Last month New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, affirmed a 2010 ruling by the Appellate Division that LLC promoters were fiduciaries of the investors they solicited, prior to the LLC’s formation, to become members. Roni LLC v. Arfa, 2011 WL 6338906 (N.Y. Dec. 20, 2011). The top court’s ruling was a surprisingly short memorandum opinion, given the significance of the issue presented.

The Appellate Division had applied the corporate rule on pre-formation activities to LLCs. “It is well settled that both before and after a corporation comes into existence, its promoter acts as the fiduciary of that corporation and its present and anticipated shareholders…. By extension, the organizer of a limited liability company is a fiduciary of the investors it solicits to become members.” Roni LLC v. Arfa, 74 A.D.3d 442, 444 (N.Y. App. Div. 2010). I wrote about the Appellate Division’s ruling here, and about last month’s oral argument before the Court of Appeals, here.

The Appellate Division’s ruling had also garnered attention from New York lawyer Peter Mahler, here and here, and from the late Professor Larry Ribstein, who passed away recently, here. Professor Ribstein also filed an amicus brief on the case with the Court of Appeals. The major criticisms of the 2010 ruling have been that the rule of the old corporate cases is no longer necessary because of the disclosure requirements of the federal and state securities laws, and that the corporate rule should not be applied to LLCs because their contractual nature distinguishes them from corporations.

The Court of Appeals put off the question, however, whether mere status as a pre-formation LLC promoter is adequate to create a fiduciary relationship. “Based on the foregoing analysis, we need not decide the question of whether the promoter defendants’ status as organizers of the limited liability companies, standing alone, was sufficient to allege a fiduciary relationship.” Roni LLC v. Arfa, 2011 WL 6338906, at *4 n.2.

The court instead began by citing prior case law to the effect that a fiduciary relationship exists “when confidence is reposed on one side and there is resulting superiority and influence on the other,” id. at *2. The court then reviewed the complaint’s allegations that (1) the promoters planned the business venture, organized the LLC, and controlled the invested funds; (2) the promoters were in the best position to disclose material facts to the investors; (3) the promoters represented to the foreign investors that they had particular experience and expertise in the New York real estate market; and (4) the promoters played upon the cultural identities and friendship of the investors. The court found that the complaint’s allegations showed confidence by the investors and resulting superiority and influence by the promoters, and therefore adequately pled a fiduciary relationship. Id. at *3.

The Court of Appeals ignored the Appellate Division’s holding that the complaint’s allegations are inadequate to establish a fiduciary relationship, which suggests that the Court of Appeals went out of its way to affirm without ruling on the “LLC-promoter-status-equals-a-fiduciary” issue. But if so, it’s slightly puzzling that the court also saw no distinction between LLCs and corporations for the issues in this case:

Certainly there are differences between limited liability companies and traditional corporations, but the distinctions are not relevant to the allegations in this case: a potential exists regardless of corporate form for “conscienceless promoters [to] accumulate property at a low price under a well-devised scheme to unload it upon others at a high price.

Id. at *4 n.1.

Although the court’s opinion leaves open the “LLC-promoter-status-equals-fiduciary” issue, I suspect that most plaintiff’s attorneys will conclude that the court left them with enough to work with when pleading pre-formation fiduciary duty claims against LLC promoters. For one thing, the first three of the four factual points in Roni referred to by the court and summarized above are likely to apply to most promoter situations.