Member Avoids Personal Liability for LLC's Withheld Taxes

An LLC member ordinarily is not liable for the debts and liabilities of an LLC simply by virtue of being a member. E.g., Wash. Rev. Code § 25.15.125; Or. Rev. Stat. § 63.165. Many states, however, impose personal liability for unpaid taxes on those within a business who have authority for paying taxes withheld from employee wages, or for paying sales taxes collected from customers. If one of those statutes applies, being a member of the LLC will not shield the employee, manager or officer from the statute’s reach.

Kelly Haugen, a 10% member of an Oregon LLC, was assessed liability by the Oregon Department of Revenue for the LLC’s failure to pay Oregon income taxes withheld from employee wages. Haugen v. Dep’t of Revenue, No. TC-MD 100052C, 2011 Ore. Tax LEXIS 187 (Or. T.C. Apr. 26, 2011). The LLC was manager-managed, and Haugen was not the LLC’s manager. Haugen occasionally signed checks for the LLC, and a form filed by the LLC with the state indicated that Haugen was responsible for hiring and firing employees. Id., at *2-3. The Department of Revenue asserted liability against Haugen because of his part ownership of the LLC and because he signed checks for the business. Id. at *6.

Oregon requires employers to withhold and pay Oregon income taxes from wages paid to employees. Or. Rev. Stat. § 316.167. Personal liability for unpaid tax withholdings is imposed on “[a]n officer or employee of a corporation, or a member or employee of a partnership, who as such officer, employee or member is under a duty to perform the acts required of employers by ORS 316.167 ….” Or. Rev. Stat. § 316.162(3)(b).

Finding a paucity of case law on the liability of LLC members, the Haugen court analogized Haugen’s status to that of a corporate officer for the purpose of determining liability. Haugen, 2011 Ore. Tax LEXIS 187, at *6. The court applied prior Oregon case law involving corporate officers, and found that Haugen would be liable if he had the actual authority and control to pay or direct payment of the tax withholdings. Id. at *7. The evidence indicated that Haugen did not have authority to unilaterally sign checks or make important financial decisions – he had authority to sign checks only under the direction of the 90% owner and manager, after obtaining specific consent to sign each check. Also, Haugen did not have general authority as a member, because the LLC was manager-managed, and Haugen was not a manager.

The court concluded that because Haugen “was not in a position to pay the withholdings or direct the payment of the withholdings at the time the duty arose to withhold or pay over the taxes,” he was not an “employer” under Or. Rev. Stat. § 316.162. Haugen, 2011 Ore. Tax LEXIS 187, at *11-12. The court therefore canceled the Department of Revenue’s Notice of Liability against Haugen.

Kelly Haugen escaped liability for the unpaid taxes because of his lack of authority. Had his been a member-managed LLC, or if he had had discretion to sign checks without prior approval, the court presumably would have upheld the tax assessment against him.

Many of the comparable statutes from other states are at least as strict in finding managers and check signers to be personally liable for failure to pay tax withholdings and sales taxes over to the state. The strict approach is not surprising, given that in these cases the business has in effect been a tax collector for the state and (at least in the state’s view) is holding the state’s money. The Haugen case should be a wake-up call for LLC managers and check signers to avoid the temptation of financing the business in troubled times by holding on to tax withholdings or sales taxes.