Members of an LLC are at loggerheads and one sues the other. The plaintiff decides that the remedies in the state LLC Act are inadequate. The plaintiff instead asks the court for damages under the common law, for repudiation of the LLC’s operating agreement and for breach of contract rather than for dissolution and an accounting under the LLC Act. That was the situation in OLP, L.L.C. v. Burningham, 2009 UT 75, 2009 WL 4406148 (Utah Dec. 4, 2009). The defendant in turn claimed that the plaintiff’s claims for repudiation and breach of contract were not allowable because the remedies under Utah’s LLC Act are exclusive. The court found otherwise and allowed the plaintiff’s contract claims.
Richard Wilson and Wayne Burningham formed OLP, L.L.C. as a Utah limited liability company, to purchase and operate an anti-reflective optical lens coating machine. They agreed to share equal control and ownership of OLP, and initially contributed equal amounts of capital. They agreed that Intermountain Coatings, a company owned by Burningham, would use the lens coating machine.
Acrimony between Wilson and Burningham soon reared its ugly head. They disagreed over how profits should be divided between OLP and Intermountain Coatings, and over whether the funds provided by Intermountain Coatings to OLP should be classified as a loan or as a capital contribution from Burningham.
Wilson eventually filed suit against Burningham and Intermountain Coatings for breach of fiduciary duty, repudiation of the contract, and breach of contract, and for an accounting of OLP’s expenses, revenues, profits, and losses. Burningham counterclaimed for dissolution of OLP. Burningham argued that in winding up OLP’s business, the members’ ownership interests should be determined and distributed according to each member’s capital account as provided in the LLC Act. Burningham’s theory was that Wilson’s claims should be resolved under the LLC Act’s dissolution procedures because those procedures are the exclusive remedy for claims between members.
The court pointed out that the LLC Act does not contain any explicit authorization or denial of common law claims, and examined a number of provisions in the LLC Act which imply that common law claims between members continue to apply. The court found that analogous partnership law allows common law claims between partners, without limiting remedies to equitable remedies. The court held that Utah’s LLC Act does not preclude common law claims between LLC members, such as claims for breach of contract, and that the remedies for such claims include equitable relief such as an accounting as well as damages.
The court rejected Burningham’s argument that dissolution is the sole remedy for wrongdoing between the members as being inconsistent with the jury’s finding that he had repudiated and abandoned the operating agreement. As the court said: “When one party effectively extinguishes a business agreement, whether it be a partnership agreement or a limited liability agreement, that party cannot rely on the agreement (or the default provisions of the LLC Act that supplement the agreement) to protect itself from the harm its actions have occasioned.” OLP, 2009 UT 75, ¶ 21.
The OLP decision is consistent with the approach of many courts to the rights and remedies of LLC members. For example, earlier this year I blogged on a New York decision which found that LLC members have a common law right to an equitable accounting, even though not explicitly authorized in the statute, here. I also described Idaho’s first case on fiduciary duties of LLC members, which found that fiduciary duties existed between managing members even though no such right was described in Idaho’s LLC Act, here. Courts generally seem to be reluctant to rule out common law rights of recovery or to exclude equitable remedies, in the absence of an explicit bar in their state’s LLC Act.