Washington LLC Member Files Bankruptcy - Court Reinstates His Membership Rights

Charles McSwain, a 53% member of Hawks Prairie Casino, LLC, a Washington LLC, filed a voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in 2007. Hawks Prairie operates a gambling casino in Thurston County, Washington.

Background. The President of Hawks Prairie, Tryna Norberg, knew of McSwain’s bankruptcy filing and continued to treat him as a voting member of the LLC until early 2009, when McSwain called on her to resign and threatened to call a meeting to appoint a new President. Shortly thereafter Hawks Prairie informed McSwain that he was dissociated from the LLC, and after that he received no further member communications from the LLC.

Several months later McSwain filed his plan of reorganization. The plan provided that upon its confirmation by the court, all of McSwain’s rights and interests in the LLC, as they existed immediately prior to the bankruptcy filing, would be automatically reinstated. That would restore his member voting rights and give him majority control of the LLC.

Norberg objected to confirmation on the grounds that full reinstatement of McSwain’s member interest was inconsistent with the LLC’s Operating Agreement and Washington law, and that under Bankruptcy Code Section 365(c)(1) McSwain was precluded from assuming the voting and other management rights of a member. Norberg sought a declaration that McSwain no longer possessed any management rights in the LLC, and that his interests in the LLC were solely those of an assignee, i.e., he had only the right to share in profits, losses, and distributions. Norberg v. Hawks Prairie Casino, LLC (In re McSwain), No. 07-43338, 2011 Bankr. LEXIS 3921, at *2 (Bankr. W.D. Wash. Oct. 6, 2011).

Washington’s LLC Act provides that an LLC member is dissociated, ceases to be a member, and takes on the status of an assignee upon the member’s insolvency or bankruptcy, unless the LLC agreement provides otherwise or the members all consent in writing. RCW 25.15.130(1)(d). (Many other states have similar provisions. E.g., Del. Code Ann. tit. 6, § 18-304.)

The Hawks Prairie Operating Agreement was clear: A member that files a voluntary bankruptcy is dissociated and treated as an assignee rather than as a member, unless all other members consent or 70% of the initial members consent. McSwain, 2011 Bankr. LEXIS 3921, at *7-8. Washington’s LLC Act therefore barred McSwain from being readmitted as a member without the requisite member vote, which was not forthcoming.

Bankruptcy Code. The Bankruptcy Code gives a bankruptcy trustee, or the debtor in possession in a Chapter 11 case (as in McSwain),the authority to assume, assign, or reject the executory contracts of the debtor, subject to several limitations. 11 U.S.C. § 365. The issue before the court was whether Bankruptcy Code Section 365(c)(1) prevented McSwain from assuming all his rights as a member. That section is concise:

(c)        The trustee may not assume or assign any executory contract or unexpired lease of the debtor, whether or not such contract or lease prohibits or restricts assignment of rights or delegation of duties, if–

(1)(A) applicable law excuses a party, other than the debtor, to such contract or lease from accepting performance from or rendering performance to an entity other than the debtor or the debtor in possession, whether or not such contract or lease prohibits or restricts assignment of rights or delegation of duties; and

 (B) such party does not consent to such assumption or assignment[.]

11 U.S.C. § 365(c)(1).

The Ninth Circuit has ruled that this section “by its terms bars a debtor in possession from assuming an executory contract without the nondebtor’s consent where applicable law precludes assignment of the contract to a third party.” Perlman v. Catapult Entm’t, Inc. (In re Catapult Entm’t, Inc.), 165 F.3d 747, 750 (9th Cir. 1999). (In Catapult, the Ninth Circuit joined the Third and Eleventh Circuits in a circuit split on whether Section 365(c)(1) applies to an assumption by the debtor even if a third-party assignment is not contemplated – Catapult concluding that it does.)

Court’s Analysis. The McSwain court concluded that the LLC’s Operating Agreement was an executory contract, and that applicable nonbankruptcy law, i.e., Washington’s LLC Act, forbids its assignment. The court interpreted Catapult as imposing a third requirement: “assignment must be forbidden [by applicable nonbankruptcy law] because the identity of the nondebtor party is material.” McSwain, 2011 Bankr. LEXIS 3921, at *21. The court went on to say: “It is certainly possible that the identity of Hawks Prairie’s other members is material, such that McSwain could not assume the contract.” Id. at *22.

In the event, though, the court concluded it need not determine whether the identity of the members other than McSwain was material. Instead it decided the case on the grounds of an implied waiver by Norberg. From the beginning Norberg was fully aware of McSwain’s bankruptcy and knew that McSwain could be treated as an assignee under the Operating Agreement. She nonetheless permitted McSwain to exercise all the rights of a full member, including attending management meetings and voting on major transactions. Norberg had sent the members multiple emails, letters, and minutes of meetings that referred to McSwain as a member. The court concluded that by her actions Norberg impliedly waived her right to enforce the Operating Agreement’s dissociation provisions against McSwain. Id. at *24. Under the confirmed plan of reorganization, McSwain was therefore entitled to exercise his full membership rights in the LLC, including voting and management rights. Id. at *30.

Comments. The court’s waiver analysis is unexceptional and clearly seems to be the right result. The court’s discussion in dicta of the applicability of the Catapult rule, however, focuses on the identity of the other members in the LLC, and conjectures that if the LLC had a large number of passive members, their identity would not be material and McSwain would then be able to assume his rights as a member. Id. at *22-23.

Catapult, on the other hand, relied on the policy of the nonbankruptcy law that restricts assignment, not on the degree to which the policy applied to the facts of the specific case. Catapult describes Section 365(c)(1) as stating “a carefully crafted exception to the broad rule – where applicable law does not merely recite a general ban on assignment, but instead more specifically ‘excuses a party … from accepting performance from or rendering performance to an entity’ different from the one with which the party originally contracted, the applicable law prevails…. Only if the law prohibits assignment on the rationale that the identity of the contracting party is material to the agreement will subsection (c)(1) rescue it.” Catapult, 165 F.3d at 752.

The dissociation provisions of the LLC Act fit that description well. They preserve the economic rights of the dissociated member, but prevent the dissociated member from interfering in the management of the LLC. This is consistent with the “know your partner” principle, which is reflected in multiple provisions of most state LLC Acts, such as limitations on assignment and the rules on charging orders.

McSwain reached the right result because of Norberg’s implied waiver. But McSwain’s focus on the specific facts of the LLC and its members, rather than the rationale of the nonbankruptcy law that prohibits assignment, is inconsistent with Catapult and should not be relied on.

Given the increasing use of LLCs in business organizations, it seems likely that disputes over the interaction between Bankruptcy Code Section 365(c)(1) and the dissociation provisions of state LLC Acts will continue to arise as LLC members have occasion to file Chapter 11 bankruptcies. There will be further developments.