Hotel Titan Escapes Multi-Million Dollar Fla. Judgment Where No Joint Venture in Breach of Contract Case

In today’s featured case, the plaintiff construction firm contracted with a vacation resort operator in the Bahamas partly owned by a Marriott hotel subsidiary. When the resort  breached the contract, the plaintiff sued and won a $7.5M default judgment in a Bahamas court. When that judgment proved uncollectable, the plaintiff sued to enforce the judgment in Florida state court against Marriott – arguing it was responsible for the judgment since it was part of a joint venture that owned the resort company.  The jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff and against Marriott who then appealed.

Reversing the judgment, the Florida appeals court first noted that under Florida law, a joint venture is an association of persons or legal entities to carry out a single enterprise for profit.

In addition to proving the single enterprise for profit, the joint venture plaintiff must demonstrate (i) a community of interest in the performance of the common purpose, (ii) joint control or right to control the venture; (iii) a joint proprietary interest in the subject matter of the venture; (4) the right to share in the profits; and (5) a duty to share in any losses that may be sustained.

All elements must be established. If only one is absent, there’s no joint venture – even if the parties intended to form a joint venture from the outset.

The formation of a corporation almost always signals there is no joint venture. This is because joint ventures generally follow partnership law which follows a different set of rules than do corporations. So, by definition, corporate shareholders cannot be joint venturers by definition.

Otherwise, a plaintiff could “have it both ways” and claim that a given business entity was both a corporation and a joint venture. This would defeat the liability-limiting function of the corporate form.

A hallmark of joint control in a joint venture context is mutual agency: the ability of one joint venturer to bind another concerning the venture’s subject matter.  The reverse is also true: where one party cannot bind the other, there is no joint venture.

Here, none of the alleged joint venturers had legal authority to bind the others within the scope of the joint venture. The plaintiff failed to offer any evidence of joint control over either the subject of the venture or the other venturers’ conduct.

There was also no proof that one joint venture participant could bind the others. Since Marriott was only a minority shareholder in the resort enterprise, the court found it didn’t exercise enough control over the defaulted resort to subject it (Marriott) to liability for the resort’s breach of contract.

The court also ruled in Marriott’s favor on the plaintiff’s fraudulent inducement claim premised on Marriott’s failure to disclose the resort’s precarious economic status in order to  entice the plaintiff to contract with the resort.

Under Florida law, a fraud in the inducement claim predicated on a failure to disclose material information requires a plaintiff to prove a defendant had a duty to disclose information. A duty to disclose can be found (1) where there is a fiduciary duty among parties; or (2) where a party partially discloses certain facts such that he should have to divulge the rest of the related facts known to it.

Here, neither situation applied. Marriott owed no fiduciary duty to the plaintiff and didn’t transmit incomplete information to the plaintiff that could saddle the hotel chain with a duty to disclose.

Take-aways:

A big economic victory for Marriott. Clearly the plaintiff was trying to fasten liability to a deep-pocketed defendant several layers removed from the breaching party. The case shows how strictly some courts will scrutinize a joint venture claim. If there is no joint control or mutual agency, there is no joint venture. Period.

The case also solidifies business tort axiom that a fraudulent inducement by silence claim will only prevail if there is a duty to disclose – which almost always requires the finding of a fiduciary relationship. In situations like here, where there is a high-dollar contract between sophisticated commercial entities, it will usually be impossible to prove a fiduciary relationship.

Source: Marriott International, Inc. v. American Bridge Bahamas, Ltd., 2015 WL 8936529

 

LLC That Pays Itself and Insiders to Exclusion of Creditor Plaintiff Violates Fraudulent Transfer Statute – Illinois Court

Applying Delaware corporate law, an Illinois appeals court in A.G. Cullen Construction, Inc. v. Burnham Partners, LLC, 2015 IL App (1st) 122538, reversed the dismissal of a contractor’s claim against a LLC and its sole member to enforce an out-of-state arbitration award.  In finding for the plaintiff contractor, the court considered some important and recurring questions concerning the level of protection LLCs provide a lone member and the reach of the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act, 740 ILCS 160/1 et seq. (“UFTA”), as it applies to commercial disputes.

The plaintiff sued  a Delaware LLC and its principal member, an Illinois LLC, to enforce a $450K Pennsylvania arbitration award against the Delaware LLC.  The plaintiff added UFTA and breach of fiduciary duty claims against the Delaware and Illinois LLCs based on pre-arbitration transfers made by the Delaware LLC of over $3M.

After a bench trial, the trial court ruled in favor of the LLC defendants and plaintiff appealed.

Reversing, the appeals court noted that the thrust of the UFTA claim was that the Delaware LLC enriched itself and its constituents when it wound down the company and paid itself and its member (the Illinois LLC) to the exclusion of plaintiff.

The UFTA was enacted to allow a creditor to defeat a debtor’s transfer of assets to which the creditor was entitled.  The UFTA has two separate schemes of liability: (1) actual fraud, a/k/a “fraud in fact” and (2) constructive fraud or “fraud in law” claims.  To prevail on an actual fraud claim, the plaintiff must prove a defendant’s intent to defraud, hinder or delay creditors.

By contrast, a constructive fraud UFTA claim doesn’t require proof of an intent to defraud.  Instead, the court looks to whether a transfer was made by a debtor for less than reasonably equivalent value leaving the debtor unable to pay any of its debts. (¶¶ 26-27); 740 ILCS 160/5(a)(1)(actual fraud), 160/5(a)(2)(constructive fraud).

When determining whether a debtor had an actual intent to defraud a creditor, a court considers up to eleven (11) “badges”of fraud which, in the aggregate, hone in on when a transfer was made, to whom, and what consideration flowed to the debtor in exchange for the transfer.

The court found that the Delaware LLC’s transfers of over $3M before the arbitration hearing had several attributes of actual fraud. Chief among them were that (i) the transfer was to an “insider” (i.e. a corporate officer and his relative), (ii) the Delaware LLC transferred assets without telling the plaintiff knowing that the plaintiff had a claim against it; (iii) the Delaware LLC received no consideration a $400K “management fee” paid to the Illinois LLC (the Delaware LLC’s sole member); and (iv) the Delaware LLC was insolvent after the  transfers.

Aside from reversing the UFTA judgment, the court also found the plaintiff should have won on its piercing the corporate veil and breach of fiduciary duty claims.  On the former, piercing claim, the court held that the evidence of fraudulent transfers by the Delaware LLC to the Illinois LLC presented a strong presumption of unjust circumstances that would merit piercing.  Under Delaware law (Delaware law governed since the defendant was based there), a court will pierce the corporate veil of limited liability where there is fraud or where a subsidiary is an alter ego of its corporate parent.  (¶ 41)

On the fiduciary duty count, the court held that once the Delaware LLC became insolvent, the Illinois LLC’s manager owed a fiduciary duty to creditors like the plaintiff to manage the Delaware LLC’s assets in the best interest of creditors. (¶¶ 45-46)

Afterwords:

A pro-creditor case in that it cements proposition that a UFTA plaintiff can prevail where he shows the convergence of several suspicious circumstances or “fraud badges” (i.e., transfer to insider, for little or no consideration, hiding the transfer from the creditor, etc.).  The case illustrates a court closely scrutinizing the timing and content of transfers that resulted in a company have no assets left to pay creditors.

Another important take-away lies in the court’s pronouncement that a corporate officer owes a fiduciary duty to corporate creditors upon the company’s dissolution.

Finally, the case shows the analytical overlap between UFTA claims and piercing claims.  It’s clear here at least, that where a plaintiff can show grounds for UFTA liability based on fraudulent transfers, this will also establish a basis to pierce the corporate veil.

 

Property Is Subject to Turnover Order Where Buyer Is ‘Continuation’ of Twice-Removed Seller – Successor Liability in IL

The Second District appeals court recently affirmed a trial court’s turnover order based on a finding that a property transfer involving three separate parties was in reality, a single “pre-arranged transfer” involving a “straw purchaser.”

I previously profiled Advocate Financial Group, LLC v. 5434 North Winthrop, 2015 IL App (2d) 150144 (see http://paulporvaznik.com/5485/5485) where the court addressed the “mere continuation” and fraud exceptions to the general rule of no successor liability (a successor corporation isn’t responsible for debts of predecessor) in a creditor’s post- judgment action against an entity twice removed from the judgment debtor.

The plaintiff obtained a breach of contract judgment against the developer defendant (Company 1) who transferred the building twice after the judgment date. The second building transfer was to a third-party (Company 3) who ostensibly had no relation to Company 1. The sale from Company 1 went through another entity – Company 2 – that was unrelated to Company 1.

Plaintiff alleged that Company 1 and Company 3 combined to thwart plaintiff’s collection efforts and sought the turnover of the building so plaintiff could sell it and use the proceeds to pay down the judgment. The trial court granted the turnover motion on the basis that Company 3 was the “continuation” of Company 1 in light of the common personnel between the companies.  The appeals court reversed though.  It found that further evidence was needed on the continuation exception but hinted that the fraud exception might apply instead to wipe out the Company 1-to Company 2- to Company 3 property transfer.

On remand, the trial court found that the fraud exception (successor can be liable for predecessor debts where they fraudulently collude to avoid predecessor’s debts) indeed applied and found the transfer of the building to Company 3 was a sham transfer and again ordered Company 3 to turn the building over to the plaintiff. Company 3 appealed.

Held: affirmed

Reasons:

– A corporation that purchases the assets of another corporation is generally not liable for the debts or liabilities of the transferor corporation. The rule’s purpose is to protect good faith purchasers from unassumed liability and seeks to foster the fluidity of corporate assets;

– The “fraudulent purpose” exception to the rule of no successor liability applies where a transaction is consummated for the fraudulent purpose of escaping liability for the seller’s obligations; 

– The mere continuation exception requires a showing that the successor entity “maintains the same or similar management and ownership, but merely wears different clothes.”  The test is not whether the seller’s business operation continues in the purchaser, but whether the seller’s corporate entity continues in the purchaser. 

– The key continuation question is always identity of ownership: does the “before” company and “after” company have the same officers, directors, and stockholders? 

The factual oddity here concerned Company 2 – the intermediary.  It was unclear whether Company 2 abetted Company 1 in its efforts to shake the plaintiff creditor.  The court affirmed the trial court’s factual finding that Company 2 was a straw purchaser from Company 1. The court focused on the abbreviated time span between the two transfers – Company 2 sold to Company 3 within days of buying the building from Company 1 – in finding that Company 2 was a straw purchaser. The court also pointed to evidence at trial that Company 1 was negotiating the ultimate transfer to Company 3 before the sale to Company 2 was even complete.

Taken together, the court agreed with the trial court that the two transfers (Company 1 to Company 2; Company 2 to Company 3) constituted an integrated, “pre-arranged” attempt to wipe out Company 1’s judgment debt to plaintiff.

Afterwords:  This case illustrates that a court will scrutinize property transfers that utilize middle-men that only hold the property for a short period of times (read: for only a few days).

Where successive property transfers occur within a compressed time window and the ultimate corporate buyer has substantial overlap (in terms of management personnel) with the first corporate seller, a court can void the transaction and deem it as part of a fraudulent effort to evade one of the first seller’s creditors.