory agent or attorney in fact be found, then by delivering or mailing in accordance with paragraph (1) above a copy of the summons and complaint to any member of such association and publishing notice of the pendency of such action once a week for two successive weeks in the newspaper of general circulation in the county wherein such action is pending. Proof of publication of such notice is made by filing the publisher’s certificate of publication with the court.

Does a manager count as an officer or director? A quick look at cases did not answer that question, but it would seem to me the answer should be "no." Obviously, the easiest way to do complete service would be to serve an LLC's agent or attorney, if either can be found.  But if you have to serve a "member," one must deliver the summons and complaint to the member AND "publish[] notice of the pendency of such action once a week for two successive weeks in the newspaper of general circulation in the county wherein such action is pending." Old school. Anyway, it seems to me that it is high time for West Virginia to specifically recognize LLCs and other entity forms in the Rules of Civil Procedure.   

December 5, 2018 in Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

LLCs are Not Corporations, But That Does Not Mean LLC Diversity Rules Make Sense

Back in May, I noted my dislike of the LLC diversity jurisdiction rule, which determines an LLC's citizenship “by the citizenship of each of its members” I noted, 

I still hate this rule for diversity jurisdiction of LLCs.  I know I am not the first to have issues with this rule. 

I get the idea that diversity jurisdiction was extended to LLCs in the same way that it was for partnerships, but in today's world, it's dumb. Under traditional general partnership law, partners were all fully liable for the partnership, so it makes sense to have all partners be used to determine diversity jurisdiction.  But where any partner has limited liabilty, like members do for LLCs, it seems to me the entity should be the only consideration in determing citizenship for jurisdiction purposes. It works for corporations, even where a shareholder is also a manger (or CEO), so why not have the same for LLCs.  If there are individuals whose control of the entity is an issue, treat and LLC just like a corporation. Name individuals, too, if you think there is direct liability, just as you would with a corporation. For a corporation, if there is a shareholder, director, or officer (or any other invididual) who is a guarantor or is otherwise personally liable, jurisdiction arises from that potential liability. 
I am reminded of this dislike, once again, by a recently available case in which an LLC is referred to as a "limited liability corporation" (not company).  
Dever v. Family Dollar Stores of Georgia, LLC, No. 18-10129, 2018 WL 5778189, at *1 (11th Cir. Nov. 2, 2018). This is so annoying. 
 
The LLC in question is Family Dollar Stores of Georgia, LLC, which involved a slip-and-fall injury in which the plaintiff was hurt in a Family Dollar Store. Apparently, that store was located in Georgia. The opinion notes, though, that the LLC in question was "organized under Virginia law with one member, a corporation that was organized under Delaware law with its principal place of business in North Carolina." Id. 
 
It seems entirely absurd to me that one could create an entity to operate stores in a state, even using the state in the name of the entity, yet have a jurisdictional rule that would provide that for diversity jurisdiction in the state where the entity did business (in a brick and mortar store, no less) where someone was injured.  (Side note: It does not upset me that Family Dollar Stores of Georgia, LLC, would be formed in another state -- that choice of law deals with inter se issue between members of the LLC. )  
 
I'll also note that I see cases dealing with LLC diversity jurisdiction incorrectly referring to LLCs as "limited liability corporations." For example, these other cases also appeared on Westlaw within the last week or so: 
  • Util Auditors, LLC v. Honeywell Int'l Inc., No. 17 CIV. 4673 (JFK), 2018 WL 5830977, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 7, 2018) ("Plaintiff ... is a limited liability corporation with its principal place of business in Florida, where both of its members are domiciled.").

  • Thermoset Corp. v. Bldg. Materials Corp. of Am., No. 17-14887, 2018 WL 5733042, at *2 (11th Cir. Oct. 31, 2018) ("Well before Thermoset filed its amended complaint, this court ruled that the citizenship of a limited liability corporation depended in turn on the citizenship of its members.").
     
    ALLENBY & ASSOCIATES, INC. v. CROWN "ST. VINCENT" LTD., No. 07-61364-CIV, 2007 WL 9710726, at *2 (S.D. Fla. Dec. 3, 2007) ("[A] limited liability corporation is a citizen of every state in which a partner resides.").
Coincidence? Maybe, but it's still frustrating. 
 

November 13, 2018 in Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Should You Ever Pierce the LLC Veil to Let a Member Recover? Probably Not.

Tom Rutledge, at Kentucky Business Entity Law Blog, writes about a curious recent decision in which the Kentucky Court of Appeals overrule a trial court, holding that the law of piercing the veil required the LLC veil to be pierced. Tavadia v. Mitchell, No. 2017-CA-001358-MR, 2018 WL 5091048 (Ky. App. Oct. 19, 2018).

Here are the basics (Tom provides an even more detailed description):

Sheri Mitchell formed One Sustainable Method Recycling, LLC (OSM) in 2013. Mitchell initially a 99% owner and the acting CEO with one other member holding 1%. Mitchell soon asked Behram Tavadia to invest in the company, which he did.

He loaned OSM $40K at 6% interest from his business Tavadia Enterprises, Inc. (to be repaid $1,000 per month, plus 5% of annual OSM profits).  There was no personal guarantee from Mitchell.  OSM then received a $150,000 a business development from METCO, which Tavadia personally guaranteed and pledged certain bonds as security.

Two years (and no loan payments) later under the original $40,000 loan, Tavadia agreed to delay repayment. OSM and Tavadia the created a second loan for $250,000, refinancing the original $40,000 and a subsequent Tavadia $12,000 loan.  This loan provided Tavadia a 25% ownership interest in OSM, but there was still no personal guarantee on the loan. Mitchell claimed this loan was needed to purchase essential equipment (no equipment was purchased). OSM then received a $20,000 loan from Fundworks, LLC, which was secured by Mitchell, who signed Tavadia’s name for OSM and she signed a personal guarantee in Tavadia’s name (both without permission).

Not surprisingly, in October 2015, OSM stopped operations, the equipment was sold, and more than half of the sale proceeds were deposited in Mitchell’s personal bank account, with the rest going to OSM’s account. OSM (naturally) defaulted on the Fundworks’ loan, which Tavadia learned about when Fundworks demanded repayment. The METCO loan also defaulted, and Tavadia was asked to provide funds from the bonds he provided as collateral.

Okay, so it sounds like Mitchell took advantage of Tavadia and engaged in some elements of fraud. What I can’t figure out from this case is why we’re talking about veil piercing.

First, the court states: “The evidence presented at trial demonstrated that Mitchell diverted OSM assets into her own account.” Tavadia v. Mitchell, No. 2017-CA-001358-MR, 2018 WL 5091048, at *5 (Ky. Ct. App. Oct. 19, 2018). So that money Mitchell owes to OSM, which owes money to Tavadia.  The court noted that at least half the funds from the sale of OSM equipment went into Mitchell’s personal account. That needs to go back to OSM, and if veil piercing has value, then a simple order of repayment should be, too. 

Second, the Fundworks loan, which Mitchell signed for, is really her loan, not Tavadia’s. He did not know about it until they sought payment, so it wasn’t ratified, and there is no other indication she has authority to enter into the contract. 

At a minimum, these funds are owed Tavadia (or OSM) and should be itemized as such.  Presumably, that is not enough money to make Tavadia whole. And I don’t know he should be. To the extent there were legitimate (if poorly executed) business attempts, he is on the hook for those losses. As such, I don’t see this as a veil-piercing case.

Instead, Tavadia should be able to sue Mitchell for her fraudulent actions that harmed him directly. And Tavadia should be able to make OSM sue Mitchell for improper transfers and fraud. 

Maybe there are other theories for recovery, too, but veil piercing should not be one. Mitchell did not use the entity to commit fraud. She committed fraud directly. Just because there is an entity, plus an unpaid loan, it does not make this a veil-piercing case. In fact, because Tavadia is a member of the LLC, I think there is a reasonable argument that (absent truly unique circumstances) veil piercing cannot apply. 

I am sympathetic that Tavadia was taken advantage of, and I think that Mitchell should have a significant repayment obligation to him, but I just don’t think this claim should be rooted in veil piercing.  At a minimum, like in administrative law, one should have to exhaust his or her remedies before proceeding to a veil-piercing theory. 

October 30, 2018 in Contracts, Entrepreneurship, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

A Missed "sic", A Big Bank, and LLCs Are Still Not Corporations

It's not just judges and lawyers. Big banks, too, are apparently not committed to clear and accurate language when it comes to LLCs (limited liability companies).  A recent antitrust case provides an excerpt from a Barclays Settlement Agreement that states:

Paragraph 2(cc) of the Barclays Settlement Agreement defines “Person” as: “An individual, corporation, limited liability corporation, professional corporation, limited liability partnership, partnership, limited partnership, association, joint stock company, estate, legal representative, trust, unincorporated association, municipality, state, state agency, any entity that is a creature of any state, any government or any political subdivision, authority, office, bureau or agency of any government, and any business or legal entity, and any spouses, heirs, predecessors, successors, representatives, or assignees of the foregoing.” Barclays Settlement Agreement ¶ 2(cc).

In re LIBOR-Based Fin. Instruments Antitrust Litig., No. 11 CIV. 5450, 2018 WL 3677875, at *20 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 1, 2018) (emphasis added). 
 
I checked to see if this was the court's error, but I found a link to what appears to be the settlement agreement, and it, too, includes "limited liability corporation" in paragraph (cc)'s definition.  Given that it is an error in the original, the judge, or at least the judge's clerks, missed an opportunity for an appropriately placed "[sic]," which more than a few lawyers in my experience have relished the opportunity to insert. 
 
I did a little poking around and found that some Barclays' divisions know and honor the distinction.  For example, a 2014 settlement agreement between  Federal Housing Finance Agency and "Barclays Bank PLC, Barclays Capital Inc. ('Barclays Capital'), and Securitized Asset Backed Receivables LLC (collectively, the Barclays Corporate Defendants')" (as well as some other defendants) provides (emphasis added): 

(h) “Person” means an individual, corporate entity, partnership, association, joint stock company, limited liability company, estate, trust, government entity (or any political subdivision or agency thereof) and any other type of business or legal entity . . . .

I guess beyond judges and lawyers, I should extend my An LLC Checklist Proposal to bankers, as well.  We can get this right, I swear.  It's just going to take some work. 
 

August 7, 2018 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Effect of Mandatory Arbitration in the Employment Law Context

Within the next few weeks, the Supreme Court will decide a trio of cases about class action waivers, which I wrote about here. The Court will decide whether these waivers in mandatory arbitration agreements violate the National Labor Relations Act (which also applies in the nonunion context) or are permissible under the Federal Arbitration Act

I wonder if the Supreme Court clerks helping to draft the Court's opinion(s) are reading today's report by the Economic Policy Institute about the growing use of mandatory arbitration. The author of the report reviewed survey responses from 627 private sector employers with 50 employees or more. The report explained that over fifty-six percent of private sector, nonunion employees or sixty million Americans must go to arbitration to address their workplace rights. Sixty-five percent of employers with more than one thousand employees use arbitration provisions. One-third of employers that require mandatory arbitration include the kind of class action waivers that the Court is looking at now. Significantly, women, low-wage workers, and African-Americans are more likely to work for employers that require arbitration. Businesses in Texas, North Carolina, and California (a pro-worker state) are especially fond of the provisions. In most of the highly populated states, over forty percent of the employers have mandatory arbitration policies.

 

Employers overwhelmingly win in arbitration, and the report proves that the proliferation of these provisions has significantly reduced the number of employment law claims filed. According to the author:

The number of claims being filed in employment arbitration has increased in recent years. In an earlier study, Colvin and Gough (2015) found an average of 940 mandatory employment arbitration cases per year being filed between 2003 and 2013 with the American Arbitration Association (AAA), the nation’s largest employment arbitration service provider. By 2016, the annual number of employment arbitration case filings with the AAA had increased to 2,879 (Estlund 2018). Other research indicates that about 50 percent of mandatory employment arbitration cases are administered by the AAA (Stone and Colvin 2015). This means that there are still only about 5,758 mandatory employment arbitration cases filed per year nationally. Given the finding that 60.1 million American workers are now subject to these procedures, this means that only 1 in 10,400 employees subject to these procedures actually files a claim under them each year. Professor Cynthia Estlund of New York University Law School has compared these claim filing rates to employment case filing rates in the federal and state courts. She estimates that if employees covered by mandatory arbitration were filing claims at the same rate as in court, there would be between 206,000 and 468,000 claims filed annually, i.e., 35 to 80 times the rate we currently observe (Estlund 2018). These findings indicate that employers adopting mandatory employment arbitration have been successful in coming up with a mechanism that effectively reduces their chance of being subject to any liability for employment law violations to very low levels.

This data makes the Court's upcoming ruling even more critical for American workers- many of whom remain unaware that they are even subject to these provisions.  

 

April 6, 2018 in Corporate Personality, Corporations, Employment Law, Legislation, Litigation, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Feeling Like Charlie Brown at Christmas: More LLCs as a Corporations

No one will  be shocked that my last post of the year is about a court referring to a limited liability company (LLC) as a "limited liability corporation."  It's wrong to do so, and it's my thing to point out when it happens.  This case is especially striking (and perhaps upsetting) because of the context of the reference.  In this 2015 case that just showed up on Westlaw (or at least, in my alerts), "Plaintiff argues that because Defendants are all limited liability corporations they must identify and prove the citizenship of their various members and that they have failed to do so." Skywark v. Healthbridge Mgmt., LLC, No. 15-00058-BJR, 2015 WL 13621058, at *1 (W.D. Pa. July 22, 2015).  They mean LLCs, not corporations.  Okay, so far this is a pretty typical mistake.  But wait! 

In this case, the defendants did not allege the citizenship of the members of the defendants' LLCs in their initial Notice of Removal, so the plaintiffs claimed that a filed  amendment was more than “technically defective.” In claiming the amendment was "minor, the defendants rely cited  O'Boyle v. Braverman, No. 08-553, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 62180 (D.N.J. Aug. 12, 2008), which found that when a party mistakenly alleged the citizenship of an LLC as a corporation, the party could still amend the allegations to properly allege the citizenship of its LLC members. 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 62180, at *7. O'Boyle, like the present court on Skywark found the proposed amendment to be technical in nature. 
 
On the one hand, this is probably correct in terms of justice seeking. On the other hand, if a court were to find that such a mistake was more than minor, perhaps lawyers would get this right in the first place, which they should do.
 
In assessing the situation, the court states: 
Plaintiff is correct that the citizenship of a limited liability corporation is determined by the citizenship of its members. Zambelli Fireworks Mfg. Co. v. Wood, 592 F.3d 412, 420 (3d Cir. 2010). Defendants have sought to fix any errors that may affect diversity jurisdiction by filing a declaration that identifies the members of their limited liability corporations and allegations of their citizenship. Plaintiff raises several arguments in response to Defendants' declaration and alleges that it is insufficient to prove diversity of citizenship.
Skywark v. Healthbridge Mgmt., LLC, No. 15-00058-BJR, 2015 WL 13621058, at *3 (W.D. Pa. July 22, 2015) (emphasis added). 
 
To quote Charlie Brown, AAUGH! 
 
Didn't the court just establish that the entire issue was the distinction between corporations and LLCs?  Sigh. The mistakes are frustrating, but to add to that such a clear lack of internal consistency when the issue has been identified is darn right irritating.  
 
As I often do, I feel I must acknowledge that we're all human and we make mistakes.  Goodness knows I have made (and continue to make) more than my fair share.  I don't mean to say anyone is a bad person for making such mistakes.  But I sure would appreciate it if they were a lot less common, too.  

If you celebrated, I hope you had a great Christmas. We sure did. Wishing you and yours peace, warmth, and love in this holiday season.  

December 26, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

No Need to Veil Pierce an LLC When Direct Liability Is Available (and LLCs Are Still Not Corps)

A new Maryland case deals with claims against a limited liability company that the plaintiff claimed was "registered as a limited liability corporation ('LLC')." Farm Fresh Direct Direct By a Cut Above LLC v. Downey, 2017 WL 4865481, at *2 (D. Md., 2017).  The court repeats the mistake, but the complaint is the original source, as it incorrectly identifies the LLC as a "corporation" and not a company.  The court then explains some of the allegations as follows: 
Plaintiff alleges that Sinsky violated 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a)(1)(A) and engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices, in violation of Maryland common law. ECF 1, ¶¶ 17-22, 23-26. At its core, plaintiff's contention is that “Sinsky is the resident agent and incorporator” of Farm Fresh Home (ECF 1, ¶¶ 12-13), and in that capacity she “filed” the articles of organization for Farm Fresh Home, creating a name for the “competing company” that is “intentionally confusing” because of its similarity to Farm Fresh Direct. ECF 1, ¶ 12.
. . . .
*4 Farm Fresh Home is a limited liability company. As a threshold matter, I must determine whether Sinsky is subject to suit in light of Farm Fresh Home's status as a limited liability company.
Id. at *3–4. 
 
That is not quite right. The complaint alleges that Sinsky, by helping to form the LLC, violated the Lanham Act and Maryland common law (the court repeats the complaint's "incorporator" language, but presumably this is meant to refer to the formation of the LLC).  The question, at least initially, should not be whether Sinksy is subject to suit as a member of the LLC.  The question, then, is whether there is a direct claim against Sinsky for creating the competing entity.
 
The court seems to understand this is at least part of the analysis because the opinion discusses veil piercing (in the corporate context, of course) as well as the concept of direct liability.  As to direct liability, the opinion correctly explained: “An LLC member is liable for torts he or she personally commits, inspires, or participates in because he or she personally committed a wrong, not ‘solely’ because he or she is a member of the LLC.” Id. at *5 (quoting Allen v. Dackman, 413 Md. 132, 158, 991 A.2d 1216, 1228 (2010)). The opinion further states that there can be direct liability under the Lanham Act and for unfair trade practices, even when an entity is involved.  This is (at least conceptually) correct.  Despite this, the opinion ultimately misses the mark: 
The question here is not whether plaintiff will ultimately prevail. Its allegations as to Sinsky border on thin. But, for purposes of the Motion, plaintiff adequately alleges sufficient facts and inferences that Sinsky participated in the creation of Farm Fresh Home for the purpose of using a confusingly similar name to compete with Farm Fresh Direct. See A Society Without a Name, 655 F.3d at 346. Therefore, plaintiff is not entitled to the protection of the corporate shield at this juncture.
Id. at *7 (emphasis added). No and no. First, LLCs do not have corporate shields. They have LLC or limited liability shields, but You Can’t Pierce the Corporate Veil of an LLC Because It Doesn't Have One!  Second, there is no need to consider veil piercing at this point. The court has found sufficient claims as to Sinsky's participation to support direct liability. The inquiry should end there. And even if there were value in discussing both direct liability and veil piercing (there is not), the court's own citation to Allen v. Dackman should indicate that this section is not solely related to entity-derived liability.  
 
I don't mean to be too hard on anyone here.  This is not personal -- it simply about identifying and trying to correct errors related to entity status. I know that not all courts or practicing attorneys spend the amount of time I do with entities and their nuances.  And this case involves a pro se party, which can make things even more challenging.
 
I just still maintain that this is something we can correct. Apparently, one blog post at a time. 

November 14, 2017 in Accounting, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Intellectual Property, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Should Employees Have Their Day in Court? The Supreme Court and Mandatory Arbitration

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard argument on three cases[1] that could have a significant impact on an estimated 55% of employers and 25 million employees. The Court will opine on the controversial use of class action waivers and mandatory arbitration in the employment context. Specifically, the Court will decide whether mandatory arbitration violates the National Labor Relations Act or is permissible under the Federal Arbitration Act. Notably, the NLRA applies in the non-union context as well.

Monday’s argument was noteworthy for another reason—the Trump Administration reversed its position and thus supported the employers instead of the employees as the Obama Administration had done when the cases were first filed. The current administration also argued against its own NLRB’s position that these agreements are invalid.

In a decision handed down by the NLRB before the Trump Administration switched sides on the issue, the agency ruled that Dish Network’s mandatory arbitration provision violates §8(a)(1) of the NLRA because it “specifies in broad terms that it applies to ‘any claim, controversy and/or dispute between them, arising out of and/or in any way related to Employee’s application for employment, employment and/or termination of employment, whenever and wherever brought.’” The Board believed that employees would “reasonably construe” that they could not file charges with the NLRB, and this interfered with their §7 rights.

The potential impact of the Supreme Court case goes far beyond employment law, however. As the NLRB explained on Monday:

The Board's rule here is correct for three reasons. First, it relies on long-standing precedent, barring enforcement of contracts that interfere with the right of employees to act together concertedly to improve their lot as employees. Second, finding individual arbitration agreements unenforceable under the Federal Arbitrations Act savings clause because are legal under the National Labor Relations Act gives full effect to both statutes. And, third, the employer's position would require this Court, for the first time, to enforce an arbitration agreement that violates an express prohibition in another coequal federal statute. (emphasis added).

This view contradicted the employers' opening statement that:

Respondents claim that arbitration agreements providing for individual arbitration that would otherwise be enforceable under the FAA are nonetheless invalid by operation of another federal statute. This Court's cases provide a well-trod path for resolving such claims. Because of the clarity with which the FAA speaks to enforcing arbitration agreements as written, the FAA will only yield in the face of a contrary congressional command and the tie goes to arbitration. Applying those principles to Section 7 of the NLRA, the result is clear that the FAA should not yield.

My co-bloggers have written about mandatory arbitration in other contexts (e.g., Josh Fershee on derivative suits here, Ann Lipton on IPOs here, on corporate governance here, and on shareholder disputes here, and Joan Heminway promoting Steve Bradford’s work here). Although Monday’s case addresses the employment arena, many have concerns with the potential unequal playing field in arbitral settings, and I anticipate more litigation or calls for legislation.  

I wrote about arbitration in 2015, after a New York Times series let the world in on corporate America’s secret. Before that expose, most people had no idea that they couldn’t sue their mobile phone provider or a host of other companies because they had consented to arbitration. Most Americans subject to arbitration never pay attention to the provisions in their employee handbook or in the pile of paperwork they sign upon hire. They don’t realize until they want to sue that they have given up their right to litigate over wage and hour disputes or join a class action.

As a defense lawyer, I drafted and rolled out class action waivers and arbitration provisions for businesses that wanted to reduce the likelihood of potentially crippling legal fees and settlements. In most cases, the employees needed to sign as a condition of continued employment. Thus, I’m conflicted about the Court’s deliberations. I see the business rationale for mandatory arbitration of disputes especially for small businesses, but as a consumer or potential plaintiff, I know I would personally feel robbed of my day in court.

The Court waited until Justice Gorsuch was on board to avoid a 4-4 split, but he did not ask any questions during oral argument. Given the questions that were asked and the makeup of the Court, most observers predict a 5-4 decision upholding mandatory arbitrations. The transcript of the argument is here. If that happens, I know that many more employers who were on the fence will implement these provisions. If they’re smart, they will also beef up their compliance programs and internal complaint mechanisms so that employees don’t need to resort to outsiders to enforce their rights.

My colleague Teresa Verges, who runs the Investor Rights Clinic at the University of Miami, has written a thought-provoking article that assumes that arbitration is here to stay. She proposes a more fair arbitral forum for those she labels “forced participants.” The abstract is below:

Decades of Supreme Court decisions elevating the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) have led to an explosion of mandatory arbitration in the United States. A form of dispute resolution once used primarily between merchants and businesses to resolve their disputes, arbitration has expanded to myriad sectors, such as consumer and service disputes, investor disputes, employment and civil rights disputes. This article explores this expansion to such non-traditional contexts and argues that this shift requires the arbitral forum to evolve to increase protections for forced participants and millions of potential claims that involve matters of public policy. By way of example, decades of forced arbitration of securities disputes has led to increased due process and procedural reforms, even as concerns remain about investor access, the lack of transparency and investors’ perception of fairness.

I’ll report back on the Court’s eventual ruling, but in the meantime, perhaps some policymakers should consider some of Professor Verges’ proposals. Practically speaking though, once the NLRB has its full complement of commissioners, we can expect more employer-friendly decisions in general under the Trump Administration.

 

[1] Murphy Oil USA v. N.L.R.B., 808 F.3d 1013 (5th Cir. 2015), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 L. Ed. 2d 595 (2017); Lewis v. Epic Sys. Corp., 823 F.3d 1147 (7th Cir. 2016), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 l. Ed. 2d. 595 (2017); Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP, 834 F.3d 975 (9th Cir. 2016), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 L. Ed. 2d 595 (2017)

October 5, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Legislation, Litigation, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Revising How to Handle Derivative Claims (or Not)

Yesterday, Professor Bainbridge posted "Is there a case for abolishing derivative litigation? He makes the case as follows: 

A radical solution would be elimination of derivative litigation. For lawyers, the idea of a wrong without a legal remedy is so counter-intuitive that it scarcely can be contemplated. Yet, derivative litigation appears to have little if any beneficial accountability effects. On the other side of the equation, derivative litigation is a high cost constraint and infringement upon the board’s authority. If making corporate law consists mainly of balancing the competing claims of accountability and authority, the balance arguably tips against derivative litigation. Note, moreover, that eliminating derivative litigation does not eliminate director accountability. Directors would remain subject to various forms of market discipline, including the important markets for corporate control and employment, proxy contests, and shareholder litigation where the challenged misconduct gives rise to a direct cause of action.

If eliminating derivative litigation seems too extreme, why not allow firms to opt out of the derivative suit process by charter amendment? Virtually all states now allow corporations to adopt charter provisions limiting director and officer liability. If corporate law consists of a set of default rules the parties generally should be free to amend, as we claim, there seems little reason not to expand the liability limitation statutes to allow corporations to opt out of derivative litigation.

I think he makes a good point.  And included in the market discipline and other measures that Bainbridge notes would remain in place to maintain director accountability, there would be the shareholder response to the market.  That is, if shareholders value derivative litigation as an option ex ante, the entity can choose to include derivative litigation at the outset or to add it later if the directors determine the lack of a derivative suit option is impacting the entity's value.  

Professor Bainbridge's post also reminded me of another option: arbitrating derivative suits.  A friend of mine made just such a proposal several years ago while we were in law school: 

There are a number of factors that make the arbitration of derivative suits desirable. First, the costs of an arbitration proceeding are usually lower than that of a judicial proceeding, due to the reduced discovery costs. By alleviating some of the concern that any D & O insurance coverage will be eaten-up by litigation costs, a corporation should have incentive to defend “frivolous” or “marginal” derivative claims more aggressively. Second, and directly related to litigation costs, attorneys' fees should be cut significantly via the use of arbitration, thus preserving a larger part of any pecuniary award that the corporation is awarded. Third, the reduced incentive of corporations to settle should discourage the initiation of “frivolous” or “marginal” derivative suits.

Andrew J. Sockol, A Natural Evolution: Compulsory Arbitration of Shareholder Derivative Suits in Publicly Traded Corporations, 77 Tul. L. Rev. 1095, 1114 (2003) (footnote omitted). 

Given the usually modest benefit of derivative suits, early settlement of meritorious suits, and the ever-present risk of strike suits, these alternatives are well worth considering.  

October 4, 2017 in ADR, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Financial Markets, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Public Company With Mandatory Disclosure Obligations Has A Duty To Disclose

Last Thursday, Jay Brown filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court coauthored by him, me, Jim Cox, and Lyman Johnson.  The brief was filed in Leidos, Inc., fka SAIC, Inc., Petitioners, v. Indiana Public Retirement System, Indiana State Teachers’ Retirement Fund, and Indiana Public Employees’ Retirement Fund, an omission case brought under Section 10(b) of and Rule 10b-5 under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended.   An abstract of the brief follows.

This Amicus Brief was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of nearly 50 law and business faculty in the United States and Canada who have a common interest in ensuring a proper interpretation of the statutory securities regulation framework put in place by the U.S. Congress. Specifically, all amici agree that Item 303 of the Securities and Exchange Commission's Regulation S-K creates a duty to disclose for purposes of Rule 10b-5(b) under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

The Court’s affirmation of a duty to disclose would have little effect on existing practice. Under the current state of the law, investors can and do bring fraud claims for nondisclosure of required information by public companies. Thus, affirming the existence of a duty to disclose will not significantly alter existing practices or create a new avenue for litigants that will lead to “massive liability” or widespread enforcement of “technical reporting violations.”

At the same time, the failure to find a duty to disclose in these circumstances will hinder enforcement of the system of mandatory reporting applicable to public companies and weaken compliance. Reversal of the lower court would reduce incentives to comply with the requirements mandated by the system of periodic reporting. Enforcement under Section 10(b) of and Rule 10b-5(b) under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by investors in the case of nondisclosure will effectively be eliminated. Reversal would likewise reduce the tools available to the Securities and Exchange Commission to ensure compliance with the system of periodic reporting. In an environment of diminished enforcement, reporting companies could perceive their disclosure obligations less as a mandate than as a series of options. Required disclosure would more often become a matter of strategy, with issuers weighing the obligation to disclose against the likelihood of detection and the reduced risk of enforcement.

Under this approach, investors would not make investment decisions on the basis of “true and accurate corporate reporting. . . .” They would operate under the “predictable inference” that reports included the disclosure mandated by the rules and regulations of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Particularly where officers certified the accuracy and completeness of the information provided in the reports, investors would have an explicit basis for the assumption. They would therefore believe that omitted transactions, uncertainties, and trends otherwise required to be disclosed had not occurred or did not exist. Trust in the integrity of the public disclosure system would decline.

The lower court correctly recognized that the mandatory disclosure requirements contained in Item 303 gave rise to a duty to disclose and that the omission of material trends and uncertainties could mislead investors. The decision below should be affirmed.

More information about the case (including the parties' briefs and all of the amicus briefs) can be found here.  The link to our brief is not yet posted there but likely will be available in the next few days.  Also, I commend to you Ann Lipton's earlier post here about the circuit split on the duty to disclose issue up for review in Leidos.  

Imv, this is a great case for discussion in a Securities Regulation course.  It involves mandatory disclosure rules, fraud liability, and class action gatekeeping.  As such, it allows for an exploration of core regulatory and enforcement tools of federal securities regulation.

September 11, 2017 in Ann Lipton, Joan Heminway, Litigation, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, April 28, 2017

Full Expectation Damages

We are in the middle of the final exam period, so this post will be short.

A friend of mine recently told me about a situation where he had been cheated out of a few thousand dollars. A clear contract was involved, and based on the facts I was told, the other party seems obviously in the wrong.

These situations, even if clear from the legal side, are often not worth pursuing through litigation in our current U.S. system. As most readers surely know, in the U.S. parties generally have to pay their own lawyers regardless of the outcome. In some situations, the lawyers may take the case on contingency, but most lawyers I know will not take a contingency case where the maximum recovery is a few thousand dollars. Maybe small claims court would be appropriate, but the learning and time costs involved may outweigh the potential recovery.

Perhaps this is as it should be. Perhaps we want parties to settle these smaller disputes outside the courts.

But, especially when the party in the wrong is much larger, and especially when the wrong is quite clear, it seems like we might want the courts involved to prevent this type of bad action from going without a remedy. Of course, class actions may be possible in some, though certainly not all, circumstances.

The law could make these situations more worthy of pursuit. Full expectation damages, that would put the harmed party where she would have been if the contract had been properly carried out, should consider not only legal fees but also the time and emotional energy expended to bring the claim.  I do know that courts sometimes shift legal fees in egregious situations, but I think this is pretty rare, and I don't think I have ever heard of a situation where the plaintiff was reimbursed for her time and emotional energy expended in bringing the case. However, isn't that what true expectation damages would require? Without the breach, the plaintiff would not have spent time, energy, and money pursuing the claim. Recovery for this type of damage would also discourage breach, as the defendant would stand to lose significantly more than if he just carried out the contract as agreed.

That said, I do see how this could be abused by overeager attorneys, so I imagine it would have to be used somewhat sparingly and only in clear cases.

April 28, 2017 in Contracts, Haskell Murray, Litigation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Visioning the Publicly Held Benefit Corporation

As Haskell earlier announced here at the BLPB, The first U.S. benefit corporation went public back in February--just before publication of my paper from last summer's 8th Annual Berle Symposium (about which I and other BLPB participants contemporaneously wrote here, here, and here).  Although I was able to mark the closing of Laureate Education, Inc.'s public offering in last-minute footnotes, my paper for the symposium treats the publicly held benefit corporation as a future likelihood, rather than a reality.  Now, the actual experiment has begun.  It is time to test the "visioning" in this paper, which I recently posted to SSRN.  Here is the abstract.

Benefit corporations have enjoyed legislative and, to a lesser extent, popular success over the past few years. This article anticipates what recently (at the eve of its publication) became a reality: the advent of a publicly held U.S. benefit corporation — a corporation with public equity holders that is organized under a specialized U.S. state statute requiring corporations to serve both shareholder wealth aims and social or environmental objectives. Specifically, the article undertakes to identify and comment on the structure and function of U.S. benefit corporations and the unique litigation risks to which a publicly held U.S. benefit corporation may be subject. In doing so, the article links the importance of a publicly held benefit corporation's public benefit purpose to litigation risk management from several perspectives. In sum, the distinctive features of the benefit corporation form, taken together with key attendant litigation risks for publicly held U.S. benefit corporations (in each case, as identified in this article), confirm and underscore the key role that corporate purpose plays in benefit corporation law.

Ultimately, this article brings together a number of things I wanted to think and write about, all in one paper.  While many of the observations and conclusions may seem obvious, I found the exploration helpful to my thinking about benefit corporation law and litigation risk management.  Perhaps you will, too . . . .

April 17, 2017 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, Litigation, Management, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Perpetuating the Hot Mess of LLC Veil Piercing Law

A new case, out just yesterday from the Southern District of Ohio, makes a mess of LLC veil piercing law. It appears that the legal basis put forth by the court in granting a motion to dismiss a veil piercing claim was probably right, but the statement of veil piercing law was not quite there.  

The case is ACKISON SURVEYING, LLC, Plaintiff, v. FOCUS FIBER SOLUTIONS, LLC, et al., Defendants., No. 2:15-CV-2044, 2017 WL 958620, at *1 (S.D. Ohio Mar. 13, 2017).  Here are the parties: the defendant is FTE Networks, Inc. (FTE), which filed a motion to dismiss claiming a failure to state a claim. FTE is the parent company of another defendant, Focus Fiber Solutions, LLC (Focus). The plaintiff, Ackison Surveying, LLC (Ackison) filed  a number of claims against Focus, added an alter ego/veil piercing claim against FTE. Thus, Ackison is, among other things, seeking to pierce the veil of an LLC (Focus). Focus appears to be a Pennsylvania LLC, based on a search here.

Pennsylvania law provides the liability cannot be imposed on a member of an LLC for failing to observe formalities. The law states: 

The failure of a limited liability partnership, limited partnership, limited liability limited partnership, electing partnership or limited liability company to observe formalities relating to the exercise of its powers or management of its activities and affairs is not a ground for imposing liability on a partner, member or manager of the entity for a debt, obligation or other liability of the entity.
15 Pa. Stat. and Consol. Stat. § 8106 (2017). 
 
However, the S.D. Ohio court states that a threshold question of whether an LLC's veil can be pierced includes an assessment of the following factors: 
(1) grossly inadequate capitalization,
(2) failure to observe corporate formalities,
(3) insolvency of the debtor corporation at the time the debt is incurred,
(4) [the parent] holding [itself] out as personally liable for certain corporate obligations,
(5) diversion of funds or other property of the company property [ ],
(6) absence of corporate records, and (7) the fact that the corporation was a mere facade for the operations of the [parent company].
ACKISON SURVEYING, LLC, Plaintiff, v. FOCUS FIBER SOLUTIONS, LLC, et al., Defendants., No. 2:15-CV-2044, 2017 WL 958620, at *3 (S.D. Ohio Mar. 13, 2017) (alterations in original). 
 
The opinion ultimately find that the complaint made only legal conclusions and failed to provide any facts to support the allegations of the LLC as an alter ego of its parent corporation, and further determined that a proposed amended claim was equally lacking.  As such, the court dismissed FTE from the case.  This conclusion appears correct, but it still suggests that, in another case, one could support a veil piercing claim against an LLC by showing that the LLC's "failure to observe corporate formalities," formalities it may have no legal obligation to follow.  
 
This remains my crusade. When courts get cases like this, they should (at a minimum) provide a clear veil piercing law for LLCs that accounts for the differences between LLCs and corporations.  I keep saying it, again and again, and I will keep beating the drum. If state law allows for LLC veil piercing, then fine, but get the law right. LLCs and corporations provide limited liability for their residual interest holders, but they are not the same entity. You Can’t Pierce the Corporate Veil of an LLC Because It Doesn't Have One, but the LLC does have a limited liability veil.  In cases such as these, courts should take the time make the law clearer so that future courts can stop applying the incorrect standards.  And lawyers bringing such cases could help, too, by framing their claims and responses appropriately.  Please.  

March 14, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Appraisal Standard Intellectual "Cage Match": DFC Global Corp Amici Briefs

Prominent corporate governance, corporate finance and economics professors face off in opposing amici briefs filed in DFC Global Corp. v.  Muirfield Value Partners LP, appeal pending before the Delaware Supreme Court.   The Chancery Daily newsletter, described it, in perhaps my favorite phrasing of legal language ever:  "By WWE standards it may be a cage match of flyweight proportions, but by Delaware corporate law standards, a can of cerebral whoopass is now deemed open."   

Point #1: Master Class in Persuasive Legal Writing: Framing the Issue

Reversal Framing: "This appeal raises the question whether, in appraisal litigation challenging the acquisition price of a company, the Court of Chancery should defer to the transaction price when it was reached as a result of an arm’s-length auction process."

vs.

Affirmance Framing: "This appeal raises the question whether, in a judicial appraisal determining the fair value of dissenting stock, the Court of Chancery must automatically award the merger price where the transaction appeared to involve an arm’s length buyer in a public sale."

Point #2:  Summary of Brief Supporting Fair Market Valuation:  Why the Court of Chancery should defer to the deal price in an arm's length auction

  • It would reduce litigation and simply the process.
  • The Chancery Court Judges are ill-equipped for the sophisticated cash-flow analysis (ouch, that's a rough point to make).
  • Appraisal does not properly incentivize the use of arm's length auctions if they are not sufficiently protected/respected.
  • Appraisal seeks the false promise of THE right price, when price in this kind of market (low competition, unique goods) can best be thought of as a range.  The inquiry should be whether the transaction price is within the range of a fair price.  A subset of this argument (and the point of the whole brief) is that the auction process is the best evidence of fair price.
  • Appraisal process is flawed because the court discounted the market price in its final valuation.  The argument is that if the transaction price is not THE right price, then it should not be a factor in coming up with THE right price.
  • Appraisal process is flawed because the final valuation relies upon expert opinions that are created in a litigation vacuum, sealed-off from market pressure of "real" valuations.
  • The volatility in the appraisal marketthe outcome of the litigation and the final pricedistorts the auction process.  Evidence of this is the creation of appraisal closing conditions.

Point #3: Summary of Brief Supporting Appraisal Actions:  Why the Court of Chancery should reject a rule that the transaction price—in an arm's length auction—is conclusive evidence of fair price in appraisal proceedings.

  • Statutory interpretation requires the result.  Delaware Section 262 states that judges will "take into account all factors" in determining appraisal action prices.  To require the deal price to be the "fair" price, eviscerates the statutory language and renders it null.  
    • The Delaware Legislature had an opportunity to revise Section 262and did so in 2015, narrowing the scope of eligible appraisal transactions and remediesbut left intact the "all factors" language.
  • The statutory appraisal remedy is separate from the common law/fiduciary obligations of directors in transactions so a transaction without a conflict of interest and even cured by shareholder vote could still contain fact-specific conditions that would make an appraisal remedy appropriate.
  • There are appropriate judicial resources to handle the appraisal actions because of the expertise of the Court of Chancery, which is buttressed by the ability to appoint a neutral economic expert to assist with valuations and to adopt procedures and standards for expert valuations in appraisal cases.
  • The threat of the appraisal action creates a powerful ex ante benefit to transaction price because it helps bolster and ensure that the transaction price is fair and without challenge.
  • Appraisal actions serve as a proxy for setting a credible reserve in the auction price, which buyers and sellers may be prohibited from doing as a result of their fiduciary duties.
  • Any distortion of the THE market by appraisal actions is a feature, not a bug.  All legal institutions operate along side markets and exert influences, situations that are acceptable with fraud and torts.  Any affect that appraisal actions create have social benefits and are an intended benefit.
  • Let corporations organized/formed in Delaware enjoy the benefits of being a Delaware corporation by giving them full access to the process and expertise of the Delaware judiciary.

Conclusions:

My thinking in the area more closely aligns with the "keep appraisal action full review" camp on the theory--both policy and economic.  Also the language in the supporting/affirmance brief is excellent (they describe the transaction price argument as a judicial straight jacket!).  I must admit, however, that I am sympathetic to the resources and procedural criticisms raised by the reversal brief. That there is no way for some corporate transactions, ex ante, to prevent a full scale appraisal action litigationa process that is costly and time consumingis a hard pill to swallow.  I can imagine the frustration of the lawyers explaining to a BOD that there may be no way to foreclose this outcome.  Although I hesitate to put it in these terms, my ultimate conclusion would require more thinking about whether the benefits of appraisal actions outlined in the affirmance brief outweigh the costs to the judiciary and to the parties as outlined in the reversal brief.  These are all points that I invite readers to weigh in on the comments--especially those with experience litigating these cases.

I also want to note the rather nuanced observation in the affirmance brief about the distinction between statutory standards and common law/fiduciary duty.  This important intellectual distinction about the source of the power and its intent is helpful in appraisal actions, but also in conflict of interest/safe harbor under Delaware law evaluations.

For the professors out there, if anyone covers appraisal actions in an upper-level course or has students writing on the topic-- these two briefs distill the relevant case law and competing theories with considerable force.  

-Anne Tucker

February 8, 2017 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Delaware, Litigation, M&A, Shareholders, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)