Fourth Circuit Considers Reverse Piercing, Charging Orders, and Jurisdictional Challenges in Pilfered Cable Case

Sky Cable v. Coley (http://www.ca4.uscourts.gov/opinions/161920.P.pdf) examines the interplay between reverse piercing the corporate veil, the exclusivity of the charging order remedy, and jurisdiction over an unserved (with process) LLC based on its member’s acts.

In 2011, the plaintiff cable distributor sued two LLCs affiliated with an individual defendant (“Individual Defendant”) who was secretly supplying cable TV to over 2,000 rooms and pocketing the revenue.

After unsuccessfully trying to collect on a $2.3M judgment, plaintiff later moved to amend the judgment to include three LLCs connected to the Individual Defendant under a reverse veil-piercing theory. The Individual Defendant and one of the LLCs appealed the District Court order that broadened the scope of the judgment.

Affirming, the Fourth Circuit, applying Delaware law, found that the District Court properly reverse-pierced the Individual Defendant to reach LLC assets.

‘Reverse’ Veil Piercing

Unlike traditional veil piercing, which permits a court to hold an individual  shareholder personally liable for a corporate judgment, reverse piercing attaches liability to the entity for a judgment against a controlling individual. [10, 11]

Reverse piercing is especially apt in the one-member LLC context as there is no concern about prejudicing the rights of others LLC members if the LLC veil is pierced.

In predicting that a Delaware court would recognize reverse piercing, the Court held that if Delaware courts immunized an LLC from liability for a member’s debts, LLC members could hide assets with impunity to shirk creditors. [18, 19]

Charging Order Exclusivity?

The Court also rejected the Individual Defendant’s argument that Delaware’s charging statute, 6 Del. Code s. 18-703 was the judgment creditor’s exclusive remedy against an LLC member.

Delaware’s charging statute specifies that attachment, garnishment and foreclosure “or other legal or equitable remedies” are not available to the judgment creditor of an LLC member.

However, the Court found that piercing “is not the type of remedy that the [charging statute] was designed to prohibit” since the piercing remedy differs substantively from the creditor remedies mentioned in the charging statute.  The Court found that unlike common law creditor actions aimed at seizing a debtor’s property – piercing (or reverse-piercing) challenges the legitimacy of the LLC entity itself. As a result, the Court found that the plaintiff wasn’t confined to a charging order against the Individual Defendant’s LLC distributions.

The Court further held that applying Delaware’s charging law in a manner that precludes reverse piercing would impede Delaware’s interest in preventing its state-chartered corporate entities from being used as “vehicles for fraud”
by debtors trying to escape its debts. [20-22]

Alter Ego Finding

The Court also agreed with the lower court’s finding that the LLC judgment debtor was the Individual Defendant’s alter ego.  In Delaware, a creditor can establish does not have to show actual fraud. Instead, it (the creditor) can establish alter ego liability by demonstrating a “mingling of the operations of the entity and its owner plus an ‘overall element of injustice or unfairness.” [24-25]

Here, the evidence in the record established that the Individual Defendant and his three LLCs operated as a single economic unit.  The Court also noted the Individual Defendant’s failure to observe basic corporate formalities, lack of accounting records and obvious commingling of funds as alter ego signposts.

The most egregious commingling examples cited by the court included one LLC paying another entity’s taxes, insurance and mortgage obligations. The Court found it suspicious (to say the least) that the individual Defendant took mortgage interest deductions on his personal tax returns when an LLC was ostensibly paying a separate LLC’s mortgage.

Still more alter ego evidence lay in Defendant’s reporting an LLC’s profit and loss on his individual return. Defendant also could not explain at his deposition what amounts he received as income from the various LLCs.

Can LLC Member’s Post-Judgment Acts Subject LLC to Jurisdiction?

The Court also affirmed the District Court’s exercise of jurisdiction over the LLC judgment debtor based on the Individual Defendant’s acts even though the LLC was never served with process in the underlying suit.

Normally, service of summons and the operative pleading on a defendant is a precondition to a court’s exercise of personal jurisdiction over him. However, a court has “vicarious jurisdiction” over an individual where his corporate alter ego is properly before the court.  In such a case, an individual’s jurisdictional contacts are imputed to the alter ego entity.

The reverse can be true, too: where an LLC’s lone member is already before the Court, there is no concern that the LLC receive independent notice (through service of summons, e.g.) of the litigation. (This is because there are no other members to give due process protections to.)

Applying these rules, the Fourth Circuit found jurisdiction over the LLC was proper since the Individual Defendant appeared and participated in post-judgment proceedings. [30-36]

Afterwords:

Sky Cable presents a thorough discussion of the genesis and evolution of reverse veil-piercing and a creditor’s dogged and creative efforts to reach assets of a single-member LLC.

Among other things, the case makes clear that where an LLC is so dominated and controlled by one of its members at both the financial and business policy levels, the LLC and member will be considered alter egos of each other.

Another case lesson is that a judgment creditor of an LLC member won’t be limited to a charging order where the creditor seeks to challenge the LLC’s legitimacy; through either a traditional piercing or non-traditional reverse-piercing remedy.

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.