Absent a Written Operating Agreement, Withdrawing Member of Kentucky LLC Has No Claim for Value of His Interest
The lawyers’ maxim is, “get it in writing.” Oral agreements can be difficult to prove and often leave unanswered questions. In Chapman v. Regional Radiology Associates, PLLC, 2011 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 251 (Ky. Ct. App. Mar. 25, 2011), the members had no written agreement and not much of an oral agreement. One of the two members withdrew and they couldn’t agree on what the withdrawing LLC member was entitled to.
Background. Dr. Shiben organized Regional Radiology Associates, PLLC in 2000 and was its sole manager and member. In 2001 Dr. Chapman became employed by the LLC, and in 2002 negotiated with Shiben to become a 40% member and tendered a $10,000 check for his initial capital contribution. The check was never cashed and the doctors never executed a written agreement. Nonetheless, on January 1, 2003 the LLC began treating Chapman as a member of the LLC, and did so through the end of 2005. Profits were allocated 40% to Chapman, distributions were made accordingly, and the LLC’s tax returns showed Chapman as a 40% member.
In January 2006 Chapman gave notice that he intended to terminate his employment, and on April 14, 2006 he ceased working for the LLC. Chapman received his salary through the end of his employment, but he also asked for additional cash for his member interest in the LLC.
Trial Court. The trial court awarded Chapman $20,709 for the LLC’s net income allocated to him through April 2006. Chapman didn’t dispute that amount, but he claimed he was also entitled to receive 40% of the value of the LLC as of April 14, 2006. Chapman, 2011 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 251, at *8.
Neither party contested that Chapman was a member of the LLC from January 1, 2003 until April 14, 2006. The Court of Appeals therefore looked to Kentucky’s LLC Act: “Next, we will consider whether under KRS Chapter 275 Dr. Chapman was entitled to any additional payment upon his voluntary withdrawal from RRA.” Chapman, 2011 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 251, at *11-12.
Termination of Employment vs. Member Withdrawal. The court never discussed the difference between termination of a member’s employment by the LLC and the member’s withdrawal as an LLC member. The court simply treated the termination of Chapman’s employment as being equivalent to his withdrawal as a member of the LLC.
Employment and LLC membership are two different statuses. In general one need not be employed by an LLC to be a member of the LLC. It may be that both members implicitly agreed that Chapman’s employment termination constituted a withdrawal as a member from the LLC, but it is puzzling that the court did not address the issue.
Dissociation. After reviewing Sections 275.210 (distributions) and 275.205 (allocations of profits and losses), the court found that Chapman was a member of the LLC from 2003 until April 2006. The court then found that Chapman withdrew from the LLC pursuant to Section 275.280 (Cessation of Membership), as it was then in effect:
(1) A person shall disassociate from the limited liability company and cease to be a member of a limited liability company upon the occurrence of one (1) or more of the following events;
(a) Subject to the provisions of subsection (3) of this section, the member withdraws by voluntary act from the limited liability company[.]
Ky. Rev. Stat. § 275.280.
According to the court, “[t]he statute, however, gives no instruction as to compensation for the withdrawing member.” Chapman, 2011 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 251, at *17. After discussing the manager’s authority under Section 275.165(2), the court concluded that the LLC’s manager had the authority to decide how much the LLC should pay Chapman upon his withdrawal from the LLC. The court found the default rules for allocations of profit and loss under Section 275.205 to be inapplicable to a withdrawing member.
Holding. The court held that Chapman failed to demonstrate that the LLC had a legal obligation to pay him anything for his member interest upon his withdrawal from the LLC. No written agreement ever governed his membership, and no provision of the LLC Act required that he be paid anything for his member interest. Chapman, 2011 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 251, at *20.
Mistaken Analysis. The court’s analysis reflects a fundamental misreading of the Kentucky LLC Act. The court without discussion treated Chapman’s withdrawal as equivalent to giving up his economic rights as a member. But the Act clearly recognizes that one may be a non-member while still holding the economic rights of a member. For example, when a member assigns its member interest, the assignee receives only the right to receive distributions and may not participate in management of the LLC unless a majority in interest of the members consent. Ky. Rev. Stat. §§ 275.255(1), 275.265(1). The assigning member remains a member unless removed by a vote of the other members, notwithstanding that the assignor has no remaining economic rights. Id. These sections of the Act imply that a withdrawing member still has the right to receive distributions.
This point is made even more clearly by Section 275.265(5): “Unless otherwise set forth in the operating agreement, a successor in interest to a member who is disassociated from the limited liability company shall have the rights and obligations of an assignee with respect to the member’s interest.” The court determined that Chapman’s withdrawal was a disassociation under Section 275.280(1)(a). But under Section 275.265(2), any successor in interest to a disassociated member is an assignee and retains the economic rights of the disassociated member. And if a successor in interest to a disassociated member has the former member’s economic rights, certainly the disassociated member retains those economic rights when there is no successor.
Because the statute provides for Chapman’s continued ownership of the economic rights, he would be entitled to ongoing distributions under Section 275.210. Since there was no written operating agreement, this Section requires the members to share in distributions on the basis of the agreed value of their contributions as shown in the records of the LLC. The tax returns and the records of the LLC for 2003 through 2005 showed that the agreed value of the members’ contributions were in the ratio of 40% for Chapman to 60% for Shiben.
There was apparently no agreement between the parties that entitled Chapman to payment for his economic interest in the LLC upon his withdrawal as a member, but the court’s analysis failed to recognize that Chapman had an ongoing right to receive distributions of $40 for every $60 of distributions made to Shiben.