Two recent bankruptcy cases illustrate the courts’ inconsistent treatment of member rights in LLC operating agreements. In one case a bankruptcy court enforced a member’s right to receive an assignment of the other member’s equity in an LLC. In the other case the court ignored state LLC law and the debtor’s LLC agreement in order to allow the trustee to assert management rights in the debtor’s LLC.
Case 1: Assignment of Member’s Interest. A provision in an LLC agreement that resulted in a member’s conveyance of its LLC interest was enforced by the Arizona Bankruptcy Court in In re Strata Title, LLC, No. 12-24242, 2013 WL 2456399 (Bankr. D. Ariz. June 6, 2013). The debtor, Strata Title, LLC, was one of two 50% members of Tempe Tower, LLC. The other member was Pure Country Tower, LLC.
Schedule 1 of Tempe Tower’s operating agreement provided that if Pure Country’s $850,000 capital contribution was not returned to it by February 23, 2013, Strata’s member interest in Tempe Tower would be transferred to Pure Country. Pure Country would then be the sole member of the LLC. Id. at *1.
The language in Schedule 1 used an interesting drafting technique: “[I]n the event that [Pure Country] does not receive 100% of its initial Capital Contribution … on or before February 23, 2013 … [the owner of Strata Title] hereby irrevocably assigns his and the entire right, title and interest of Strata Title, LLC in [Tempe Tower] to [Pure Country].” Id. (emphasis added). The phrase “hereby irrevocably assigns” would normally mean that the assignment is effective on the date of the operating agreement, but the agreement is also clear that the assignment doesn’t actually occur unless and until the capital contribution has not been returned to Pure Country by February 23, 2013.
Pure Country looked to the “hereby irrevocably assigns” language and contended that Strata’s member interest in Tempe Tower did not become property of the bankruptcy estate, because the member interest was assigned to Pure Country on the date of the operating agreement, before Strata’s bankruptcy petition was filed. The court rejected that argument, pointing out that the assignment would be of no effect if the $850,000 were paid to Pure Country before the February 23, 2013 deadline. The assignment was therefore not absolute, and Strata’s member interest in Tempe Tower at the date of filing of the bankruptcy petition became part of the bankruptcy estate. Id. at *3.
Pure Country also sought a determination that Pure Country held a perfected security interest in Strata’s member interest in Tempe Tower, and asked for stay relief so it could foreclose on Strata’s member interest. In the alternative it asked for stay relief to compel Strata to transfer the member interest to Pure Country. The court said it would look to state law to determine the parties’ rights under the operating agreement, and to the Bankruptcy Code to determine how those rights should be treated in the bankruptcy.
The court concluded that Pure Country did not have a perfected security interest in Strata’s membership in Tempe Tower. Even if Schedule 1 created a security interest in the member interest, Pure Country had not filed a UCC financing statement to perfect its lien, and the only other grounds for perfection, control of investment property, were not applicable because the LLC interests were not “investment property” as defined in Article 9 of the UCC. Id. at *4.
The last string in Pure Country’s bow was its request that the court give it relief from stay and order Strata to transfer its Tempe Tower member interest to Pure Country in accordance with Schedule 1. The court phrased the issue as: “Does the Debtor still hold a property interest in the membership interests under the terms of the Operating Agreement?” Id.
Section 544 of the Bankruptcy Code gives the debtor the right to avoid unperfected liens, but it does not give the debtor any power to expand the scope of its contractual property rights. The debtor’s membership interests are subject to the constraints of the LLC’s operating agreement and state law. Id.
The court referred to the Arizona LLC Act, which empowers an LLC’s operating agreement to govern the relations between the members and the LLC, and to define the rights, duties and powers of the members. Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 29-682. Schedule 1 of the operating agreement limited Strata’s rights in Tempe Tower:
Under terms of the Operating Agreement, the Debtor’s membership interests in Tempe Tower could only remain property of the Debtor if it paid $850,000 to pure Country by February 23, 2013. Having failed to do so, the Debtor ceased to own any membership interests in Tempe Tower as of February 24, 2013.
The automatic stay did not prevent this outcome because § 362 does not alter existing rights in a contract. … (“The mere running of time on contractual rights is not an act of a creditor within the meaning of Section 362(a).”)
Strata, 2013 WL 2456399, at *5 (quoting In re Pridham, 31 B.R. 497, 499 (Bankr. E. D. Cal. 1983)). The court recognized Pure Country’s rights to the member interest and lifted the stay to the extent any further acts by Pure Country were necessary to obtain possession and control of Strata’s membership interests.
Case 2: Transfer of Management Rights. Last month the Nevada Bankruptcy Court dismissed as unauthorized a bankruptcy filing that had been filed on an LLC’s behalf by its sole member. The sole member had previously filed her own Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and her bankruptcy trustee claimed that he had succeeded to all her rights in the LLC, including management rights and the right to decide whether the LLC should file for bankruptcy. Her trustee had not authorized the LLC’s bankruptcy filing and successfully requested the court to dismiss it. In re B & M Land & Livestock, LLC, No. BK-N-13-50543-BTB, 2013 WL 5182611 (Bankr. D. Nev. Sept. 10, 2013).
In 2010 Marsha Raj filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. She was the sole member of B & M Land and Livestock, LLC, and indicated in her filing that the LLC was an asset of her estate. In 2013, Raj filed a Chapter 11 petition on behalf of B & M, without notifying her bankruptcy trustee. When the trustee learned of B & M’s bankruptcy filing, he moved to dismiss it on the grounds that Raj was not authorized to file B & M’s bankruptcy.
The issue in the case was the impact of Nevada’s LLC Act:
Unless otherwise provided in the articles or operating agreement, a transferee of a member’s interest has no right to participate in the management of the business and affairs of the company or to become a member unless a majority in interest of the other members approve the transfer.
Nev. Rev. Stat § 86.351(1). This provision is similar to many other state LLC Acts, and clearly provides that a transferee of an LLC member’s interest will not have any management rights unless the operating agreement or articles of formation allow it, or a majority in interest of the other members consent. It reflects the “pick your partner” principle, which is inherent in LLC statutes as well as partnership law.
Section 541(a)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code provides that the estate of the bankrupt includes “all legal or equitable interests of the debtor in property as of the commencement of the case.” If a debtor is a member of an LLC, this section in effect makes the bankruptcy trustee a transferee of the debtor’s member interest.
The court relied on prior case law and interpreted Section 541 to mean that the trustee acquired not only the member’s economic interest, but also the member’s management rights. “In obtaining the debtor’s rights, the trustee is not a mere assignee, but steps into a debtor’s shoes as to all rights, including the rights to control a single-member LLC.” B & M, 2013 WL 5182611, at *4.
Conflicting state law does not matter, said the court, opining that Section 541 “trumps any conflicting analysis or rules in state law relating to the control of LLCs or partnerships.” Id. at *5. The court granted the trustee’s motion to dismiss the LLC’s bankruptcy on grounds the debtor did not have authority to file the LLC’s bankruptcy. Id.
Comment. These two cases are inconsistent in their approach to state law control of LLC member rights. Strata looked to state law to determine the parties’ rights under the operating agreement; B & M expressly disregarded state law to reach the result that was most convenient for the trustee’s administration of the debtor’s assets. If there is any justification for disregarding state law it is that last point: it’s hard to imagine an effective administration of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy where a significant asset of the debtor is its member interest in a valuable single-member LLC that the trustee cannot control.
Although B & M involved a single-member LLC, the court’s analysis is not limited and would seem to apply to multiple-member LLCs. If that were so, a bankruptcy debtor who owned a majority LLC interest could find the bankruptcy trustee controlling the LLC, against the wishes and to the detriment of the other members. The court did note in passing that its rule might be limited in the case of LLCs providing professional services, which under state law can usually be owned and managed only by professionals licensed in that discipline.
One bankruptcy case involving a debtor’s interest in a single-member LLC reached the same result as B & M, but the court there observed that in a multi-member LLC the result would be different. “Where a single member files bankruptcy while the other members of a multi-member LLC do not, … the bankruptcy estate is only entitled to receive the share of profits or other compensation by way of income and the return of the contributions to which that member would otherwise be entitled.” In re Albright, 291 B.R. 538, 540 n.7 (Bankr. D. Colo. 2003).
Judgment creditors of LLC members usually have the right under state law to obtain a charging order against a member’s LLC interest. A charging order mandates that any distributions by the LLC that would otherwise be made to the member be paid instead to the creditor. The charging order provides no benefit, though, if no distributions are made to the LLC’s members. And if the judgment debtor is the only member of the LLC, it’s unlikely that he or she will cause the LLC to make distributions, since those would have to go to the creditor.
The U.S. District Court in Kansas recently had to determine the scope of a charging order against a single-member LLC in Meyer v. Christie, No. 07-2230-CM, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118590 (D. Kan. Oct. 13, 2011). Although the Kansas LLC Act says a charging order against an LLC member’s interest is the creditor’s exclusive remedy, the court surprisingly found that, in the case of a single-member LLC, the creditor could assert management rights and take control of the LLC.
The relevant facts are straightforward. The plaintiffs obtained a final judgment of about $7 million against the defendants, who had interests in several Kansas LLCs. The plaintiffs asked the judge to issue a charging order against the defendants’ interests in the LLCs, under the authority of Kansas’s LLC Act:
Rights of judgment creditor. On application to a court of competent jurisdiction by any judgment creditor of a member, the court may charge the limited liability company interest of the member with payment of the unsatisfied amount of the judgment with interest. To the extent so charged, the judgment creditor has only the rights of an assignee of the limited liability company interest. This act does not deprive any member of the benefit of any exemption laws applicable to the member’s limited liability company interest. The rights provided by this section to the judgment creditor shall be the sole and exclusive remedy of a judgment creditor with respect to the member’s limited liability company interest.
Kan. Stat. Ann. § 17-76,113 (emphasis added).
A charging order is a limited remedy – the creditor has only the rights of an assignee, i.e., the economic right to receive distributions, and no rights to participate in management. The Kansas statute also provides that the charging order is the exclusive remedy, so the creditor cannot attach or foreclose on the member’s interest and thereby take control. (The charging order provisions of some state LLC Acts are silent on whether the charging order is a creditor’s exclusive remedy. See my discussion of Florida’s Olmstead v. FTC case on charging orders, here.)
The court acknowledged the Kansas LLC Act’s clear statement that the charging order is the only remedy by which a member’s judgment creditor can reach the member’s LLC interest, and discussed the partnership law origins of the LLC charging order. In the case of partnerships, a creditor’s charging order against a partner will not entitle the creditor to participate in the management of the partnership. Meyer, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118590, at *10.
But, said the court, the result is different in the case of an LLC with only one member. That’s because of a specific provision in the Kansas LLC Act:
If the assignor of a limited liability company interest is the only member of the limited liability company at the time of the assignment, the assignee shall have the right to participate in the management of the business and affairs of the limited liability company as a member.
Kan. Stat. Ann. § 17-76,112(f). That paragraph is not in the Act’s section on charging orders, but is part of a long section dealing with assignments of LLC interests.
Without discussion, the court simply assumed that the holder of a charging order not only has the rights of an assignee but actually is an assignee. The court then held that under Section § 17-76,112(f), “the assignee/creditor shall have the right to participate in the management of the business and affairs of the LLC as a member.” Meyer, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118590, at *11. With those rights, the holder of a charging order against an LLC’s sole member can take over the LLC, make distributions to itself, and liquidate the LLC if it so chooses.
The problem with the court’s holding is that the creditor’s rights under a charging order are limited to satisfaction of the debt. Once the judgment debtor’s obligation is satisfied, the charging order is extinguished. An assignment, in contrast, is a permanent transfer of the property rights assigned. The charging order statute accordingly recognizes that the rights of the creditor are limited: “To the extent so charged, the judgment creditor has only the rights of an assignee of the limited liability company interest.” Kan. Stat. Ann. § 17-76,113 (emphasis added). The Meyer court ignored the inherent limitations of charging orders. Its confusion between the limited economic rights granted under a charging order and the full transfer of rights granted under a true assignment led it to the wrong result.
Some states have added provisions to their LLC Acts to clarify this point and avoid a Meyer result. Thomas Rutledge recently blogged about the Meyer case, here, and pointed out that Kentucky has amended its LLC Act to provide that “[a] charging order does not of itself constitute an assignment of the [LLC] interest.” Ky. Rev. Stat. § 275.260(3).
Michigan similarly provides in its LLC Act that a charging order is not an assignment of the member’s interest, and that the holder of a charging order does not become a member of the LLC. Mich. Comp. Laws § 450.4507.
One recent publication that is a useful reference for investigating state LLC charging order laws is Carter G. Bishop, Fifty State Series: LLC Charging Order Statutes , Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 10-03 (Oct. 6, 2011) .