The Idaho Supreme Court has again examined the fiduciary duties of LLC members, in High Valley Concrete, L.L.C. v. Sargent, 2010 WL 2681188 (Idaho July 8, 2010). Last year the Idaho Supreme Court analyzed fiduciary duties between LLC members in Bushi v. Sage Health Care, PLLC, which I discussed here. In Bushi the court concluded that managing members of an LLC owe each other fiduciary duties.
In High Valley the LLC’s manager claimed that the sole member owed a fiduciary duty to the manager. High Valley was organized by Cary Sargent and Doyle Beck as an Idaho LLC. They initially planned for Beck to have a 51% interest and Sargent to have a 49% interest in the company. Ownership certificates for both were drawn up and signed, and each made his initial contribution to the LLC. Beck then requested that all of the LLC units be issued to him so that he could have the tax losses until the company became profitable – “then we’ll clear up - we’ll change the paperwork back.” High Valley, 2010 WL 2681188 at *1. Sargent agreed to the change, so Beck became the sole member and Sargent the manager.
Sargent was later fired, and the LLC sued Sargent for conversion, fraud, and breach of fiduciary duty. Sargent, the manager, in turn sued Beck, the sole member, for breach of fiduciary duty. Sargent claimed that he was damaged by the loss of his contributions to High Valley. At trial the LLC was awarded judgment on its claims against Sargent, and Sargent was awarded judgment on his fiduciary duty claim against Beck. Beck appealed.
The court began by noting that fiduciary relationships usually involve one party placing property or authority in the hands of another, or being authorized to act on behalf of the other. Id. at *4. The court described a fiduciary as one who is in a superior position to the other, where the other reposes special trust and confidence in the fiduciary. Examples include partners, principal and agent, attorney and client, and the executor and beneficiary of an estate. Id. at *5. Arm’s-length business transactions, standing alone, do not give rise to a fiduciary relationship.
The court had previously held in Bushi that LLC managing members owe each other fiduciary duties. But the High Valley court found that Sargent was not a member. Sargent had the opportunity to obtain a membership interest at the time of the LLC’s formation, but instead he allowed Beck to become the LLC’s only member. Bushi was therefore not applicable.
None of the other indicia of a fiduciary relationship were present. There was no indication that Sargent had any reason to believe that Beck was acting in Sargent’s interest. And although Beck had discussed reinstating Sargent’s 49%, Sargent testified that Beck was not holding Sargent’s 49% for him. Finding none of the control, property transfer, or “superior position” attributes of a fiduciary relationship to be present, the court held that no fiduciary relationship existed.
What is novel about this case is the role reversal. Usually members raise fiduciary duty claims against managers, not the other way round, as in High Valley. The managers, after all, are the ones in control of the LLC. It’s that control of the other party’s assets or business that lies at the heart of most fiduciary relationships.
It’s unclear from the court’s opinion what was the basis of the jury’s finding of a breach of fiduciary duty by Beck. The jury may have believed that Beck’s initial statements about later re-establishing Sargent’s 49% amounted to a sort of trust arrangement, a promise to hold the 49% for Sargent and to later restore the 49% to him. But the Idaho Supreme Court relied on the following bit of Sargent’s testimony:
Q. Did you understand that Beck was going to hold your 49 percent for you?
A. No. I understood that I – that the ownership would remain the same, that he was just doing it for his personal tax purposes or his business’ tax purposes.
Id. at *1. That “no” answer appears to have torpedoed Sargent’s case. I suspect that with further questioning by his counsel, Sargent could have made clear that there was more to the arrangement than his brief answer indicated. But that’s the thing about trial testimony – you don’t get a second crack at it after the trial is over.
LLC members have the right to receive allocations of profits, losses, and distributions (economic rights) and to participate in the LLC’s management. The specifics are determined by the state LLC statute and the LLC agreement. See, e.g., Del. Code ann. tit. 6, §§ 18-503, 18-504, 18-402. The member can also assign its interest in the LLC, unless the LLC agreement provides otherwise. Id. § 18-702. But even if an LLC member assigns its entire interest in the LLC to a third party, the assignee will not necessarily have all the rights of the assignor.
An assignee of an LLC interest will have the economic rights of the assigning member, but the assignee will not have the right to participate in the management of the LLC or to exercise any rights or powers of a member (other than the economic rights) unless the LLC agreement so provides. That is the rule in Delaware and in most other states. See, e.g., id.; Wash. Rev. Code § 25.15.250.
In Rowe v. Voyager HospiceCare Holdings, LLC, 231 P. 3d 1085, No. 101,661, Kan. App. Unpub. LEXIS 452 (Kan. Ct. App. June 18, 2010) (unpublished, mem., per curiam), the Kansas Court of Appeals dealt with a challenge to the validity of an assignment of a member’s interest in a Delaware LLC. Mark Rowe assigned all of his LLC member interest to his wife. The LLC refused to recognize the transfer because it did not consent to Rowe’s wife becoming a member, so Rowe filed a lawsuit for a declaration that he was entitled to make the transfer.
The court noted that Delaware law applied, although the opinion never discusses the Delaware LLC Act. The court treated the dispute as one purely of contract interpretation. Because the Delaware Act’s default rules on assignment of LLC interests can all be overridden by the terms of the LLC agreement, the ruling would have been unchanged even if the court had reviewed and analyzed the Act’s provisions.
Rowe’s LLC agreement barred members from assigning or transferring their interests in the LLC without the prior consent of the LLC’s Board, except for transfers within a Family Group. Rowe’s transfer to his wife was within his Family Group and his wife had agreed in writing to be bound by the LLC agreement, as it required, so the court found that the assignment was permitted by the LLC agreement.
The LLC agreement also provided that an assignee “shall become a substituted Member entitled to all the rights of a Member if and only if the assignor gives the assignee such right and the Board has granted its prior written consent to such assignment and substitution.” The court found the requirement of Board approval to admit the transferee as a substituted member to be a separate requirement that applied even for transfers within a Family Group. Since the Board had not approved of Rowe’s assignment to his wife, she did not become a substituted member. The transfer of the economic rights of Rowe’s LLC interest was valid but did not result in his wife being admitted as a member and having the governance and other rights of a member.
The Court of Appeals concluded by affirming the trial court, holding that Rowe’s assignment of his interest in the LLC was not barred by the LLC agreement, but that his wife only succeeded to the economic rights and was not admitted as a member.
It is an odd thing, this split between economic rights on the one hand and voting, management, and other rights on the other hand. Shares of stock are not treated that way – the buyer of a share will automatically be able to vote the share. Shares of stock are presumed to be fully alienable. Corporate articles or bylaws may limit the transferability of stock, but that is uncommon.
Of course an LLC agreement could make the member interests freely transferrable, including management and voting rights, but that is rarely done. Although courts often view LLCs as similar to corporations, in this one respect the partnership heritage of LLCs looms large. In partnerships the presumption historically was that partnerships were close relationships, where partners pick their co-partners and control the admission of new partners.
That approach is reflected in the state LLC statutes. In fact, the first LLC statute for many states was based on the state’s existing limited partnership statute. I know from lawyers who were involved in the process that that was true in the case of the Washington LLC Act, RCW Chapter 25.15.
Implied Duty of Good Faith and Fair Dealing Does Not Impose a Confidentiality Obligation on Delaware LLC Members
Many limited liability company agreements do not include confidentiality provisions. That may be because the company expects to have agreements with its employees and consultants that include confidentiality obligations. Or it may be that the parties and their lawyers simply don’t address it in the formation of the LLC. In any event, members who invest in an LLC but don’t work for it are in many cases bound only by an LLC agreement with no confidentiality restrictions.
LLC managers are sometimes surprised to discover that their LLC agreement does not obligate the company’s members to hold the LLC’s information in confidence. This may become an issue when there is a dispute with a member and the member requests information from the company. Many state LLC statutes give members the right to obtain certain records and information from the LLC, and the state acts don’t usually require that the member keep the information confidential. E.g., Del. Code Ann. tit. 6, § 305; Wash. Rev. Code § 25.15.135.
A canny LLC manager might logically ask, “Isn’t there any sort ofimplied obligation that the member keep company information confidential?” Many states imply a duty of good faith and fair dealing in contracts, either by statute or as part of the state’s common law. E.g., Del. Code Ann. tit. 6, § 18-1101(e) ( limited liability company agreement may not limit or eliminate liability for any act or omission that constitutes a bad faith violation of the implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing); Badgett v. Sec. State Bank, 116 Wn.2d 563, 569, 807 P.2d 356 (1991) (there is in every contract an implied duty of good faith and fair dealing).
Earlier this year the Delaware Court of Chancery dealt with a claim that the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing imposed confidentiality obligations on an LLC member. Kuroda v. SPJS Holdings, L.L.C., No. 4030-CC, 2010 Del. Ch. LEXIS 57 (Del. Ch. Mar. 16, 2010). The case was complex. As the court said:
This is round two of a bout between sophisticated, experienced parties who have woven a complex web of overlapping contracts, agreements, and duties that the Court must now untangle and interpret in order to make sense of who among these sophisticated parties owes whom what. Plaintiff seeks money he alleges defendants owe to him pursuant to a limited liability company agreement.
The counterclaims include misappropriation of trade secrets, breach of fiduciary duty, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and breach of contract.
Kuroda, 2010 Del. Ch. LEXIS 57, at *1, 2.
Kuroda provided consulting services to an investment firm LLC in which he was a non-managing member. He later left the company, started a competing investment firm, and allegedly used investor lists and market strategies from the first company in his own business. Francis Pileggi has provided a compete synopsis of the case here, and Larry Ribstein has commented on the court’s treatment of the fiduciary duty elements of the case here.
Kuroda was a party to a consulting agreement with the LLC containing confidentiality provisions. The defendants, however, did not base their trade secret misappropriation claim on the consulting agreement because it would have required arbitration in Japan. The defendants instead argued that the LLC agreement’s implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing imposed a confidentiality obligation on Kuroda.
The court described the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing as inhering in every contract, and requiring a contract party to refrain from arbitrary or unreasonable conduct that would prevent the other party to the contract from receiving the “fruits of the bargain.” Kuroda, 2010 Del. Ch. LEXIS 57, at *39. The court noted that the implied covenant does not constitute a free-floating duty on contracting parties, but instead is used to ensure that the parties’ reasonable expectations are fulfilled. The implied covenant has a narrow purpose and is therefore only rarely invoked successfully. Kuroda, 2010 Del. Ch. LEXIS 57, at *39, 40.
The court refused to invoke the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing to create a confidentiality obligation in the LLC agreement. Noting that the defendants used confidentiality provisions in other documents related to the LLC, but not in the LLC agreement itself, the court said “any use of the implied covenant to insert a contractual duty of confidentiality into the LLC Agreement would be an override of the express terms of that agreement.” Kuroda, 2010 Del. Ch. LEXIS 57, at *40, 41.
An LLC manager seeking to prevent a member from disclosing or using the LLC’s information might wonder whether state trade secret law would impose a duty of confidentiality on the member. In most states the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (USTA) will apply. (According to the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, 47 states have adopted the USTA.)
Business people often think that any private or semi-private information about an LLC, its members or its business is legally protected. The USTA does not reach that far, however. For there to be an actionable misappropriation under the USTA, the member must have acquired the information by improper means, or acquired the information under circumstances giving rise to a duty to maintain its secrecy or limit its use. Del. Code Ann. tit. 6, § 2001. A non-managing LLC member may have been legitimately exposed to the LLC’s information, or may have obtained the information from the LLC by making a request under the state statute, and without a contractual commitment there will not be a duty. The result is different if the member is a manager, because then the manager’s fiduciary obligations will create a duty to not disclose the LLC’s information.
Even if the member is a managing member, not all LLC information will be a protectable trade secret. To be a trade secret under the USTA, the information must derive independent economic value from not being generally known to, and not being readily ascertainable by proper means by, other persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use. It must also be the subject of efforts that are reasonable under the circumstance to maintain its secrecy. Id.
So, trade secret law may not protect the LLC’s information unless the members have a contractual obligation not to disclose or use the information. And the Kuroda case underscores the need for express confidentiality provisions in the LLC agreement. Lawyers who assist clients in the formation of LLCs should consider adding confidentiality provisions to their LLC checklists and form agreements.