LLC Stopped From Selling Member’s Residence In Violation of Prior Charging Order – Utah Federal Court

Q: Can A Court Stop An LLC That Pays the Monthly Mortgage of One of Its Members From Selling that Member’s Home Where A Charging Order Has Issued Against the LLC to Enforce a Money Judgment Against the LLC Member?

A: Yes.

Q2: How So?

A2: By selling the member’s property and paying off the member’s mortgage with the sale proceeds, the LLC is effectively “paying the member” to the exclusion of the plaintiff judgment creditor.

Source: Earthgrains Baking Companies, Inc. v. Sycamore Family Bakery, Inc., et al, USDC Utah 2015 (https://casetext.com/case/earthgrains-baking-cos-v-sycamore-family-bakery-inc-3)

In this case, the plaintiff won a multi-million dollar money judgment against a corporate and individual defendant in a trademark dispute.  The plaintiff then secured a charging order against a LLC of which the individual defendant was a 48% member.  When the LLC failed to respond to the charging order, the plaintiff moved for an order of contempt against the LLC and sought to stop the LLC from selling the defendant’s home.

The court granted the contempt motion.  First, the court found that it had jurisdiction over the LLC.  The LLC argued that Utah lacked jurisdiction over it since the LLC was formed in Nevada.  The LLC claimed that under the “internal affairs” doctrine, the state of the LLC’s formation – Nevada – governs legal matters concerning the LLC.

Disagreeing, the court noted that a LLC’s internal affairs are limited only to “matters peculiar to the relationships among or between the corporation and its current officers, directors, and shareholders.”  The internal affairs doctrine does not apply to claims of third party creditors.  Here, since the plaintiff was a creditor of the LLC’s member, this was not a dispute between LLC and member.  As a result, the internal affairs rule didn’t apply and the Utah court had jurisdiction over the LLC since a LLC member lived in Utah.  (See Cosgrove v. Bartolotta, 150 F.3d 729, 731 (7th Cir. 1998)).

The Charging Order required the LLC to pay any distribution that would normally go to the member directly to the plaintiff until the money judgment was satisfied.  The Charging Order specifically mentions transfers characterized or designated as payment for defendant’s “loans,” among other things.

The LLC was making monthly mortgage payments on the member’s home and listed the home for sale in the amount of $4M.  Plaintiff wanted to prevent the sale since there was a prior $2M mortgage on the home.

In blocking the sale, the court found that if the LLC sold the member’s home and paid off the member’s mortgage lender with the proceeds, this would violate the Charging Order since it would constitute an indirect payment to the member.  The court deemed any payoff of the member’s mortgage a “distribution” (a direct or indirect transfer of money or property from LLC to member) under the Utah’s LLC Act. (Utah Code Ann. § 48-2c-102(5)(a)).

Since the Charging Order provided that any loan payments involving the member were to be paid to the plaintiff until the judgment is satisfied, the court found that to allow the LLC to sell the property and disburse the proceeds to a third party (the lender) would harm the plaintiff in its ability to satisfy the judgment.

Afterwords:

An interesting case that discusses the intricacies of charging orders and the thorny questions that arise when trying to figure out where to sue an LLC that has contacts in several states.  The case portrays a court willing to give an expansive interpretation of what constitutes an indirect distribution from an LLC to its member. 

Earthgrains also reflects a court endeavoring to protect a creditor’s judgment rights where an LLC and its member appear to be engaging in misdirection (if not outright deception) in order to elude the creditor.

[A special thanks to attorney and Forbes contributor Jay Adkisson for alerting me to this case (http://www.forbes.com/sites/jayadkisson/)]

 

Saying “I Wasn’t Served” Not Enough to Challenge Service Return On Corp. Registered Agent – IL Law

In Charles Austin, Ltd. v. A-1 Food Services, Inc., 2014 IL App (1st) 132384, the First District affirmed the denial of a corporate defendant’s Section 2-1401 motion to vacate a judgment.

About three months after judgment, the defendant sought to vacate the judgment claiming it was never served with the lawsuit.  The trial court denied the motion leaving the judgment intact.

Q: Why?

A:  

1/ A party can serve a private corporation by leaving the complaint and summons with the registered agent or any officer or agent of the corporation found anywhere in the State. 735 ILCS 5/2-204;

2/ An affidavit of service is prima facie proof of proper service and the court will indulge every presumption in favor of finding that service was proper;

3/ To attack service, the moving party must produce evidence that casts doubt on the return of service by clear and convincing evidence;

4/ A conclusory affidavit that merely says “I was never served” isn’t sufficient to refute a return of service.  ¶ 16.

Here, the defendant’s affidavit saying he didn’t recall receiving the plaintiff’s complaint wasn’t enough to contest service on the corporation.  A defendant’s bare assertion that it doesn’t remember receiving a summons and complaint is not the kind of evidence required to impeach a facially valid service return. ¶ 19.

In Illinois, to vacate a judgment more than 30 days old,  a petitioner must show (1) the existence of a meritorious defense, (2) due diligence in presenting the defense in the underlying claim, and due diligence in filing the 2-1401 petition.

The defendant failed to show a meritorious defense.  The plaintiff alleged the predecessor corporation secretly sold its assets to the defendant – the acquiring entity – while the litigation was pending and did so to elude the debt to the plaintiff.  A well-known exception to the general rule that a successor corporation doesn’t assume the debts of a corporate predecessor is where the seller engages in a fraudulent transaction to avoid the seller’s contract obligations.

Here, the court found that the fraud exception to the rule against successor liability applied.

The court found that plaintiff sufficiently pled under Illinois fact-pleading rules that the sale of the predecessor’s assets to the defendant was fraudulent and done for the purpose of evading the plaintiff’s contract rights.  As a result, the meritorious defense argument failed.  ¶¶ 28-37.

The defendant also failed to establish due diligence in raising its defenses to the underlying breach of contract suit.  The court noted the defendant’s registered agent was served with process in October 2012, the judgment entered in January 2013, the defendant’s bank account was liened in May 2013 and it didn’t file its 2-1401 motion until June 2013.

The eight month delay in responding to the lawsuit signaled its lack of diligence in defending the suit.

Take-aways:

– To challenge service, a defendant must do more than blanketly allege that he doesn’t recall receiving a pleading;

– If a plaintiff alleges factual basis for his claim, the defendant trying to vacate a default judgment will have difficulty meeting 2-1401’s meritorious defense element.

Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act: Actual Fraud, Constructive Fraud and Transfers for Insufficient Value: IL Law Basics

The Illinois Fraudulent Transfer Act (“FTA”) – 740 ILCS 160/1 et seq. – is a powerful creditor enforcement tool aimed at capturing assets transferred by a judgment debtor to elude a money judgment.  

In United Central Bank v. Sindhu, 2014 WL 3748555, the bank obtained a $4.3M judgment against the defendant.  After initiating various citations to discover assets, the bank learned that several months after the judgment, the defendant transferred three properties to his sister – including one residence property valued at over $3M.   He also received and turned over several rent checks on one of the transferred commercial properties.

 The plaintiff filed an FTA suit against the defendant and his sister seeking the turnover of the $3M property and the rent checks.  The defendants moved to dismiss all complaint counts.  The Court denied the bulk of the motion.

Operative Rules and Reasoning:

FTA Sections 5(a)(1), (2) and 6 govern claims based on actual fraud, constructive fraud and for pre-transfer claims, respectively.

The FTA’s actual fraud provision – Section 5(a)(1) – requires a plaintiff to plead that a debtor transferred property with actual intent to hinder or defraud a creditor, whether the claim arose before or after the transfer was made. 

Actual fraud factors include whether (1) the transfer or obligation was to an insider;

(2) the transfer or obligation was disclosed or concealed;

(3) before the transfer was made or obligation was incurred, the debtor had been sued or threatened with suit;

(4) the transfer was of substantially all the debtor’s assets;

(5) the debtor removed or concealed assets;

(6) the value of the consideration received by the debtor was reasonably equivalent to the value of the asset transferred or the amount of the obligation incurred. 

To plead FTA constructive fraud (Section 5(a)(2)), the plaintiff must allege that the transfer was made, before or after a creditor’s claim matured, and the debtor never received reasonably equivalent value in exchange for the transfer.

The constructive fraud plaintiff must also allege that the debtor engaged in or was about to engage in a transaction that left the debtor with zero or unreasonably small remaining assets, or should have believed that he (the debtor) would incur debts beyond his ability to pay as they became due. (*3).

FTA Section 6(a) applies only to creditor claims that arose before a debtor’s transfer of assets.  

An FTA Section 6(a) plaintiff must establish that (1) the debtor made a transfer without receiving a reasonably equivalent in exchange for the transfer; (2) that the debtor was insolvent at that time or became insolvent as the result of the transfer; and (3) the creditor’s claim arose before the transfer.  (*3).

The Court found that the plaintiff sufficiently alleged valid FTA claims under all three sections.

The thrust of the complaint was that (a) several months after the money judgment, (b) the defendant secretly transferred multiple million dollar properties and rent checks to a family member (an insider) and (c) received little or nothing in return for the transfers. 

Defendant’s sister (the transferee) argued that she retired over $1.5M in the debtor’s mortgage debt in return for the conveyance of the $3M residence property. 

However, since the property was worth more than twice the amount of the retired mortgage debt, the Court found that the defendant didn’t receive a reasonably equivalent value in exchange. 

Taken together, the Court found these allegations satisfied the pleading standards for an FTA actual fraud and constructive fraud claim for transfers made before or after a creditor’s claim arose. 

Take-aways:

Sindhu shows in sharp relief the fruits of aggressive post-judgment collection efforts.  

Had the plaintiff not so ardently pursued its claims, the defendant could have transferred substantial assets properties and likely escaped the judgment.