A recent decision of the New York Appellate Division, Gottlieb v. Northriver Trading Co. LLC (Jan. 27, 2009), garnered some controversy when it recognized that members of an LLC may seek an equitable accounting under common law. The New York LLC Law does not explicitly authorize an accounting remedy, and the court’s decision has been characterized by Professor Larry Ribstein as an example of the unpredictability of New York’s LLC law and as a contribution to the “impenetrable murk” of New York’s LLC Law.
The Gottlieb opinion relied on the reasoning of New York’s highest court in Tzolis v. Wolff. The court in Tzolis had to decide whether members of an LLC may bring a derivative suit on the LLC’s behalf, even though there were no provisions authorizing or governing derivative suites in New York’s LLC Law. The Tzolis court reasoned by analogy to both corporations and limited partnerships. The New York courts had in the past found an equitable right to a derivative suit for shareholders of a corporation and for limited partners in a limited partnership. In neither of those prior cases, at the times of their holdings, was there a statutory authorization of derivative suits for shareholders or limited partners.
Two recent cases from other states have dealt with this issue, both handed down just a month after publication of the New York court’s opinion in Gottlieb. One state had statutory language explicitly authorizing an accounting, one did not. Both upheld the availability of an accounting.
In February the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded in Perkins v. Brown that the trial court erred when it failed to order an accounting of an LLC’s finances in connection with the dissolution of the two-member LLC. Without discussing or analyzing whether Indiana’s LLC Act authorizes an accounting, the court simply concluded that an accounting was necessary to determine the LLC’s creditors and expenses and whether any improper distributions had been made. Indiana’s LLC Act does not expressly authorize an accounting, but it does provide that “[a] court may enforce an operating agreement by injunction or by granting other relief that the court in its discretion determines to be fair and appropriate in the circumstances.” Section 23-18-4-7(a). That section was also not discussed by the court.
In another February decision, the South Carolina Supreme Court recognized that its courts have “broad judicial discretion in fashioning remedies in actions by a member of an LLC against the LLC and/or other members,” including the remedy of an accounting. Historic Charleston Holdings, LLC v. Mallon. The court proceeded to reverse the trial court’s order for an accounting, but only because “a full financial accounting would unnecessarily prolong this otherwise simple matter.” The court’s conclusion about the authority for an accounting was based on South Carolina’s LLC Act. South Carolina has enacted the ULLCA, and Section 33-44-410(a)of South Carolina’s Act states that “[a] member or manager may maintain an action against a limited liability company or another member or manager for legal or equitable relief, with or without an accounting as to the company’s business . . . .”
In contrast to the explicit ULLCA language, the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (RULLCA), currently recommended by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, states that “[u]nless displaced by particular provisions of this Act, the principles of law and equity supplement this Act.” Section 107. Many courts would likely see that as an implicit statutory approval of the accounting remedy for LLCs. RULLCA has been adopted by Idaho and Iowa.
The right to seek an accounting has long been recognized by U.S. courts as an equitable remedy with origins in England’s Chancery Courts. 1 Dan B. Dobbs, Law of Remedies 609-14 (2d ed. 1993). An accounting is generally available when there is a claim of breach of fiduciary duty or other wrongdoing, and is often used in partnership dissolution cases.
Washington, the state where I practice, danced around the issue of an LLC accounting in 2007, but concluded that it need not reach that issue on the facts of the case. Noble v. A&R Envtl. Services, LLC, 140 Wn. App. 29, 164 P.3d 519 (2007). One party appealed the trial Court’s refusal to order an accounting. The Court of Appeals decided that the trial court had not made sufficient findings of fact, remanded the case for adequate findings, and concluded that it need not reach the accounting argument.
The three opinions handed down this year (in New York, Indiana and South Carolina) all recognized that on request of a member of an LLC, an accounting may be ordered in appropriate situations. In none of the three was an accounting to be automatically granted – the analysis is fact-specific and will likely depend on whether there was fraud, breach of fiduciary duty or other wrongdoing, and whether the facts are complex enough to warrant the accounting process. The courts find the authority either in their LLC statute (explicitly or implicitly), by analogy to partnership and corporate law, or under general principles of equity.
These three opinions seem to reflect an unspoken reluctance to rule out the accounting remedy unless the applicable LLC Act expressly bars it, and I’m not aware of any LLC Act that does so. It seems likely that in the absence of such a statutory prohibition, most courts, when first presented with the issue and on request of a member of an LLC, will order an accounting in appropriate situations.