A corporation or limited liability company provides multiple advantages to business owners which is why business lawyers so frequently recommend their use. Among the most significant of these advantages is limited liability, a concept grounded in the fact that the entity has a separate legal existence from its owners and therefore its obligations are not those of its shareholders or members. Of course an owner may voluntarily agree to be responsible for such obligations as, for example, would be the case if he or she guarantees the entity’s bank borrowing. The shield of limited liability is not, however absolute. It can be breached rendering owners financially responsible for the entity’s obligations. In Pennsylvania, as in most states, there is a strong presumption against ignoring the distinction between the entity and its owners. However certain conduct by business owners will result in the court’s “piercing the veil” – ignoring the distinction between the corporation or limited liability company and its owners. Generally, courts will pierce the veil when those in control of the entity use that control, or use the entity’s assets, to further his, her or their own personal interests. While there is no single test to determine when the piercing of the veil is appropriate courts look to many factors.
1. Is the entity undercapitalized?
2. Did the owners fail to adhere to requisite formalities such as holding shareholder and directors meetings and keeping appropriate records?
3. Was the entity insolvent at the relevant time?
4. In the case of a corporation were dividends paid or were corporate funds siphoned into the pockets of the controlling shareholders?
5. Was there a functional board of directors and corporate officers managing the affairs of the entity?
6. Was there substantial intermingling of the financial affairs of the entity and its owner(s)? 7. Under the circumstances, was the entity form used to perpetrate a fraud? Generally, the court will pierce the corporate veil when a review of these factors shows that the form is a sham, constituting a facade for the operations of the dominant shareholder or member making the entity effectively the “alter ego” of the individual(s).
Earlier this year, amendments to Pennsylvania’s statutes governing partnerships and limited liability companies (often referred to as unincorporated entities or alternative entities) went into effect. I recently blogged about the “transferable interest” concept adopted by the Act. Today, in Part 2 of this series, I highlight another significant change brought about by Act 170: the clarification of the fiduciary and other duties owed in the context of an unincorporated entity. In general, there are three basic duties:
• Duty of loyalty: generally, a duty to avoid self-dealing, competing and usurping company or partnership opportunities
• Duty of care: a duty to refrain from gross negligence and recklessness
• Duty of good faith and fair dealing: a duty to deal fairly and consistently with the terms of the parties’ agreement and the purpose of the entity
In a general partnership, each partner owes the above duties to each of the other partners and to the entity.
In a limited partnership: (a) the general partner owes each of these duties to the limited partners and to the partnership; and (b) the limited partners owe only a duty of good faith and fair dealing to each other.
In a manager-managed LLC: (a) the manager owes these duties to the members and to the entity; and (b) the members owe a duty of good faith and fair dealing to each other. In a member-managed LLC, the members owe these duties to each other and the company.
Some of these duties may be modified by agreement of the parties. In their operating or partnership agreement, the parties may modify, but not eliminate, the duty of loyalty and the duty of care, as long as the modification is not “manifestly unreasonable.” This standard is not defined and is left to the courts to interpret, but in general the agreement cannot convert the relationship into a strictly arm’s length relationship. The duty of good faith and fair dealing may not be modified or removed, but the owners’ agreement can identify the standards by which this duty will be measured.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly, with significant input from the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Business Law Section, recently passed Act 170, which overhauls the statutes governing partnerships and limited liability companies (often referred to as unincorporated entities or alternative entities). This Act brings these statutes up to date with the uniform laws on which they are based and is now in effect for all new and all existing unincorporated entities. These comprehensive amendments provide default rules for governance and other matters that fill the gaps in the absence of an operating agreement or partnership agreement (or the absence of applicable provisions in those documents). Accordingly, it is important for owners of partnerships and LLCs to review their governing documents and be sure they have a clear understanding of how these new rules apply to them. Owners should work with counsel to draft provisions to vary these default rules if that is the desired outcome.
One significant change brought about by the Act is the recognition that equity interests in unincorporated entities are bifurcated into governance rights (including consent, management, and information rights) and economic rights (i.e., the right to receive distributions). The amendments adopt a concept called a “transferable interest”, which is an interest in the partnership or LLC that includes only economic rights. The holder of a transferable interest has no governance rights; he or she has only the right to receive distributions from the entity (but not the right to demand or sue for distributions). The transferable interest approach honors the “pick your partner” principle, which assures owners of a business entity that they will be able to choose the co-owners of the enterprise. Under the revised statute, the only interest that can be conveyed to a non-member is a transferable interest, unless the operating agreement provides otherwise or the other owners expressly agree. Thus, a creditor foreclosing on a member’s equity interest or a person seeking to attach a spouse’s equity interest in a divorce proceeding can take only a transferable interest. This limitation on the rights of non-members affords owners important protections from assertions of control by outsiders which may not be in the best interest of the entity or its members. The exception to this rule is that a creditor foreclosing on an equity interest in a single-member LLC will take the full membership interest (governance and economic rights). The rationale for this exception is that because there is only one member, the “pick your partner” rationale does not apply to limit the rights of the lender.
Just when minority owners of Delaware LLCs thought that the Delaware Limited Liability Company Act (the “Act”) protected them from overreaching managers, along comes the Delaware Supreme Court to say “better get it in writing.” It appears that practitioners longing for certainty will have to wait until the Delaware legislature steps in and revises the statute.
The Delaware Supreme Court recently published an opinion in a case involving a Delaware LLC (Gatz Properties, LLC) that was the manager of another LLC (Peconic Bay, LLC). Gatz Properties is managed and controlled by William Gatz, and the Gatz family and their affiliates owned controlling equity interests in Peconic Bay. They also owned real estate that was leased to Peconic Bay, which in turn subleased the property to a national golf course operator. The golf course proved to be unprofitable because it was poorly managed, and Mr. Katz anticipated that the sublease would be terminated. He decided to acquire the sublease and Peconic Bay’s other assets for himself. Consequently, he foiled the efforts of a third party to buy the sublease rights. He then engaged a valuation expert to appraise the property but did not provide the expert with information about the prior third party offers or tell the expert that the golf course’s unattractive financials were the result of its being mismanaged. Not surprisingly, the resulting appraisal showed that Peconic Bay had no net positive value. Next, Mr. Katz hired an auctioneer with no experience in the golf course industry to sell the golf course business. After lackluster advertising for the auction, Mr. Katz was the sole bidder and acquired the property for $50,000 plus the assumption of debt. Peconic Bay’s minority members brought suit in the Delaware Court of Chancery, alleging that Mr. Katz had breached his fiduciary duties to them. The Court of Chancery held that Gatz had breached both his contractual and statutory duties to the minority members, and Gatz appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court.
The Delaware Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Chancery that the LLC agreement’s clear language prohibited self-dealing without the consent of 2/3 of the minority owners, and Mr. Gatz testified on several occasions that he understood that Gatz Properties owned fiduciary duties to the minority members. The Court also upheld the lower court’s finding that Gatz breached this duty.
Moving on to whether Gatz breached a statutory duty under the Act, the Court noted that it was “improvident and unnecessary” for the Court of Chancery to decide that the Act imposed “default” fiduciary duties on managers where the LLC agreement is silent because, in the case at bar, the issue could be decided by interpreting the text of the LLC agreement. Additionally, no litigant asked that the lower court resolve the issue by interpreting the Act. Another concern for the Court was the lower court’s suggestion that its statutory interpretation should withstand scrutiny because practitioners rely on its rulings. The Court remarked that, as the highest court in Delaware, it was not bound to follow the lower court’s decisions. The Court rebuked the lower court for using the case at hand as a “platform to propagate [its] world views on issues not presented.” The Court concluded its reprimand by stating that because the issue of whether the Act imposes default fiduciary duties is one on which reasonable minds can differ, the matter should be left to the legislature to clarify.
Following the decision in Gatz Properties, equity holders in Delaware manager-managed LLCs would be prudent to clearly identify in the LLC agreement which fiduciary duties are intended to apply to their managers. Given the Court’s position that the issue is a matter for the legislature (not the courts) to decide, practitioners will be monitoring the activities of the legislature to see if it takes up the gauntlet.