New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, held last month that the doctrine of de facto corporations applies to LLCs. In re Hausman, No. 08854, 2009 NY LEXIS 4145 (Dec. 1, 2009). “De facto corporations” is an equitable doctrine that can be applicable when founders have attempted to form a corporation but failed to fully comply with the statutory requirements. The New York court is apparently the first appellate court in the nation to resolve this issue (other than the Fifth Circuit in Western Sec. Corp., 303 F. App'x 173 (5th Cir. 2008), an opinion that the Fifth Circuit has determined should not be published and which for most purposes is not precedent.)
It sometimes happens that founders of a corporation or LLC to enter into contracts, incur debts or take other actions on behalf of the entity before its formation. But if an agent enters into a contract on behalf of a non-existent entity, under agency law the other party to the contract will usually be able to hold the agent personally liable. The de facto corporation doctrine can permit judicial recognition of the entity’s existence, thereby avoiding personal liability of the agent.
In most states, including New York, an LLC begins to exist when its articles of organization or certificate of formation are filed with the appropriate state agency. E.g., N.Y. Ltd. Liab. Co. Law § 203. But occasionally founders jump the gun and act on behalf of the LLC before the filing is made, sometimes by mistake and sometimes knowing that the articles were not yet filed.
When creditors later claim that the founders are personally liable for contracts entered into before the LLC existed, the founders may defend on the grounds that a de facto corporation existed. There are also other situations, such as in Hausman, where the effectiveness of a conveyance or some other action will depend on whether the LLC existed at the time of the action, and the de facto corporation doctrine may then come into play.
Hausman was a probate proceeding. Lena Hausman’s will left real estate to her son and daughter and to the children of two predeceased sons. Before her death, the son and daughter executed articles of organization and prepared an operating agreement for a New York LLC. Lena Hausman then deeded the real estate to the son and daughter’s LLC, but the articles of organization for the new LLC were not filed with the New York Department of State until 14 days later.
Lena Hausman died seven months later and her will was admitted to probate. In the probate proceedings, the children of the predeceased sons claimed that the real estate should pass by will because Lena’s deed did not convey the real estate to a valid LLC. They pointed out that the LLC did not exist at the time of the deed. The probate court concluded that the deed to the LLC was valid because the LLC was a de facto corporation when the deed was executed.
The Court of Appeals held that the de facto corporation doctrine is applicable to LLCs. “The statutory schemes of the Business Corporation Law and the Limited Liability Company Law are very similar, and we see no principled reason why the de facto corporation doctrine should not apply to both corporations and limited liability companies.” Hausman at *3. The court cited to no other authority, but implicitly recognized that the equitable considerations which support the doctrine for corporations apply to LLCs as well.
The Court of Appeals pointed out that the de facto corporation doctrine requires (1) a law under which the entity might be formed, (2) an attempt to form the entity, and (3) an exercise of the entity’s powers thereafter. Under the facts in Hausman, the court concluded that the second prong was not satisfied¾even though the doctrine was applicable, no de facto LLC existed because there had been no attempt to file the articles of organization until weeks after the deed conveying the real estate was executed.
It is worth noting that many other states have abolished the doctrine of de facto corporations. See, e.g., Equipto Div. Aurora Equip. Co. v. Yarmouth, 134 Wn.2d 356, 367, 950 P.2d 451 (1998). Many of those states have adopted variations of the Model Business Corporation Act, which is intended to abolish the de facto corporation doctrine. See Model Bus. Corp. Act §§ 2.03, 2.04 (2008). Presumably the states that have abolished the de facto corporation doctrine would not apply it to LLCs.