Law firm breakups sometimes result in disputes between the lawyers over continuing legal work. Some of the most difficult disputes are those over contingent-fee cases that were started before the firm broke up and will be concluded after the breakup. A contingent-fee case may require thousands of hours of lawyer time and, regardless of the amount of time spent on the case, may result in a fee anywhere from zero to millions of dollars.
A Colorado court recently had to decide such a case involving the distribution of a contingent fee to two lawyers who had dissolved their two-member LLC law firm in the middle of a contingent-fee case. LaFond v. Sweeney, No. 10CA2005, 2012 WL 503655 (Colo. App. Feb. 16, 2012).
Background. Richard LaFond and Charlotte Sweeney formed a law firm as a Colorado LLC in 1999 and orally agreed to share equally in all the firm’s profits, without regard to who brought cases in or who did work on them. In 2008 their law firm dissolved. Id. at *1.
At the time of dissolution the law firm represented Bobby Maxwell in a qui tam whistle-blower action brought under the False Claims Act. LaFond continued to represent Maxwell in the qui tam suit after the LLC’s dissolution. LaFond and Sweeney could not agree on how to divide the fees that might ultimately be earned on the Maxwell case, and LaFond filed a suit for declaratory relief against Sweeney to determine how the contingent fee should be distributed.
Trial Court. The trial court ruled that the Maxwell case was an asset of the LLC and that its value was to be determined at the time of the dissolution. Because LaFond and Sweeney had agreed that any profit from the case would be divided equally, the court held that Sweeney would be entitled to one-half of any contingent fee recovered by LaFond, up to a ceiling based on the number of hours worked on the case before the LLC’s dissolution. Sweeney appealed, contending that the law firm was entitled to all of any contingent fee received and that she was therefore entitled to one-half of the total fee.
The Court of Appeals first noted that the Maxwell lawsuit had settled after the trial court’s decision. The settlement amount was not clear to the court from the pleadings, but the fact of settlement meant that the Court of Appeals only had to deal with a completed contingent-fee case and a determinable fee.
Contingent Fee. The court then discussed at length the law of contingent-fee cases and the attorney-client relationship, and derived three principles. First, said the court, “the case belongs to the client,” meaning that when an attorney with the primary responsibility for a case leaves a law firm, the client can choose to be represented by the law firm, to be represented by the departing attorney, or to hire new counsel. Id. at *3.
Second, a contingent-fee agreement provides the attorney with certain rights. Id. at *4. An agreement between attorney and client that calls for a fee contingent on the outcome of a case is generally enforceable, assuming the lawyer satisfies his or her professional ethics obligations.
The court’s third principle required a review of the Colorado LLC Act’s dissolution rules. After its dissolution, an LLC continues in existence for the purpose of winding up and liquidating its business and affairs. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 7-80-803(1). As part of the winding up process, the LLC completes its executory contracts, including pending contingent-fee cases. LaFond, 2012 WL 503655 at *7. Therefore, said the court, “[a]n attorney who carries on the representation of a client on an existing case after a law firm dissolves does so on the firm’s behalf.” Id. The court pointed out that under the LLC Act, a member must “[a]ccount to the [LLC] and hold as trustee for it any property, profit, or benefit derived by the member or manager in the conduct or winding up of the [LLC’s] business.” Id. (quoting Colo. Rev. Stat. § 7-80-404(1)(a)).
The court’s analysis – a pending contingent-fee case constitutes unfinished business of the law firm, and a former LLC member who completes the case does so on behalf of the LLC – led it to its third principle, that the fee ultimately earned in such a contingent-fee case belongs to the LLC.
The court next examined LaFond’s and Sweeney’s relative rights in the fee. The court looked to other jurisdictions and applied the majority partnership rule: “The great majority of states have concluded that contingent fees ultimately generated from cases that were pending at the time of dissolution of a law firm must be divided among the former law partners according to the fee-sharing arrangement that was in place when the firm dissolved.” Id. at *10.
Compensation for Post-Dissolution Work. The court then had to determine whether LaFond should be compensated for his work on the Maxwell case after the LLC’s dissolution, or whether the fee should be split equally without regard for his post-dissolution time spent on the case.
The court first compared the winding-up provisions of Colorado’s LLC Act with its Partnership Act. The Partnership Act states that “[a] partner is not entitled to remuneration for services performed for the partnership except for reasonable compensation for services rendered in winding up the business of the partnership.” Id. at *13 (quoting Colo. Rev. Stat. § 7-64-401(8)) (emphasis added by the court). In contrast, the winding-up section of the LLC Act does not authorize or even refer to compensation for services rendered in winding up the LLC. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 7-80-803.3.
Because Colorado’s LLC Act was modeled in part on its Partnership Act, the court viewed the exclusion of compensation language from the LLC Act as an intentional legislative choice, and read the LLC Act to mean that an LLC member is not entitled to compensation for services rendered in winding up the business of the LLC. LaFond, 2012 WL 503655 at *13.
The court also relied on the reasoning of Jewel v. Boxer, 203 Cal. Rptr. 13 (Ct. App. 1984), quoting from its opinion:
At first glance, strict application of the rule against extra compensation might appear to have unjust results (e.g., where a former partner obtains a highly remunerative case just before dissolution, and nearly all work is performed after dissolution). But undue hardship should be prevented by two basic fiduciary duties owed between the former partners. First, each former partner has a duty to wind up and complete the unfinished business of the dissolved partnership…. Second, no former partner may take any action with respect to unfinished business which leads to purely personal gain. … If there is any disproportionate burden of completing unfinished business here, it results from the parties' failure to have entered into a partnership agreement which could have assured such a result would not occur. The former partners must bear the consequences of their failure to provide for dissolution in a partnership agreement.
Id. at 18-19.
Consistent with the Jewel approach, the court held that LaFond and Sweeney were each entitled to one-half of the contingent fee obtained by LaFond in the Maxwell case, without any reduction for compensation to LaFond for his post-dissolution work.
Comment. On the facts of the case this is not a terrible result, since LaFond’s hours spent on the Maxwell case after dissolution only amounted to about 4% of the total. But the court did not rely on that, and by extrapolation its holding would have yielded the same result, i.e., a 50-50 split of the fee, even if most of the work on the case had been performed after dissolution. That clearly would have been an inequitable result.
The court relied in part on a perceived duty for LaFond to wind up and complete the unfinished business of the dissolved LLC, including working on the Maxwell case: “We conclude that LaFond had a duty to wind up unfinished business of the dissolved law firm, including continuing to represent Maxwell.” LaFond, 2012 WL 503655 at *14. The source of this duty is not made clear in the opinion, but presumably it lies in either (i) the contingent-fee agreement with Maxwell, (ii) the LLC Act, or (iii) the fiduciary duty of a member.
The Contract. Maxwell’s contingent-fee agreement was with the LLC, not with LaFond. As the court said, “[a] contingent fee case that is pending at the time a law firm dissolves is a form of executory contract between the law firm and the client.” Id. at *7. The LLC, not LaFond, was obligated to represent Maxwell in his suit.
LLC Act. The LLC Act limits the activities of an LLC after dissolution to those appropriate to wind up and liquidate its business and affairs, but it imposes no duty on members to wind up the LLC after its dissolution. “After dissolution, the manager or, if there is no manager, any member may wind up the limited liability company’s business.” Colo. Rev. Stat. § 7-80-803.3(1) (emphasis added). The statute empowers the members to conduct the winding up, but does not obligate any member to do so.
Fiduciary Obligations. As an LLC member, LaFond had fiduciary obligations to the LLC’s other member, Sweeney, just as Sweeney had fiduciary obligations to LaFond. LaFond, 2012 WL 503655 at *6. Mutual fiduciary obligations would not obligate LaFond to handle the case after dissolution without compensation any more than they would obligate Sweeney. LaFond’s failure to insist on an Alphonse-and-Gaston routine with Sweeney should not doom him to non-recognition of his successful efforts to complete the contingent-fee case.
The LaFond case was easy in one respect – by the time the case went up on appeal it involved a dispute over a fully earned contingent fee, because by that time the Maxwell case was over. The fairest approach in such a case probably would be to divide the contingent fee into two portions pro rata, based on the hours spent on the case pre-dissolution and the hours spent post-dissolution. The pre-dissolution portion of the fee would be distributed to the members (50-50 in LaFond), and the post-dissolution portion would go to the member who worked on the case.
Judge Karas thoroughly dissects the plaintiff’s derivative and other claims in Cordts-Auth v. Crunk, LLC, No. 09-CV-8017, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109600 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 27, 2011). The opinion usefully sheds light on some of the corners of New York law on LLC derivative suits.
Plaintiff Renate Cordts-Auth filed suit on September 18, 2009, asserting:
● derivative claims for breach of fiduciary duty, tortious interference with contract, and legal malpractice;
● a direct claim for breach of contract; and
● equitable claims for an accounting, access to records, and a declaratory judgment that she was a member of Crunk, LLC at the time of the claimed wrongdoing.
The defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit, and for purposes of the dismissal motions the court assumed the truth of the following facts, as asserted in the complaint.
Background. Cordts-Auth was a long-time employee of Sidney Frank Importing Company (SFIC), and also assisted its owner Sidney Frank in the operation of Crunk, LLC, a New York limited liability company. In 2005 Cordts-Auth was granted Performance Units in Crunk as consideration for her services. Her interest in the Performance Units was limited to the company’s post-grant-date appreciation, based on an appraisal at the time of grant.
Sidney Frank, the CEO of SFIC and Crunk, died in 2006. His daughter Catherine Halstead (Halstead) became Chairwoman of SFIC and manager and principal executive of Crunk. Her husband, Peter Halstead, became an advisor to Crunk’s management, including Cordts-Auth. Two months later, Peter informed Cordts-Auth that Halstead intended to devalue Crunk’s Performance Units and issue new units, to restructure Crunk and re-launch the company with new investors, and to defraud Crunk’s existing investors.
Cordts-Auth informed Halstead of her objections to the restructuring in February, 2007. Shortly thereafter she was removed by Halstead from her positions at SFIC and Crunk. A month later Cordts-Auth, SFIC, and Crunk entered into a separation agreement, under which Cordts-Auth agreed to resign from her positions with the companies and was paid $2 million.
Three weeks after execution of the separation agreement, Halstead wrote to Cordts-Auth. Halstead informed her that Crunk had lost $1.5 million in 2006, that Crunk had been projected to lose its remaining cash investments during the upcoming fiscal year, and that Crunk had been sold to Solvi Brands, LLC as of February 28, 2007, nine days before the date of the separation agreement. Cordts-Auth was informed that she would receive nothing for her Performance Units because the Crunk sale proceeds were less than the minimum required for the Performance Units to have any value. Two months later Crunk was dissolved.
In February 2009 Cordts-Auth requested from the re-launched Crunk an accounting of Crunk’s sale proceeds. In March 2009 she demanded a copy of the sale agreement between Crunk and Solvi, and the identities of all former interest-holders in Crunk and all current interest-holders in Solvi. Her requests were rejected and she filed the lawsuit several months later.
Analysis. The court began by reviewing Cordts-Auth’s claims to determine whether they were direct (made in her own right) or derivative (asserted on behalf of the LLC). The court applied New York law because Crunk was a New York LLC. Under New York law, a claim is considered to be derivative if the claim is for wrong done to the LLC. Id. at *15. The court viewed Cordts-Auth’s claims for breach of fiduciary duty, tortious interference, and legal malpractice as claims for injury to the LLC, and therefore characterized them as derivative claims.
Standing. The court next examined whether Cordts-Auth had standing to maintain the derivative claims. New York law requires that the plaintiff in an LLC derivative suit must have been a member of the LLC both at the time of the offending conduct and at the time the lawsuit is commenced, Id. at *17. (Many states, e.g. Delaware and Washington, have similar requirements.)
Crunk’s operating agreement set forth the requirements for an individual to be admitted as a member. The agreement required that Crunk’s Board determine the nature and amount of the Unit Consideration to be made by the individual, and the Unit Consideration must be received by the LLC. Unit Consideration is defined to be “cash or property” – services are not included. The Board made no such determination in Cordts-Auth’s case, and no Unit Consideration was paid by Cordts-Auth.
Crunk’s operating agreement also required that members holding two-thirds of Crunk’s Class A Units consent in writing to the admission of a member. That never happened. Cordts-Auth pointed out that she was listed on the operating agreement’s exhibit as a member, but the court found that the exhibit did not overcome the operating agreement’s clear membership requirements.
The court concluded that Cordts-Auth never became a member but instead was an assignee, a non-member holder of Performance Units. “Therefore, Plaintiff has failed to adequately plead that she ever attained membership in Crunk, and the Court dismisses her derivative claims on this ground alone.” Id. at *25-26.
Not content to rest on that branch of the analysis, the court also examined Cordts-Auth’s status at the time of filing the lawsuit. Cordts-Auth didn’t dispute the defendants’ contention that she was not a Crunk member when she filed suit, but she asserted that she fell within an equitable exception that applied where the transaction was fraudulent. The court found that although Delaware recognizes the equitable exception, no New York courts had applied a fraud exception to a New York LLC.
But even assuming that New York courts would apply an equitable exception to the continuous ownership requirement, the court found that Cordts-Auth did not fit into the exception. The fraud exception applies if the transaction was fraudulent and the transaction was done merely to eliminate derivative claims. Cordts-Auth alleged that the transaction was fraudulent, but not that its purpose was to eliminate derivative claims. She had no claims pending at the time of the Crunk sale, so eliminating a potential derivative suit was unlikely to have been the motivation for the transaction. Id. at *31.
Another equitable exception can apply if both the acquired company and the surviving company have engaged in wrongful or fraudulent conduct. The court found that Cordts-Auth did not allege any wrongful or fraudulent conduct by Solvi, the surviving company, so this exception did not apply. Cordts-Auth therefore lacked standing to pursue the derivative claims. Id. at *33.
Demand Requirement. Although the court found that Cordts-Auth did not have standing because she was not a member of Crunk at either of the required times (time of wrongdoing, and time of commencement of suit), it nonetheless proceeded to analyze whether Cordts-Auth had satisfied the demand requirements of a derivative lawsuit, and concluded that she had not.
There are two elements of the demand rule. The first component is procedural. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23.1 and the New York Business Corporation Law both require that a complaint which asserts a derivative claim must state with particularity the plaintiff’s efforts to obtain the desired action from the LLC’s managers, and the reasons for not obtaining the action or making the effort. The second component is substantive and addresses whether the demand was adequate to inform the managers of the potential cause of action so they could address the claim.
The defendants also contended that Cordts-Auth had a conflict of interest, because she was asserting on behalf of the LLC its claims against alleged wrongdoers, while at the same time pursuing her own personal claims directly against the LLC. The court dismissed that contention, because Cordts-Auth no longer held any interest in Crunk and would not receive any return as a member from the LLC’s claims.
The court found that Cordts-Auth’s complaint satisfied the particularity requirement, because it had adequate details about her demands and included copies of two demand letters she had sent to the defendants. But the substance of her demand was inadequate because it did not clearly relate to the derivative claims she was seeking to assert. She had demanded documents and information about the Crunk sale but had not mentioned potential causes of action or damages.
Cordts-Auth argued that demand would have been futile, which can excuse a failure to make demand. The court rejected this argument because Cordts-Auth did not fail to make a demand, but rather had made an inadequate demand that was refused by management. “Accordingly, the Court finds that Plaintiff has not satisfied the demand requirement, as required under New York law, and that she therefore may not pursue her derivative claims.” Cordts-Auth, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109600, at *48.
Substance of Claims. After holding that Cordts-Auth’s derivative claims failed both because she lacked standing and because she had not satisfied either of the demand requirements (particularity and adequacy), the court then discussed the substance of some of her derivative claims in a long footnote 14. Id. at *48-53. The court didn’t rule on those issues, but expressed its skepticism about their viability.
Cordts-Auth claimed that both Crunk and Solvi breached fiduciary duties that they owed to her. Under New York law, corporations do not owe fiduciary duties to shareholders. Apparently no New York court has addressed the analogous issue for LLCs, but the court found it reasonable to extend the corporate rule to LLCs. Neither Crunk nor Solvi owed fiduciary duties to Cordts-Auth, so there could be no breach of fiduciary duties.
Cordts-Auth claimed that Solvi and the Solvi investors had tortiously interfered with her Crunk operating agreement, by inducing Crunk to sell its assets to Solvi in violation of the operating agreement. The court found it doubtful that Cordts-Auth could demonstrate that the Solvi investors induced the sale of Crunk to Solvi merely by investing in Solvi, and questioned whether the sale constituted a breach of the Crunk operating agreement.
Cordts-Auth also asserted a constructive trust claim, on the theory that her Performance Units were wrongfully transferred, but the court rejected that claim because the Performance Units were not transferred but were canceled when Crunk was dissolved.
Breach of Contract. Cordts-Auth asserted a direct claim, in her own right, for breach of contract against Crunk and Halstead. She alleged that their failure to give her notice of Crunk’s impending sale to Solvi violated Crunk’s operating agreement.
The court dismissed Cordts-Auth’s breach of contract claim against Crunk because Crunk was not a party to its operating agreement, which is an agreement between the Crunk members. “The plain language of the Crunk Agreement, and common sense, make clear that Crunk was not a party to the Crunk Agreement, and therefore could not have breached it.” Id. at *54.
(A Delaware LLC, in contrast, is bound by its operating agreement and therefore could be in breach of its own operating agreement. “A limited liability company is bound by its limited liability company agreement whether or not the limited liability company executes the limited liability company agreement.” Del. Code Ann. tit. 6 § 18-101(7).)
The court also dismissed Cordts-Auth’s breach of contract claim against Halstead. Cordts-Auth claimed that Halstead was obligated to give a “Drag Along Notice” of the impending Crunk sale. The Drag Along Notice only applied, however, if a majority of the selling Crunk members wished to force a minority to participate in a sale of their member interests. The Crunk sale was an asset sale and not a sale of member interests, so the Drag Along Notice did not apply. Further, Halstead had an optional right, but not an obligation, to give a Drag Along Notice. (No notice was required if Halstead did not exercise her Drag Along Right.) The court dismissed Cordts-Auth’s claim: the Drag Along Notice did not apply to Crunk’s asset sale and Halstead was not obligated to give the notice in any event, so there was no breach.
Accounting, Books and Records, and Declaratory Relief. Cordts-Auth asked for an accounting of the proceeds from Crunk’s sale. The court dismissed that claim, because a party seeking an accounting must establish the existence of a fiduciary relationship, and Cordts-Auth was not ever a member of Crunk and therefore failed to establish the existence of a fiduciary relationship. Additionally, her accounting claim named only Solvi and Crunk, and as the court previously noted, a New York LLC owes no fiduciary duties to its members.
Cordts-Auth also asked for access to Crunk’s books and records, and a declaratory judgment that she was a member of Crunk at the time of sale. Those claims were dismissed because only LLC members have rights to the LLCs books and records, and the court had already determined that Cordts-Auth had not been and was not a member of Crunk.
Conclusion. All of Cordts-Auth’s claims were dismissed, and her derivative claims were dismissed on several grounds. The opinion will bear study by any New York practitioner analyzing a client’s potential LLC derivative suit.
When an LLC manager signs a contract on behalf of the LLC there is usually no question whether the LLC is bound by the manager’s signature. But consider – what’s the result when the manager is an investor and an officer of the other party to the contract, and the LLC members disapprove of the contract and attempt to reject it on grounds that the manager lacked authority to enter into the contract because of the manager’s conflict of interest? The Oregon Court of Appeals was faced with this scenario in Synectic Ventures I, LLC v. EVI Corp., No. A139879, 2011 Ore. App. LEXIS 337 (Or. Ct. App. Mar. 16, 2011).
The Loan. Three LLC investment funds (Synectic) loaned $3 million to EVI Corporation pursuant to a 2003 loan agreement. The loan agreement called for repayment by December 31, 2004, but EVI had the right to convert the debt into equity in the form of EVI stock if it received additional investments of at least $1 million before the December 31 deadline.
Conflict of Interest. The Synectic LLCs were managed by Craig Berkman, at first directly and later through management firms he controlled. Berkman was involved with both parties to the loan. In addition to being Synectic’s manager, Berkman was also the board chairman and treasurer of EVI, and held EVI warrants and stock options.
Amendment. In September 2004, as the year-end due date of the loan approached, Berkman executed an amendment to the loan agreement on behalf of Synectic that extended EVI’s repayment date one year, to December 31, 2005. Berkman also approved the amendment in his capacity as an EVI board member. The Synectic members were unaware of the amendment at the time it was made. Berkman was removed as manager in December 2004, and in 2005 Synectic learned of the amendment and notified EVI that the amendment was not authorized and that EVI was in default on the loan.
EVI raised $1 million in additional investment before December 31, 2005 and converted the loan into equity, thereby avoiding default (if the amendment was binding on Synectic).
Synectic sued EVI to collect on the loan, and EVI defended on grounds that it was not in default under the amended loan. The trial court concluded that the amendment was valid and binding on Synectic and that EVI was therefore not in default.
Authority. The Court of Appeals began with a look at Or. Rev. Stat. § 63.140(2)(a), which provides in part:
Each manager is an agent of the limited liability company for the purpose of its business, and an act of a manager, including the signing of an instrument in the limited liability company's name, for apparently carrying on in the ordinary course the business of the limited liability company, or business of the kind carried on by the limited liability company, binds the limited liability company unless the manager had no authority to act for the limited liability company in the particular matter and the person with whom the manager was dealing knew or had notice that the manager lacked authority.
This section provides for the manager’s apparent authority in the ordinary course of the LLC’s business. Many state LLC acts have similar provisions for managers and members (if the LLC is member managed), e.g., Washington, Utah, and New York. Both the Uniform Partnership Act and the Uniform Limited Partnership Act have similar provisions for the apparent authority of general partners.
Under Or. Rev. Stat. § 63.140(2)(a), if the manager has no authority and the third party has knowledge of the lack of authority, the principal will not be bound. The court therefore reviewed Synectic’s operating agreements to determine Berkman’s authority, and concluded that the agreements gave Berkman the exclusive authority to manage the business of the LLCs and to take action without the consent of the members. The operating agreements also provided that third parties could rely on Berkman’s authority to bind the LLCs without further inquiry. Synectic, 2011 Ore. App. LEXIS 337, at *12-13. Under these provisions it appeared to the court that the amendment was within the authority granted to Berkman in the operating agreements: “As such, at first blush it would appear that Berkman’s act of executing the amendment was within the express authority granted to him in the operating agreements.” Id.
Synectic argued that Berkman’s actual authority was limited by letter agreements Berkman had entered into with some of Synectic’s investors, and by his acts of self-dealing and breach of fiduciary duties. Id. at *13.
The court held that the letter agreements did not limit Berkman’s authority because they were between Berkman and some of the Synectic members, but not with Synectic. If the letter agreements obligated Berkman to those members, any breach was between him and them and did not affect his authority to act for Synectic. Id. at *17.
Fiduciary Duties. Synectic’s operating agreements obligated Berkman to carry out his duties in accordance with the standard of conduct specified for LLC managers in the Oregon LLC Act, which includes the duty of care and the duty of loyalty. Or. Rev. Stat. § 63.155. Synectic contended that Berkman’s breaches of those duties without member approval invalidated his execution of the amendment. But before the court considered whether Berkman had breached his fiduciary duties, it examined whether the remedy requested by Synectic would be available even if Berkman had breached his duty.
The court concluded that the language of Or. Rev. Stat. § 63.140(2)(a) controlled: the act of a manager binds the LLC “unless the manager had no authority to act for the limited liability company in the particular matter and the person with whom the manager was dealing knew or had notice that the manager lacked authority.” Berkman had the express authority under the operating agreements to enter into the amendment. Synectic took no action to limit his authority, and the loan extension was within the ordinary course of the LLC’s business. Even if knowledge of Berkman’s self-dealing were imputed to EVI, any inquiry by EVI would only have led to the conclusion that Berkman had authority to execute the amendment. Synectic, 2011 Ore. App. LEXIS 337, at *23-24.
In short, Berkman had actual, unqualified authority under the operating agreements, and his act of executing the amendment therefore was binding on Synectic even if it was a breach of his fiduciary duties.
Conflict of Interest. Synectic also pointed out that under Or. Rev. Stat. § 130(2)-(4), a transaction involving an actual or a potential conflict of interest between a member or a manager and the LLC requires the consent of a majority of the members, unless the operating agreement provides otherwise. The Synectic operating agreements clearly allowed members to have conflicts of interest, but said nothing about actual or potential manager conflicts.
Strangely enough, the court found that Berkman’s alleged conflict between his role as Synectic’s LLC manager and his role as EVI’s board member and treasurer was excused by the Synectic operating agreements. While it is correct that Berkman was a member, Synectic’s allegation was that Berkman had a conflict because of his status as a manager, not as a member.
The court’s opinion says not a word about why the operating agreements’ waivers of member conflicts should apply to Berkman in his capacity as manager. Berkman was acting as Synectic’s manager when he signed the amendment, not as a member. For an operating agreement to allow members to have a conflict of interest is a far cry from allowing a manager to have a conflict of interest – non-managing members are passive and don’t make the management decisions that could be affected by a conflict of interest. Synectic may still be trying to puzzle this one out.
Here’s a case for you. Plaintiffs invest $2.5 million in an LLC formed to purchase real estate, and guarantee a $7.5 million loan to the LLC. The LLC buys the real estate for $10 million from Ray Jacobsen, an affiliate of the LLC’s managers and its original investors. No one informs the new-money investors that Jacobsen bought the real estate for $5 million just days before selling it to the LLC for $10 million.
The plaintiffs alleged (a) that the LLC’s managers and original investors (the defendants) were well aware of Jacobsen’s “flip” of the property, (b) that the defendants never disclosed this information to the plaintiffs, (c) that the plaintiffs justifiably relied on the defendants’ silence by forgoing independent investigation, and (d) that the plaintiffs learned of the fraud later by happenstance. DGB, LLC v. Hinds, No. 1081767, 2010 Ala. LEXIS 116 (Ala. June 30, 2010).
The investors sued for damages, claiming fraud and breach of fiduciary duty and asking for dissolution of the LLC. The defendants contended that the claims were barred by the statute of limitations. The trial court dismissed almost all of the investors’ claims, and the plaintiffs appealed.
The defendants argued that the claims were barred by Alabama’s two-year statutes of limitations, Ala. Code §§ 6-2-38(l), 8-6-19(f). The plaintiffs in turn invoked the fraud savings clause of Ala. Code § 6-2-3:
In actions seeking relief on the ground of fraud where the statute has created a bar, the claim must not be considered as having accrued until the discovery by the aggrieved party of the fact constituting the fraud, after which he must have two years within which to prosecute his action.
If applicable, this exception would save the plaintiffs’ claims of fraud and breach of fiduciary duty, because their lawsuit had been filed within two years of their discovery of Jacobsen’s double-dealing, although it was more than two years after the original real estate deal.
The court simply applied the savings clause to the fraud claims, but the fiduciary duty claims were examined more closely. The court ruled that fraudulent concealment of wrongful acts is enough to invoke the fraud savings clause, even if the cause of action was for something other than fraud. DGB, supra, at *15, 16. Since the plaintiffs had alleged concealment of the defendants’ real estate flip, their claims survived.
The court never explicitly discussed what is necessary to make the concealment “fraudulent.” Presumably it means that there was some degree of mens rea, i.e., a guilty mind or intent.
Statutes of limitation are more than mere technicalities. They prevent old, stale claims from popping up many years after the original event. Memories fade, evidence may be lost, and witnesses may die or be missing. But in this case the court’s application of the fraud rule, along with its extension of the time for bringing the lawsuit, was the right result. As the court said, “A party cannot profit by his own wrong in concealing a cause of action against himself until barred by limitation. The statute of limitations cannot be converted into an instrument of fraud.” DGB, supra, at 11, 12 (quoting Hudson v. Moore, 194 So. 147, 149 (Ala. 1940), overruled on other grounds by Ex parte Sonnier, 707 So. 2d 635 (Ala. 1997)).
The investors also asked the court to order the dissolution of the LLC. The Alabama LLC Act allows for judicial dissolution of an LLC “whenever it is not reasonably practicable to carry on the business in conformity with the articles of organization or operating agreement.” Ala. Code § 10-12-38. This provision is similar to those of the Delaware LLC Act and the Washington LLC Act. Since dissolution can be granted “whenever” it is not reasonably practicable to carry out the business in conformance with the charter, the court found that there was no basis for applying the statute of limitations to a request for a dissolution. DGB, supra, at *10.
An LLC member, Mr. Smith, sells his member interest and terminates all connections with the LLC. The sale agreement ends Smith’s rights in the LLC. Smith moves on and doesn’t think much more about the LLC. Many months later, Smith receives a Schedule K-1 from the LLC. >
Schedule K-1 is the form an LLC uses to inform each member of the member’s share of income, losses, deductions, credits and so on. Like almost all LLCs, Smith’s former LLC is taxed as a partnership for federal income tax purposes, and the LLC’s income and losses for each tax year are allocated to its members. The members then each pay taxes on their share of the LLC’s income for that year, or use the losses to shelter other income. (The ability to use losses to shelter other income is subject to various limitations. See my prior post on passive income loss limitations, here.)
Smith is shocked to see that the K-1 shows a whopping allocation of income to him for the last year of his membership in the LLC. He realizes that that income will have to be reported on his own personal tax return and will substantially increase his tax bill, and he didn’t receive any cash distribution from the LLC to cover those extra taxes. Based on what he knows about the LLC’s operations and finances towards the end of his involvement with it, he doesn’t understand how or why so much income was allocated to him. What does he do?
Naturally Smith starts asking questions. He requests copies of the LLC’s financial records so his CPA can evaluate the correctness of the LLC’s allocations. The LLC, however, points out that Smith is no longer a member, so its operating agreement gives him no right to see the records. The LLC also notes that the state LLC Act only allows members, not former members, to access LLC records. In short, he is politely told to go roll his hoop.
The plaintiffs in Abdalla v. Qadorh-Zidan, 913 N.E.2d 280 (Ind. Ct. App. Sept. 10, 2009), were faced with this situation. The Qadorh-Zidans (Zidans) and the Abdallas had formed five LLCs to own and operate apartment properties. Later the Abdallas filed a lawsuit against the Zidans alleging breach of fiduciary duty and usurpation of corporate opportunities. That suit was resolved through a settlement that included a buyout – the Zidans sold their membership interests in the LLCs to the Abdallas in August 2006.
In the fall of 2007 the Zidans received tax returns and K-1 Schedules from the LLCs for the tax year ending on the date of the buyout. The Zidans alleged discrepancies in the K-1s and requested accounting information and records from the LLCs for the time period when they were members. The Abdallas refused, so the Zidans filed a complaint alleging breach of fiduciary duty and seeking declaratory relief to inspect the books and records of the LLCs for the period when they were members. The Zidans sought discovery of the requested information, which was stayed pending a summary judgment motion by the Abdallas. The trial court’s denial of the Abdallas’ motion was appealed.
The Abdallas contended that any fiduciary duties owed to the Zidans terminated when they ceased being members of the LLCs, because the Zidans no longer had any rights under the operating agreements and because their settlement agreement in the first lawsuit included a relinquishment of all of the Zidans’ rights as members. The Zidans maintained that fiduciary duties should remain intact with respect to the resolution of pre-separation business, and that therefore the fiduciary relationship covered the preparation of the tax return which was completed after the Zidans sold out.
The court held that the Abdallas owed a fiduciary duty to the Zidans regarding the preparation of tax returns for the period during which the Zidans were members of the LLCs. Abdalla, 913 N.E.2d at 286. As the court said, “To hold otherwise would give the Abdallas the freedom to allocate tax burdens to the Zidans and retain tax benefits for themselves without allowing the Zidans any recourse to verify or rectify this allocation.” Id.
The court reached a similar result on the question of whether the Zidans had a right of access to the LLCs’ books. Although the Indiana LLC Act only gives members the right to access an LLC’s records, Ind. Code § 23-18-4-8(b), the court held that the Zidans, as former members, had a right to access the records covering the time period while they were still members of the LLCs. Abdalla, 913 N.E.2d at 287.
Many state LLC Acts, like Indiana’s, do not address what inspection rights former LLC members have. For example, the LLC Acts of Washington, Oregon and Delaware are silent on inspection rights for former members. There’s no reason why state statutes can’t address this issue, though. The Illinois LLC Act, for example, provides that former members have a right of access for a proper purpose to LLC records pertaining to the period when they were members. 805 Ill. Comp. Stat. 180/10-15. The Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act and the Uniform Limited Partnership Act also have comparable provisions giving former members limited access rights.
When the Zidans resolved their first dispute with the Abdallas through a buyout of the Zidans’ interests in the LLCs, they apparently did not consider the inevitable entanglement resulting from the tax flow-through treatment of the LLCs. In an LLC buyout there will usually be a time lag from the buyout to the computation and allocation of the LLC’s profits and losses, and the distribution of the Schedule K-1s.
There’s a moral here. A member selling its interest in an LLC should consider adding provisions to the buyout agreement for later access to the LLC’s accounting records and for consultation with the LLC’s manager or CPA over the tax allocations and the preparation of tax returns, for the period when the seller was a member. The seller should also consider provisions for notice, access to records and consultation regarding any later amendment to the LLC’s previously filed tax returns, or any IRS contact with the LLC or tax audit for the period before the buyout. These provisions can help the former member avoid unpleasant tax-related surprises, and can give the former member the tools necessary to investigate unexpected tax allocations.
Connecticut Orders LLC Dissolution and Winding Up - Member Acrimony Prevents LLC from Carrying On Its Business
It’s a classic fact pattern that is all too familiar to many business lawyers. Two good friends decide to start a business. In their enthusiasm they create a 50/50 ownership structure and launch the business. Later, things change. One starts devoting more time to the business. Or maybe the business develops a commercial relationship with a separate company owned by one of the friends, which benefits only that one. Their business relationship becomes asymmetrical. Their views of how each should be compensated or how the business should be conducted diverge.
That’s essentially what happened in Saunders v. Firtel, 978 A.2d 487 (Conn. Sept. 22, 2009). Saunders and Firtel were friends who began a business relationship in the mid-1980s. Saunders joined Firtel as an employee and shareholder in Adco Medical Supplies, Inc. (Adco) in 1986. Saunders held 49% of the stock, Firtel held 51%. Firtel was President and Saunders Vice President, and they agreed that each would receive the same annual salary. In 1999, when things were still going well, Saunders and Firtel formed Barbur Associates, LLC (Barbur), a Connecticut LLC in which each owned a 50% interest. Barbur acquired real estate and leased it to Adco on an oral month-to-month lease.
The stage was now set. By 2004, Saunders had become dissatisfied because he perceived that he was doing most of the work but receiving the same compensation as Firtel. Saunders advised Firtel that the 1986 agreement for equal compensation was no longer acceptable. Firtel responded by firing Saunders from Adco in July 2004, lowering the rent charged by Barbur to Adco, unilaterally authorizing repairs by Barbur to the building Adco rented, and arranging a $5,000 loan from Barbur to Adco. Adco refused to pay Saunders his salary for 2004. Shortly thereafter, Saunders and Firtel ceased having any business or personal relationship, and made accusations against each other of theft, breach of fiduciary duty, self-dealing and other “improper and felonious conduct.” Saunders, 978 A.2d at 500 n.22.
Saunders sued Adco for his unpaid 2004 compensation, and for a decree ordering the dissolution and winding up of Barbur. The trial court found for Saunders on his wage claim and ordered double damages pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-72. The trial court also ordered a dissolution and winding up of Barbur, under Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 34-207 and 34-208.
The Connecticut LLC Act authorizes the superior court to order dissolution “whenever it is not reasonably practicable to carry on the business in conformity with the articles of organization or operating agreement.” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 34-207. The LLC Acts of Washington, Delaware, New York and many other states have similar provisions, as does NCCUSL’s Revised Uniform LLC Act. The essence of this test is whether or not the business of the LLC can be carried on in a reasonable way. The court has discretion; this is an equitable proceeding in which factors such as oppression, wrong-doing or deadlock are considered.
The court concluded that “the trial court’s order of dissolution is well supported by the evidence.” Saunders, 978 A.2d at 500. In reaching its conclusion, however, the court simply recited the facts identified above. The court did not examine Barbur’s articles of organization or operating agreement to see if the business was being carried out in conformity with the articles or the operating agreement, or refer to any such examination by the trial court. The two Connecticut cases cited by the court don’t seem particularly relevant, since both involved dissolutions of corporations for deadlock under prior corporate statutes. Those statutes, unlike Connecticut’s LLC Act, allowed dissolution for deadlock or other good and sufficient reasons. The court may have concluded that the various abuses by Firtel and the hostility and lack of cooperation between Firtel and Saunders simply made it impossible for the LLC to carry on any business, but the court’s analysis is conclusory and opaque.
Contract provisions don’t necessarily make disagreements between members go away, but sometimes they can provide helpful mechanisms to mitigate disputes and keep the parties out of court. For example, Saunders and Firtel apparently had no provisions in Barbur’s operating agreement to deal with deadlock. If their operating agreement had had a provision that allowed either party to initiate a buy-out process, they might have avoided litigation. A business person may assume that the initially cordial relationship with a potential business partner will continue indefinitely, but his or her lawyer should ask the hard-edged questions to challenge that assumption and help the parties build some safety nets into their agreement.