Two weeks ago the Colorado Court of Appeals held in Sheffield Services Co. v. Trowbridge, No. 08CA0059, 2009 WL 147703 (Colo. App. May 28, 2009), that a manager of a limited liability company could be held personally liable for the LLC’s breach of contract even though the manager was not a member. The Colorado LLC Act provides that when a party seeks to hold a member of an LLC liable for the “improper actions” of the LLC, the court is to apply the Colorado law applicable to piercing the veil of a corporation. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 7-80-107(1). The statute does not mention LLC managers, but the court found that the statute did not preclude applying corporate veil-piercing principles to managers of LLCs as well as to members.
The vast majority of corporate veil-piercing cases involve claims against shareholders, but Colorado has previously extended the corporate veil-piercing doctrine from shareholders to directors. LaFond v. Basham, 683 P.2d 367 (Colo. App. 1984). In LaFond the defendant was not a shareholder, but he was a director, president and general manager; dictated all policy and activity on the part of the corporations; “clearly dominated both his wife and son, the only stockholders, insofar as . . . corporate matters were concerned”; and used corporate assets for his personal gain. Id. at 369, 370. The LaFond court held that on those facts, equity would not stand aside and allow valid creditors’ claims to be defeated by application of the corporate shield.
The Sheffield court extended the LaFond rule to LLC managers, adopting the reasoning of other courts that “LLC managers are similar to corporate officers or directors” and that LLCs should be treated like corporations when considering whether to disregard the legal entity. 2009 WL 1477003, at *6. The court applied to LLC managers the same rules applied to corporations: to pierce the LLC veil, the LLC must be the manager’s alter ego, to recognize the separate existence of the LLC would perpetrate a fraud or defeat a rightful claim, and to pierce the veil would lead to an equitable result.
The first condition for piercing the veil is that the LLC be the “alter ego” of the manager or member. In Sheffield the appeal was on a summary judgment ruling, so the description of the facts was sketchy. But the Sheffield court did describe the various factors relevant to whether a corporation would be viewed as the alter ego of a shareholder, and implied that they would apply to an LLC:
· The entity is operated as a distinct business entity.
· Assets and funds are commingled.
· Adequate corporate records are maintained.
· The nature and form of the entity’s ownership and control facilitate misuse by an insider.
· The business is thinly capitalized.
· The entity is used as a “mere shell.”
· Legal formalities are disregarded.
· Funds or assets of the entity are used for noncorporate purposes.
2009 WL 1477003, at *5.
The Colorado LLC Act, however, removes compliance with legal formalities from the alter ego analysis for LLCs:
For purposes of this section, the failure of a limited liability company to observe the formalities or requirements relating to the management of its business and affairs is not in itself a ground for imposing personal liability on the members for liabilities of the limited liability company.
Colo. Rev. Stat. § 7-80-107(2). The Sheffield court did not discuss this section’s applicability to an alter ego analysis, but this provision should provide some comfort for members and managers of LLCs that fail to observe all of the applicable “formalities or requirements.” Nonetheless, good business practice and a prudent approach to risk management suggest that Section 7-80-107(2) should not be relied on when establishing and operating an LLC. Practices such as keeping separate bank accounts and accounting records, properly forming and maintaining the LLC under the applicable state law, keeping records of meetings of members and managers, and properly signing contracts in the name of the LLC, are not difficult and should be used at all times.