Claimant Allowed to Proceed Against Tennessee LLC That Distributed Its Assets

A dissolved Tennessee LLC that had distributed all its assets was sued for fraud and breach of contract. The Tennessee LLC Act allows claimants to sue a dissolved LLC, but only “to the extent of its undistributed assets.” The LLC defended the suit on grounds that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue because the LLC had no undistributed assets. The court rejected that defense and allowed the claims against the dissolved LLC to go forward on a theory of successor liability. Croteau v. Nat’l Better Living Ass’n, No. CV 12-200-M-DWM, 2013 WL 3030629 (D. Mont. May 30, 2013).

Carol Croteau and two other plaintiffs were insureds whose claims for comprehensive health benefits had been denied. They sued their insurance company, the broker, the marketer, and others, alleging fraud, breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and RICO violations.

One of the defendants was Albert Cormier Solutions, LLC, a Tennessee LLC (ACS). ACS brought a motion to dismiss the claims against it. Its defense was that it lacked the capacity to be sued because its legal existence had been terminated and its assets distributed prior to the filing of the complaint. Id. at *1.

ACS was administratively dissolved by the Tennessee Secretary of State in 2010, under Section 48-249-605 of the Tennessee LLC Act. In 2011 ACS filed articles of termination with the Secretary of State, under Section 48-249-612. The articles of termination stipulated that all assets had been distributed to creditors and members. Id.

ACS’s defense relied on Section 48-249-611(d):

            If the dissolved LLC does not comply with the provisions of subsection (b) [written notice to known claimants] or (c) [notice by publication], then claimants against the LLC not barred by this section may enforce their claims:

(1) Against the dissolved LLC, to the extent of its undistributed assets; or

(2) If the assets have been distributed in liquidation, against a member or holder of financial rights of the dissolved LLC to the extent of the member’s or holder’s pro rata share of the claim, or the LLC assets distributed to the member or holder in liquidation, whichever is less, but a member’s or holder’s total liability for all claims under this section may not exceed the total amount of assets distributed to the member or holder; provided, that a claim may not be enforced against a member or holder of a dissolved LLC who received a distribution in liquidation after three (3) years from the date of the filing of articles of termination.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 48-249-611(d) (emphasis added). ACS argued that because claims against a dissolved LLC can only be enforced to the extent of undistributed assets, and it had none, that therefore there were no enforceable claims against it and the plaintiffs’ complaint must be dismissed.

The court first looked to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17(b)(2) to address the choice-of-law issue. That rule provides that a corporation’s capacity to be sued is determined by the state law under which it was organized. ACS was organized as a Tennessee LLC, so the court applied Tennessee law.

The court addressed ACS’s argument by pointing out that Section 48-249-611(d) is phrased in the disjunctive: a claimant against a dissolved LLC that has not given notice to creditors or published notice may proceed either against the dissolved LLC to the extent of its undistributed assets or against the members of the dissolved LLC to the extent of assets distributed to the members. Thus, the claim can be prosecuted against either the LLC or its members, with the members implicitly being treated as successors to the LLC.

The court concluded that “[p]laintiffs’ claims on a theory of successor liability are therefore legally sufficient under § 48-249-611(d)(2) as they are brought within three years of the filing of the filing [sic] of articles terminating the existence of ACS.” Croteau, 2013 WL 3030629, at *2. Note that subsection 611(d)(2) is the paragraph covering the enforceability of claims against the members, not the LLC.

The court pointed out that if pre-trial discovery reveals information that would support claims against ACS’s members, joinder of such members may be required under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 19(a)(1).

Comment. The result here is clearly right, although the opinion is a little confusing. The court allowed the plaintiffs to proceed with their claims against ACS “on a theory of successor liability,” but the members are the successors to ACS, not the other way around. In effect the court let the case proceed against ACS as a stand-in for the members, which is presumably why it referred to the potential requirement for joinder of the members.

Bankruptcy Court Refuses to Pierce the Veil of Tennessee LLC

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee ruled in August that an LLC’s creditor could not pierce the LLC’s veil to assert its claim against the LLC’s sole member. In a twist, the LLC’s member, not the LLC, was the debtor in bankruptcy. In re Steffner, No. 11-51315, 2012 WL 3563978 (Bankr. E.D. Tenn., Aug. 17, 2012).

Veil-piercing cases arise frequently, but Steffner presents an unusual posture. Veil-piercing claims are often asserted when an LLC’s creditor wants to add a claim against someone with more assets than the LLC, such as a member of the LLC. But when the object of the veil-piercing claim (the LLC member) is in bankruptcy, even a successful attempt to pierce the LLC’s veil will result in the plaintiff being an unsecured creditor in the bankruptcy, likely receiving only cents on the dollar.

Hulsing Hotels Tennessee, Inc. obtained a state court judgment against Sleep Quest Diagnostics, LLC in 2009. Edward Steffner, Sleep Quest’s sole member, filed for bankruptcy in 2011. Hulsing then commenced an adversary proceeding in Steffner’s bankruptcy, to pierce the veil of Sleep Quest and assert Hulsing’s Sleep Quest judgment against Steffner. Hulsing also requested denial of Steffner’s bankruptcy discharge, which would have allowed Hulsing to continue to assert its claim post-bankruptcy.

Hulsing based its veil-piercing claim on the following: (1) Sleep Quest and Specialty Respiratory Services, LLC (SRS), another entity owned by Steffner, shared the same office building, bank, and accountant; (2) on the day that Hulsing served a garnishment on Sleep Quest’s bank account, Sleep Quest transferred $4,886 from the account to SRS, leaving a balance of only 17 cents; (3) when Steffner learned that Hulsing had garnished funds owed to Sleep Quest by two insurance companies, Steffner informed Sleep Quest’s bank, which held a perfected security interest on Sleep Quest’s accounts receivable, and the bank filed a motion in state court to quash Hulsing’s garnishment; (4) there had been numerous transfers of funds between Sleep Quest and SRS; (5) Sleep Quest had filed a number of reimbursement claims with the two insurance companies under a third-party physician’s provider number; and (6) Steffner’s initial filing of the list of his creditors in the Bankruptcy Court included the business debts of Sleep Quest and SRS.

The Bankruptcy Court applied Tennessee law, which will disregard the veil of an LLC’s liability shield and hold its members liable for the LLC’s debts when it “is a sham or a dummy or where necessary to accomplish justice,” when there is misconduct on the part of officers or directors, when the entity is created or used for an improper purpose, or when the entity’s form has been abused. Id. at *4 (quoting Schlater v. Haynie, 833 S.W.2d 919, 925 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1991)). The standards are the same for an LLC as for a corporation, and are to be applied cautiously and with a presumption of corporate regularity. Id.

A number of factors should be considered in determining whether to pierce the veil of a corporation or an LLC: undercapitalization, diversion of corporate assets, and the failure to maintain arm’s-length relations among related parties, among others. No one factor is conclusive, and it is not required that all of the factors weigh in favor of piercing the veil. Id. at *5.

The Steffner court systematically analyzed Hulsing’s contentions. Although Sleep Quest and SRS operated out of the same building (in different suites) and used the same bank, attorneys, and accountants, the two companies were formed at different times and for different purposes. The court pointed out that closely held businesses often use the same professionals for convenience, and the professionals and businesses who dealt with Steffner and the two companies treated them as separate entities. Id.

The transfers between Sleep Quest and SRS were documented as loans in the companies’ internal accounting records. The transfer of $4,886 on the day of Hulsing’s garnishment of the bank account was documented as a loan, with the result shown as a receivable on Sleep Quest’s books. The court saw that the timing of that transfer may have been “more than coincidental” but found that was not enough to pierce the veil. Id.

The court found Steffner’s disclosure to Sleep Quest’s bank that Hulsing had garnished Sleep Quest’s receivables that were the subject of the bank’s perfected security interest to be nonobjectionable. “Merely preferring one creditor over another is not a basis for piercing the corporate veil.” Id. at *6. And Sleep Quest’s use of an identifier number other than its own was not illegal or fraudulent, and did not divert or conceal any funds due to Sleep Quest.

The Steffners had initially listed the debts of Sleep Quest and SRS in their bankruptcy schedules, but the court saw that as a common practice, intended to give notice to all creditors who might have a claim against the debtor. Those debts would normally be listed as disputed, but Steffner made that clear at the meeting of creditors and in subsequent amendments to the schedules.

The court concluded that Sleep Quest was not a sham or a fraud and that the corporate formalities had been observed. Steffner had not used the LLC form of Sleep Quest for an improper purpose, and there was no misconduct by Steffner. Id. at *8. The court therefore dismissed Hulsing’s veil-piercing claim against Steffner.

Comment. Veil-piercing cases are noted for their lack of predictability, and sometimes courts strain to pierce the veil when the LLC has only a single member. For example, earlier this year I posted here about Colorado’s Martin v. Freeman case, where the veil of a single-member LLC was pierced without any showing of wrongdoing.

The Bankruptcy Court in Steffner took a more even-handed approach. The court put no undue emphasis on Steffner’s sole ownership of the LLC and rejected the veil-piercing claim, implicitly recognizing the legitimacy of an LLC’s liability shield even for single-member LLCs.

The court’s analysis also underscores the importance of properly documenting transactions between affiliated companies. There were numerous transfers of cash between the two companies in Steffner, but they were all reflected as loans in their accounting records. If those cash flows had not been properly booked, the case likely would have come out the other way.

Kansas Authorizes Series LLCs

Kansas recently became the latest state to authorize series limited liability companies. Governor Sam Brownback signed Substitute House Bill 2207 on March 29, 2012, amending the Kansas Limited Liability Company Act to authorize series LLCs. Sub. H.R. 2207. The bill will become law on July 1, 2012, and Kansas will then join the eight other states that have authorized series LLCs.

Series LLCs. A series LLC can partition its assets and members into one or more separate series, each of which can have designated members and managers, and can own its own assets separately from the assets of the LLC or any other series. The liabilities of each series will be enforceable only against the assets of that series, and each series can enter into contracts, sue, and be sued in its own name.

Multiple series within one LLC can be used to avoid some of the inefficiencies and costs involved with using multiple LLCs. For example, separate parcels of real estate could each be owned by a separate series, but all within one LLC. Or, the divisions of a business could be held within one LLC, but with each division in a separate series.

Other States. Delaware was the first state to authorize series LLCs, in 1996. Del. Code Ann. tit. 6, § 18-215. Since then Illinois, Iowa, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah have enacted statutes similar to Delaware’s, although there are some differences. I previously wrote about series LLCs when Texas passed its series LLC law in 2009, here, and when the Internal Revenue Service proposed regulations for series LLCs, here.

Kansas Requirements. The Kansas statute is similar in many respects to the Delaware Act. Both authorize an LLC’s operating agreement to establish one or more designated series, and both provide that the liabilities of a series are enforceable only against the assets of the series and not against the LLC generally (and vice versa), if

  1. the records of the series account for its assets separately from the assets of any      other series or the LLC generally,
  2. the operating agreement states the liability limitations, and
  3. the certificate of formation, and in the case of a Kansas LLC, the articles of organization, give notice of the limitations on liability.

Series LLCs are relatively new. There are few reported opinions dealing with series LLCs, and the IRS’s proposed regulations have not yet been finalized. There are therefore many unresolved legal questions about series LLC issues such as taxation, bankruptcy, liability limitations, and piercing the veil, particularly when doing business in states outside the state of formation. Caution is advised when implementing a series LLC, given the uncertainty and lack of predictability inherent in their use.

Texas Joins the Series LLC Crowd

Texas has joined the seven other states that have authorized series LLCs. The Texas bill authorizing series LLCs was signed by Governor Perry in May and will become effective on September 1, 2009. S.B. 1442. The states that currently authorize series LLCs are Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.

Most state LLC acts allow an LLC to provide for classes of members with different member rights per class. But a series LLC can go further by establishing multiple series of assets, members and managers. The debts and obligations of a series will be enforceable only against the series’ assets, and will not be enforceable against the other series in the LLC or against the LLC generally, and vice versa. The members associated with a series can be given separate rights and duties with regard to the assets of the series.

 

The separation of assets and partitioning of liabilities between series, all within one LLC, can avoid many of the inefficiencies and costs associated with multiple related entities. For example, a series LLC could be used to hold multiple parcels of real estate, each in a separate series and all within the one LLC. Or, separate divisions of a business could be held by one LLC, but with each division in a separate series.

 

The Texas statute is similar in many respects to the Delaware act. Both authorize an LLC’s operating agreement to establish one or more designated series. Both acts provide that the liabilities of a series are enforceable only against the assets of the series and not against the LLC generally (and vice versa), if

(a)        the records of the series account for its assets separately from the assets of any other series or the LLC generally,

(b)        the operating agreement states the liability limitations, and

(c)        the certificate of formation gives notice of the limitations on liability.

Each series may in its own name sue and be sued, contract, and hold title to its assets, including real estate and personal property.

 

Series LLCs can be useful, but there are legal uncertainties involved in their use. Series LLCs are relatively new – Delaware was the first state to authorize series LLCs, in 1996, and there is almost no case law on them. Major areas of uncertainty involve taxation, bankruptcy, and doing business in multiple states.

 

There are many open tax questions with regard to series LLCs. Although the Internal Revenue Service issued a Private Letter Ruling in 2008 and clarified that each series’ federal tax characterization is determined independently, other state and federal tax questions remain.

 

It is unclear whether an LLC series will be treated as a debtor in federal bankruptcy court, or whether the bankruptcy court will ignore the series and only consider the entire LLC. The result may depend on whether the relevant state law will treat the series as a separate entity with its own liability shield.

 

Including Texas there are now eight states whose LLC acts authorize series LLC, but that leaves 42 other states with no series provisions in their acts. It is not at all clear what the courts of a non-series state would do when faced with a claim by a local creditor against an out-of-state series LLC formed under the laws of, say, Delaware. Will the non-series state honor the series structure and respect the internal liability shield? Would a non-series state even allow a series of an LLC formed under the laws of another state to register to transact business in the non-series  state?

 

The law of series LLCs is an infant, still a little unsteady on its feet. But at one time LLCs were new and LLC law was the infant. There were many articles back then pointing out the uncertainties and risks of using LLCs when they were first adopted by Wyoming in 1977 and later by other states. Many conservative lawyers recommended against using LLCs in the early years of their authorization by the various states, but eventually all the states authorized LLCs. Today LLC law is more mature and LLCs are the most popular entity form for new businesses. History predicts that the question for series LLCs is not whether they will become routinely used, but when.