Faulty Service on LLC Defendant Dooms Administrative Agency’s Unpaid Wages Claim Versus Security Company

The Illinois Department of Labor’s (DOL) decision to send a notice of hearing to a limited liability company and its sole member to the member’s personal post office (p.o.) box (and not to the LLC’s registered agent) came back to haunt the agency in People of the State of Illinois v. Wilson, 2018 IL App (1st) 171614-U.

Reversing summary judgment for the DOL in its lawsuit to enforce an unpaid wages default judgment, the First District austerely applies the Illinois LLC Act’s (805 ILCS 180/1-1 et seq.) service of process requirements and voided the judgment for improper service.

Key Chronology:

February 2013: the DOL filed a complaint for violation of the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (the Wage Act) against the LLC security firm and its member (the “LLC Member”);

January 2015: the DOL sends a notice of hearing by regular mail to both defendants to the LLC Member’s personal p.o. box;

March 2015: Defendants fail to appear at the hearing (the “2015 Hearing”) and DOC defaults the defendants;

June 2015: Defendants fail to pay the default amount and DOL enters judgment that tacks on additional fees and penalties;

February 2016: DOL files suit in Illinois Chancery Court to enforce the June 2015 administrative judgment;

March 2016, May 2016: Defendants respectively appear through counsel and move to dismiss the case for improper service of the 2015 Hearing notice;

June – July 2016: DOL concedes that service was deficient on the LLC defendant (the security company) and voluntarily dismisses the LLC as party defendant;

May 2017: DOL’s motion for summary judgment granted;

June 2017: LLC Member appeals.

The Analysis

The main issue on appeal was whether the DOL gave proper notice of the 2015 Hearing. It did not.

Under the law, lack of jurisdiction may be raised at any time; even past the 35-day window to challenge an agency’s decision under the Illinois Administrative Review Law, 735 ILCS 5/3-103.

Section 50 of the LLC Act provides that an LLC must be served (1) via its registered agent or (2) the Secretary of State under limited circumstances.

Secretary of State service on an LLC is proper where (1) the LLC fails to appoint or maintain a registered agent in Illinois; (2) the LLC’s registered agent cannot be found with reasonable diligence at either the LLC’s registered office or its principal place of business; OR (3) when the LLC has been dissolved, the conditions of (1) and (2) above exist, and suit is brought within 5 years after issuance of a certificate of dissolution or filing of a judgment of dissolution. 805 ILCS 180/1-50(a), (b)(1-3).

Here, the DOL mailed notice of the 2015 Hearing to the wrong party: it only notified the LLC Member. It did not serve the notice on the LLC’s registered agent or through the Secretary of State. As a result, the LLC was not properly served in the underlying wage proceeding.

The DOL argued that since the LLC Member was also sued as an individual “employer” under Sections 2 and 13 of the Act, service of the 2015 Hearing on the LLC Member was valid.

The Court disagreed. Under Sections 2 and 13 of the Act, an employer can be liable for its own violations and acts committed by its agents and corporate officers or agents can be liable where they “knowingly permit” an employer to violate the Act.

Corporate officers who have “operational control” of a business are deemed employers under the Act. However, an individual’s status as a lone member of an entity – like the LLC Member – is not enough to subject the member to personal liability.

Instead, there must be evidence the member permitted the corporate employer to violate the Act by not paying the compensation due the employee. Otherwise, the Court held, every company decision-maker would be liable for a company’s failure to pay an employee’s wages. [⁋⁋ 49-50]

And since the DOL hearing officer never made any specific findings that the LLC Member knowingly permitted the security company to violate the Act, there wasn’t enough evidence to sustain the trial court’s summary judgment for the DOL. [⁋ 51]

Afterwords:

Wilson starkly illustrates that the LLC Act’s service of process strictures have teeth. If a litigant fails to serve an LLC’s registered agent or the Secretary of State, any judgment stemming from the invalid service is a nullity.

In hindsight, the DOL probably should have produced evidence at the 2015 Hearing that the LLC Member (a) had operational control over the security firm; and (b) personally participated in the firm’s decision not to pay the underlying claimant’s wages. Had it done so, it may have been able to salvage its case and show that p.o. box service on the LLC Member was sufficient to subject her to the DOL’s jurisdiction.

Nevada LLC Members’ Privilege to Tortiously Interfere with Business Relationships Has Limits – IL ND

When the former President of a lighting company started a competing venture, his former employer sued for damages under the Illinois Deceptive Trade Practices Act (IDTPA) and for breach of contract. The ex-President then countersued for unpaid commissions under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (IWPCA) and sued the individual members of the LLC plaintiff for tortious interference with advantageous business relationship. All parties moved to dismiss.

Green Light National, LLC v. Kent, 2018 WL 4384298, examines, among other things, the extra-territorial reach of the IWPCA and the scope of a corporate officer’s privilege to interfere with a rival’s business relationships.

An IDTPA plaintiff can only bring a claim where the wrongful conduct occurred “primarily and substantially in Illinois.” Factors include: (1) the place of plaintiff’s residence, (2) where the misrepresentation was made, (3) where the damage occurred, and (4) whether the plaintiff communicated with the defendant in Illinois.

Here, the court found factors (1) and (3) pointed toward Illinois as the locus of the challenged conduct. Plaintiff alleged the defendants used plaintiff’s lighting installations on the competitor’s website. And since plaintiff was an Illinois corporate entity, it was likely that plaintiff sustained damage in Illinois.  This made the case different from others where the lone connection to Illinois was a nationwide website. On the current record, the court wasn’t able to determine whether factors (2) and (4) weighed towards a finding that defendants’ misconduct happened in Illinois. As a result, the Court held that the plaintiff alleged a sufficient IDTPA claim to survive defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Next, the court sustained plaintiff’s breach of employment contract claim. The defendants moved to dismiss this claim on the basis that a 2013 Employment Agreement was superseded by a 2015 Operating Agreement which documented plaintiffs’ corporate restructuring. Under Illinois law, an earlier contract is superseded by a later contract where (1) both contracts deal with the same subject matter, (2) two contracts contain inconsistencies which evince the conclusion that the parties intended for the second contract to control their agreement and vitiate the former contract, and (3) the later contract reveal no intention of the parties to incorporate the terms of the earlier contract.

There were too many facial dissimilarities between the 2013 and 2015 documents for the court to definitively find that the former agreement merged into the latter one.

Turning to the defendant’s counterclaims, the Court sustained the tortious interference claim against two of the LLC members. In Illinois, corporate officers are protected from personal liability for acts committed on behalf of the corporation. Corporate officers and directors are privileged to use their business judgment in carrying out corporate business. So long as a corporate officer is acting in furtherance of a corporation’s legitimate business interest, the officer is shielded from individual liability. The same rule that protects corporate officers for decisions made on behalf of their company applies with equal force to LLC member decisions made for the LLC.

This LLC member privilege to interfere isn’t inviolable though.  Where the member acts maliciously – meaning intentionally and without justification – he abuses his qualified privilege. Here, the defendant alleged two LLC members made knowingly false statements about the defendant. These allegations, if true, were enough to make out a tortious interference with business relationships claim. The

The Court then denied the plaintiff’s motion to dismiss defendant’s IWPCA claim. The plaintiff argued that since defendant was not an Illinois resident, he couldn’t sue under the IWPCA since that statute lacks extraterritorial reach. The Court rejected this argument as Illinois law allows non-residents to sue under the IWPCA where they perform work in Illinois for an Illinois-based employer. The counter-plaintiff’s allegations that he made approximately 15 trips to Chicago over several months to perform work for the defendant was enough – at the motion to dismiss stage – to provide a hook for an IWPCA claim.

Afterwords:

1/ Where a later contract involves the same subject matter as an earlier contract and there are facial inconsistencies between them, a Court will likely find the later agreement supersedes the earlier one;

2/ Corporate officers (and LLC members) are immune from suit when taking action to pursue a legitimate business interest of the corporate entity. The privilege is lost though where a corporate officer engages in intentional and unjustified conduct;

3/ A non-resident can sue under the IWPCA where he/she alleges work was performed in Illinois for an Illinois employer.

Debtor’s Use of LLC As ‘Personal Piggy Bank’ Leads to Turnover and Charging Orders

Golfwood Square, LLC v. O’Malley, 2018 IL App(1st) 172220-U, examines the interplay between a charging order and a third party citation to discover assets turnover order against an LLC member debtor.  The plaintiff in Golfwood engaged in a years’ long effort to unspool a judgment debtor’s multi-tiered business entity arrangement in the hopes of collecting a sizeable (about $1M) money judgment.

Through post-judgment proceedings, the plaintiff learned that the debtor owned a 90% interest in an LLC (Subsidiary or Sub-LLC) that was itself the sole member of another LLC (Parent LLC) that received about $225K from the sale of a Chicago condominium.

Plaintiff also discovered the defendant had unfettered access to Parent LLC’s bank account and had siphoned over $80K from it since the judgment date.

In 2013 and 2017, plaintiff respectively obtained a charging order against Sub-LLC and a turnover order against Parent LLC in which the plaintiff sought to attach the remaining condominium sale proceeds.  The issue confronting the court was whether a judgment creditor could get a turnover order against a parent company to enforce a prior charging order against a subsidiary entity.  In deciding for the creditor, the Court examined the content and purpose of citations to discover assets turnover orders and LLC charging orders.

Code Section 2-1402 empowers a judgment creditor can issue supplementary proceedings to discover whether a debtor is in possession of assets or whether a third party is holding assets of a debtor that can be applied to satisfy a judgment.

Section 30-20 of the Limited Liability Company Act allows that same judgment creditor to apply for a charging order against an LLC member’s distributional interest in a limited liability company. Once a charging order issues from the court, it becomes a lien (or “hold”) on the debtor’s distributional interest and requires the LLC to pay over to the charging order recipient all distributions that would otherwise be paid to the judgment debtor. 735 ILCS 5/2-1402; 805 ILCS 180/30-20. Importantly, a charging order applicant does not have to name the LLC(s) as a party defendant(s) since the holder of the charging order doesn’t gain membership or management rights  in the LLC. [⁋⁋ 22, 35]

Under Parent LLC’s operating agreement, once the condominium was sold, Parent LLC was to dissolve and distribute all assets directly to Sub-LLC – Parent’s lone member.  From there, any distributions from Sub-LLC should have gone to defendant (who held a 90% ownership interest in Sub-LLC) and then turned over to the plaintiff.

However, defendant circumvented the charging order by accessing the sale proceeds (held in Parent LLC’s account) and distributing them to himself. The Court noted that documents produced during post-judgment discovery showed that the defendant spent nearly $80,000 of the sale proceeds on his personal debts and to pay off his other business obligations.

Based on the debtor’s conduct in accessing and dissipating Parent LLC’s bank account with impunity, and preventing Parent LLC from distributing the assets to Sub-LLC, where they could be reached by plaintiff, the trial court ordered the debtor to turn all Parent LLC’s remaining account funds over to the plaintiff to enforce the earlier charging order against Sub-LLC.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that Parent LLC was in serious debt and that the condo sale proceeds were needed to pay off its debts. The Court found this argument clashed with defendant’s deposition testimony where he stated under oath that Parent LLC “had no direct liabilities.” This judicial admission – a clear, unequivocal statement concerning a fact within a litigant’s knowledge – was binding on the defendant and prevented him from trying to contradict this testimony. The argument also fell short in light of defendant’s repeatedly raiding Parent LLC’s account to pay his personal debts and those of his other business ventures all to the exclusion of plaintiff.

The court then summarily dispensed with defendant’s claim that the plaintiff improperly pierced the corporate veils of Parent LLC and Sub-LLC in post-judgment proceedings. In Illinois, a judgment creditor typically cannot pierce a corporate veil in supplementary proceedings. Instead, it must file a new action in which it seeks piercing as a remedy for an underlying cause of action.

The Court found that the trial court’s turnover order did not hold defendant personally liable for either LLC’s debt. Instead, the turnover order required Parent LLC to turnover assets belonging to the judgment debtor – the remaining condominium sale proceeds – to the plaintiff creditor.

Afterwords:

This case presents in sharp relief the difficulty of collecting a judgment from a debtor who operates under a protective shield of several layers of corporate entities.

Where a debtor uses an LLC’s assets as his “personal piggy bank,” Golfwood and cases like it show that a court won’t hesitate to vindicate a creditor’s recovery right through use of a turnover and charging order.

The case is also noteworthy as it illustrates a court looking to an LLC operating agreement for textual support for its turnover order.