Most business people know that if they want to avoid personal liability when they sign a contract on behalf of an LLC, they should use the name of the LLC and their title. A typical example would be:
By: John Smith, Member [For a member-managed LLC]
But what’s the result if language in the contract states that the signing member is personally liable? In Losh Family, LLC v. Kertzman, 155 Wn. App. 458, 228 P.3d 793 (April 12, 2010), the Washington Court of Appeals recently ruled that the language in the contract can overrule the form of signature.
William and Teresa Grover formed Grover International, LLC in 2005 and shortly thereafter acquired a business. In connection with the acquisition they received an assignment of the seller’s real estate lease. Their LLC signed the assignment using a conventional corporate style of signature, as “Grover International, LLC by William Grover member.” Losh Family, LLC, 155 Wn. App. at 461.
So far so good. But the lease assignment said that the lease was assigned to “William and Teresa Grover as individuals, dba Grover International, LLC” (“dba” of course being the customary abbreviation for “doing business as”). Id. The lease assignment in fact referred five different times to the assignee as “William and Teresa Grover as individuals, dba Grover International, LLC.” Id. at 463.
In 2006 the Grovers sold their business, and the new buyer later defaulted on the lease. The owner of the real estate sued the Grovers, the LLC, their seller and their buyer. The trial court ruled on summary judgment that all defendants were liable jointly and severally, including William and Teresa Grover individually.
The Court of Appeals expeditiously determined that the language in the assignment referred to the Grovers personally and that the LLC’s signature did not limit the assignment’s imposition of personal liability on the Grovers. The court referred to the “long established principle that where an agreement contains language binding the individual signer, ‘additional descriptive language added to the signature does not alter the signer’s personal obligation.’” Id. at 464 (quoting Wilson Court Ltd. v. Tony Maroni’s, Inc., 134 Wn.2d 692, 700, 952 P.2d 590 (1998)).
The Losh fact pattern is the sort that lawyers involved in mergers and acquisitions hate to see. Inconsistent agreements tend to be disputed and to yield unpredictable results. The Losh contract was seriously inconsistent, and under one interpretation the Grovers would be personally liable for a lease obligation under a document that they signed only in a representative capacity. And indeed, so ruled the court.
Mr. Grover likely took no consolation from the court’s admonition that if he “did not want to be personally bound on the assignment, he should have insisted on the elimination of the language within the agreement that designated the assignee as ‘William and Teresa Glover as individuals’” (which ignores the balance of the phrase, “dba Grover International, LLC”). Id.
It is puzzling that the Losh court did not analyze the conflicting language in the contract as an ambiguity that would allow the admission of extrinsic evidence. The court ignored the large body of law which recognizes that an ambiguous or contradictory contract may be clarified by the admission of extrinsic evidence to determine the parties’ intent. E.g., Berg v. Hudesman, 115 Wn.2d 657, 801 P.2d 222 (1990).
The court also ignored the fact that the contract’s identification of the parties was not a completely clear statement that personal liability was intended. The contract language did not refer simply to the Grovers individually, but also referred to the Grovers doing business as Grover International, LLC, which at the time was an existing LLC. The phrase “doing business as” is usually used only for situations where a corporation or LLC does business under an alternate name. In Losh, however, the dba referred to an existing and separate entity, not just an alternate name for the Grovers.
The court’s ruling illustrates how simple inconsistencies in a contract quicken the blood of gimlet-eyed litigators and lead to arguable judicial decisions.