Non-Shareholder Can Be Liable On Alter-Ego and Veil Piercing Theory – IL Bankruptcy Court

Buckley v. Abuzir  will likely be viewed as a watershed in piercing the corporate veil litigation because of its exhaustive analysis of when a non-shareholder can be personally liable for corporate debts.  In that case, the court provides an extensive survey of how nearly every jurisdiction in the country has decided the non-shareholder piercing question.

In re Tolomeo, 2015 WL 5444129 (N.D.Ill. 2015) considers the related question of whether a creditor can pierce the corporate veil of entities controlled by a debtor non-shareholder so that those entities’ assets become part of the debtors’ bankruptcy estate.

The answer: “yes.”  In their complaint, the creditors sought a determination that three companies owned by the debtor’s wife but controlled by the debtor were the debtors’ alter-egos.  The creditors of the debtor also sought to pierce the companies’ corporate veils so that the companies’ assets would be considered part of the debtor’s bankruptcy estate.  This would have the salutary effect of providing more funds for distribution to the various creditors.  After striking the debtor’s defenses to the complaint, the court granted the creditors motion for judgment on the pleadings. In doing so, the bankruptcy court applied some fundamental piercing principles to the situation where an individual debtor controls several companies even though he is not a nominal shareholder of the companies.

In Illinois, a corporation is a legal entity separate and distinct from its shareholders. However, this separateness will be disregarded where limited liability would defeat a strong equitable claim of a corporate creditor.

A party who seeks to set aside corporate liability protection on an alter-ego basis must make the two-part showing that (1) the company was so controlled and manipulated that it was a mere instrumentality of another entity or individual; and (2) misuse of the corporate form would promote fraud or injustice.

The mere instrumentality factors include (a) inadequate capitalization, (b) a failure to issue stock, (c) failure to observe corporate formalities, (d) nonpayment of dividends, (e) insolvency of the debtor corporation, (f) nonfunctioning officers or directors, (g) lack of corporate records, (h) commingling of funds, (i) diversion of assets from the corporation by or to a shareholder, (j) failure to maintain arm’s length relationships among related entities; and (k) the corporation being a mere façade for the dominant shareholders.

Promotion of injustice (factor (2) above)), in the veil piercing context, requires less than a showing of fraud but something more than the prospect of an unsatisfied judgment.

The court echoed Buckley and found that the corporate veil can be pierced to reach the assets of an individual even where he is not a shareholder, officer, director or employee.

The key question is whether a person exercises “equitable ownership and control” over a corporation to such an extent that there’s no demarcation between the corporation and the individual.  According to the court, making shareholder status a prerequisite for piercing liability elevates form over substance.

Applying these standards, the court found the circumstances ripe for piercing. The debtor controlled the three entities as he handled the day-to-day operations of the companies. He also freely shifted money between the entities and regularly paid his personal bills from company bank accounts. Finally, the court noted an utter lack of corporate records and threadbare compliance with rudimentary formalities. Taken together, the court found that the factors weighed in favor of finding that the three companies were the debtor’s alter-egos and the three entities should be considered part of the debtor’s bankruptcy estate.

Take-aways:

1/ A defendant’s status as a corporate shareholder will not dictate whether or not his assets can be reached in an alter-ego or veil piercing setting.

2/ If non-shareholder sufficiently controls a corporate entity, he can be responsible for the corporate debts assuming other piercing factors are present.

3/ Veil piercing can occur absent actual fraud by a controlling shareholder.  The creditor plaintiff must show more than a mere unpaid debt or unsatisfied judgment, though.  Instead, there must be some element of unfairness present for a court to set aside corporate protection and fasten liability to the individual.

 

 

Binding LLC to Operating Agreement A Substantive Change in Illinois Law; No Retroactive Effect – IL Court

The summer of 2017 ushered in a slew of changes, to Illinois’ limited liability company statute, 805 ILCS 180/15-1 et seq. (the “Act”).  Some of the key Act amendments included clarifying LLC member rights to access company records, explaining if and when a member or manager’s fiduciary duties can be eliminated or reduced, tweaking the Act’s judgment creditor remedies section, and changing the Act’s conversion (e.g. partnership to LLC or vice versa) and domestication rules.

Q Restaurant Group Holdings, LLC v. Lapidus, 2017 IL App (2d) 170804-U, examines another statutory change – one that binds an LLC to an operating agreement (OA) even where the LLC doesn’t sign it. See 805 ILCS 180/15-5.

The OA is the LLC’s governing document that sets forth each member’s (or manager’s) respective rights and obligations concerning contribution, distribution, voting rights and the like. The OA’s signing parties are typically the LLC members/managers – not the LLC itself.  Legally, this is significant because under privity of contract principles – only a party to a written agreement can sue to enforce it.

2017’s LLC Act changes make it clear that the LLC entity has standing to sue and be sued under the OA regardless of whether or not the LLC signed it.

The plaintiff in Lapidus sued the defendant for various business torts including conversion and tortious interference with contract. The defendant moved to dismiss the suit based on mandatory arbitration language in the OA.  Denying defendant’s Section 2-619 motion, the Court held that since the amended Section 15-5 of the Act worked a substantive change to the former LLC Act section, it didn’t apply retroactively. (The OA in Lapidus preceded the 2017 amendments.)

Rules/reasoning:

Affirming the trial court, the First District examined the dichotomy between procedural and substantive changes to legislation.  Where a statutory amendment is enacted after a lawsuit is filed, the Court looks to whether the legislature specified the reach (i.e. does it apply retroactively?) of the amendment.  Where new legislation is silent on its scope, the Court determines whether a given amendment is procedural or substantive.  If procedural, the amendment has retroactive effect.  If the change is substantive, however, it will only apply prospectively.

A procedural change is one that “prescribes the method of enforcing rights or obtaining redress” such as pleadings, evidence and practice.  A substantive change, by contrast, is one that establishes, creates or defines legal rights.  (¶¶ 15-16; citing to Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U.S. 244, 280 (1994); 5 ILCS 70/4 (Illinois’s Statute on Statutes))

In finding that amended Section 15-5 was a substantive change to Illinois’ LLC Act (and therefore couldn’t be applied retroactively) the court noted the amended statute “established a contractual right” by binding the LLC to an OA it never signed.

Since the plaintiff LLC in Lapidus never signed the OA, the Court couldn’t require the plaintiff to follow the OA’s arbitration clause without substantially altering the LLC’s contract rights.  As a result, the Court held that amended Section 15-5 did not apply to the pre-amendment OA and the plaintiff didn’t have to adhere to the arbitration clause.t have to adhere to the OA’s arbitration provisions. (¶¶ 18-19).

Afterwords:

I. To decide if a statutory amendment applies retroactively (as opposed to only being forward-looking), the court considers whether the change is procedural or substantive.

II. While the distinction between procedural and substantive isn’t always clear, Lapidus stands for proposition a change in the law that alters a parties basic contract rights (such as by making a non-party a party to an operating agreement) is substantive and will only apply in the future.

III.  And though the case is unpublished, Lapidus still makes for interesting reading in light of Illinois’ manifold LLC Act changes.  With so many recent statutory changes (see here_for example), this case likely augurs an uptick in cases interpreting the 2017 LLC Act amendments.

Veil Piercing Claim Triable By Jury; Consumer Fraud Act Applies to Failed Gas Station Sale – IL 3rd Dist.

An Illinois appeals court recently affirmed a $700K money judgment for a gas station buyer in a fraud case against the seller.

The plaintiff gas station buyer in Benzakry v. Patel, 2017 IL App(3d) 160162 sued the seller when the station closed only a few months after the sale.

The plaintiff alleged he relied on the seller’s misrepresenting the financial health and trustworthiness of the station tenant which led the plaintiff to go forward with the station purchase.  Plaintiff sued for common law and statutory fraud and sought to pierce the corporate veil of the LLC seller.

Affirming judgment for the plaintiff, the Third District discusses, among other things, the piercing the corporate veil remedy, the required evidentiary foundation for business records, the reliance element of fraud and the scope of the consumer fraud statute.

Piercing the Corporate Veil: Triable By Bench or Jury?

The jury pierced the seller LLC’s corporate veil and imposed liability on the lone LLC member.

The Court addressed this issue of first impression on appeal: whether a piercing the corporate veil claim is one for the court or jury.  The Court noted a split in Federal authority on the point.  In FMC v. Murphree, 632 F.2d 413 (5th Cir. 1980), the 5th Circuit held that a jury could hear a piercing claim while the  7th Circuit reached the opposite result (only a court can try a piercing action) in IFSC v. Chromas Technologies, 356 F.3d 731 (7th Cir. 2004).

The Court declined to follow either case since they applied only Federal procedural law (they were diversity cases).  The Court instead looked to Illinois state substantive law for guidance.

Generally, there is no right to a jury trial in equitable claims and piercing the corporate veil is considered an equitable remedy.  However, Code Section 2-1111 vests a court with discretion to direct any issue(s) involved in an equitable proceeding to be tried by a jury.  The appeals court found that the trial court acted within its discretion in deciding that the piercing claim should be decided by a jury. (¶¶ 29-30)

Consumer fraud – Advertisement on Web = ‘Public Injury’

The Third District reversed the trial court’s directed verdict for the defendants on the plaintiff’s Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) count.  Consumer fraud predicated on deceptive practices requires the plaintiff to prove (1) a deceptive act or practice by a defendant, (2) defendant’s intent that the plaintiff rely on the deception, (3) the occurrence of the deception during a course of conduct involving trade or commerce, (4) actual damage to the plaintiff, and (5) damage proximately caused by the deception.

The trial court sided with the defendant on this count since the plaintiff didn’t prove that defendants conduct resulted in injury to the public generally.  CFA Section 10a (815 ILCS 505/10a) used to require a plaintiff to prove that a misrepresentation involved trade practice that addressed the market generally.  However, a 1990 amendment to the Act changed that.  The current version of the Act doesn’t require a plaintiff to show public injury except under limited circumstances.

Even so, the Court still held that the defendant’s misstating the gas station’s annual fuel and convenience store sales on a generally accessible website constituted a public injury under the CFA.

Going further, the Court construed the CFA broadly by pointing to the statutory inclusion of the works “trade” and “commerce.”  This evinced the legislative intent to expand the CFA’s scope.  Since defendant’s misrepresentations concerning the tenant were transmitted to the public via advertisements and to the plaintiff through e-mails, the Court viewed this as deceptive conduct involving trade or commerce under the CFA.  (¶¶ 81-82)

Computer-Generated Business Records: Document Retention vs. Creation

While it ultimately didn’t matter (the business records were cumulative evidence that didn’t impact the judgment amount), the Court found that bank statements offered into evidence did not meet the test for admissibility under Illinois evidence rules.

The proponent of computer-generated business records must show (1) the equipment that created a document is recognized as standard, and (2) the computer entries were made in the regular course of business at or reasonably near the happening of the event recorded.

Showing “mere retention” of a document isn’t enough: the offering party must produce evidence of a document’s creation to satisfy the business records admissibility standard.  Here, the plaintiff failed to offer foundational testimony concerning the creation of the seller’s bank statements and those statements shouldn’t have been admitted into evidence.

Take-aways:

1/ The Court has discretion to order that an equitable piercing the corporate veil claim be tried to a jury;

2/ Inadequate capitalization, non-functioning shareholders and commingling of funds are badges of fraud or injustice sufficient to support a piercing the corporate veil remedy;

3/ Computer-generated business records proponent must offer foundational testimony of a document’s creation to get the records in over a hearsay objection;

4/ False advertising data on a public website can constitute a deceptive practice under the consumer fraud statute.