Last week the Delaware Supreme Court ruled on the appeal of CML V, LLC v. Bax, in which the Court of Chancery held last year that a creditor of an insolvent LLC does not have standing to maintain a derivative suit in the name of the LLC against its managers. I wrote about that surprising result here – surprising because it is inconsistent with the corporate rule.
Delaware’s Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Chancery decision, holding that “Section 18-1002 of the LLC Act, by its plain language, limits LLC derivative standing to ‘member[s]’ or ‘assignee[s],’ and thereby denies derivative standing to LLC creditors.” CML V, LLC v. Bax, No. 735,2010, 2011 Del. LEXIS 480, at *24 (Del. Sept. 2, 2011) (brackets in the original).
The Court’s conclusion turned on its analysis of Sections 18-1001 and 18-1002 of the Delaware LLC Act:
§ 18-1001. Right to bring action. A member or an assignee of a limited liability company interest may bring an action in the Court of Chancery in the right of a limited liability company to recover a judgment in its favor if managers or members with authority to do so have refused to bring the action or if an effort to cause those managers or members to bring the action is not likely to succeed.
§ 18-1002. Proper plaintiff. In a derivative action, the plaintiff must be a member or an assignee of a limited liability company interest at the time of bringing the action and:
(1) At the time of the transaction of which the plaintiff complains; or
(2) The plaintiff’s status as a member or an assignee of a limited liability company interest had devolved upon the plaintiff by operation of law or pursuant to the terms of a limited liability company agreement from a person who was a member or an assignee of a limited liability company interest at the time of the transaction.
The Court characterized Section 18-1001 as creating a statutory right, and Section 18-1002 as requiring that the plaintiff be an LLC member or an assignee of a member. The Court emphasized the mandatory language in Section 18-1002: “must be a member or assignee,” and found Sections 18-1002 and 18-1002 to be unambiguous. CML, 2011 Del. LEXIS 480, at *11.
CML argued that (i) Section 18-1001 authorizes derivative standing to members or assignees but is not by its language exclusive, (ii) Section 18-1002 addresses only the chronology of such a member’s or assignee’s status, and (iii) when the two sections are read together they are similar in their effect to the comparable provisions of the Delaware General Corporation Law, Del. Code Ann. tit. 8, § 327, which has long been interpreted as allowing derivative standing for creditors of insolvent corporations.
CML’s position is buttressed by what the Court of Chancery characterized as an awkward fact:
[V]irtually no one has construed the derivative standing provisions as barring creditors of an insolvent LLC from filing suit. Particularly in light of Production Resources and Gheewalla, an exclusive reading of Section 18-1002 would cause LLC derivative actions to differ markedly from their corporate cousins. If practitioners widely understood the derivative standing provisions to have this effect, one would expect treatises, articles, and commentaries to call attention to that fact. … [O]ne also would expect courts to have encountered parties raising the statutory provisions as a defense. Yet the universe of authorities favoring the no-standing position consists of (i) a single sentence at the end of a footnote in one Delaware treatise, see Symonds & O’Toole, supra, § 9.09, at 9-61 n.270, and (ii) abbreviated treatment in an unreported district court decision, see Magten, 2007 WL 129003, at *3.
Many commentators, by contrast, have assumed that creditors of an insolvent LLC can sue derivatively. In light of this assumption, they have debated vigorously whether an LLC agreement can limit the fiduciary duties that the creditors would invoke. That question never arises if creditors lack standing to sue under Section 18-1002.
CML V, LLC v. Bax, No. 5373-VCL, 2010 Del. Ch. LEXIS 220, at *12-13 (Del. Ch. Nov. 3, 2010) (footnote omitted).
This widespread reading of Sections 18-1001 and 18-1002 significantly undercuts the Court’s assertion that these two sections are unambiguous.
Nonetheless, the Court has spoken and the rule is now clear, at least until changed by legislative action. Given the gulf between the Court’s reading of the statute and the widespread past interpretations by commentators and practicing lawyers, it would not be surprising to see legislative action on this point. As the Court said, “The General Assembly is well suited to make that policy choice and we must honor that choice.” CML, 2011 Del. LEXIS 480, at *13.
The Colorado Court of Appeals held last month that creditors as a group have standing to sue members of an LLC who receive distributions knowing that the distributions were made when the LLC was insolvent. Colborne Corp. v. Weinstein, No. 09CA0724, 2010 Colo. App. LEXIS 58 (Colo. App. Jan. 21, 2010).
The Colorado LLC Act bars LLCs from making distributions to members if the LLC’s liabilities would exceed its assets after the distribution. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 7-80-606(1). The Act also provides that a member who receives a distribution in violation of the rule, with knowledge of the violation at the time of the distribution, is liable to the LLC to return the amount of the distribution. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 7-80-606(2).
The Act only speaks of the member’s liability to the LLC – it says nothing about rights of the LLC’s creditors. Can an LLC’s creditor sue a member directly for knowingly receiving an improper distribution under Section 606 of the Act? That was the question in Colborne.
The Court of Appeals pointed out that a similar provision in the Colorado Business Corporation Act (CBCA) had been interpreted to give creditors standing to directly sue a corporation’s directors. See Paratransit Risk Retention Group Ins. Co. v. Kamins, 160 P.3d 307 (Colo. App. 2007). The CBCA holds corporate directors liable to the corporation for authorizing distributions if the corporation would be insolvent after the distribution. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 7-108-403. The Paratransit court held that the corporate creditors had standing to sue the directors directly for authorizing improper distributions.
The Colborne court found the reasons for extending standing to creditors to be as applicable to LLCs as they were to corporations. The purpose of Section 606 is to protect the LLC’s creditors, said the court, and to not allow creditors to sue members directly would “substantially undercut the purpose of a statute enacted to protect creditors from self-dealing managers and members.” Colborne, 2010 Colo. App. LEXIS, at *9.
The Court of Appeals had previously held that managers of an insolvent LLC owe the LLC’s creditors a limited fiduciary duty to abstain from favoring their own interests over those of the creditors. Sheffield Servs. Co. v. Trowbridge, 211 P.3d 714 (Colo. App. 2009). The Colborne court applied the Sheffield rule and held that Colborne Corp.’s complaint alleged sufficient facts to state a claim, even though the complaint did not explicitly allege that the managers favored their interests over Colborne’s.
The court held in conclusion that creditors of an insolvent LLC (a) have standing as a group to sue members of the LLC for knowingly receiving unlawful distributions, under Section 7-80-606 of Colorado’s LLC Act, and (b) are owed a limited fiduciary duty by the LLC’s managers to abstain from favoring their own interests over those of the creditors.
Many state LLC statutes have provisions similar to Section 606(2) of the Colorado Act. E.g., Del. Code Ann. tit. 6, § 18-607; Wash. Rev. Code § 25.15.235. But neither Delaware nor Washington has case law interpreting whether an LLC creditor has standing to sue a member for knowingly receiving an unlawful distribution, i.e., when the LLC was insolvent.
Colborne is interesting because the court found a remedy for LLC creditors based on the statute, even though the language of the statute only obligates the members to return unlawful distributions to the LLC. Section 606 says nothing about creating a cause of action for the LLC’s creditors. The court relied heavily on Section 606’s perceived policy of protecting creditors, and analogized to the similar result on the corporate side. Still, one might have thought that if the Colorado legislature wanted to allow creditors of an LLC to sue members directly for the return of distributions, it could have said so.