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 The defendants moved to dismiss this claim on the basis that a 2013 Employment Agreement was superseded by a 2015 Operating Agreement which documented plaintiffs’ corporate restructuring. Under Illinois law, an earlier contract is superseded by a later contract where (1) both contracts deal with the same subject matter, (2) two contracts contain inconsistencies which evince the conclusion that the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.

IL Supreme Court Expands on Shareholder Derivative Suits and Standing Doctrine in Att”y Malpractice Suit

Some minority shareholders in an LLC sued their former counsel for legal malpractice alleging the firm failed to file “obvious” breach of fiduciary claims against the LLC’s corporate counsel.

Affirming summary judgment for the defendant law firm in Stevens v. McGuirreWoods, LLP, 2015 IL 118652, the Illinois Supreme Court gives content to the quantum of proof needed to sustain a legal malpractice claim and discusses the type of legal interest that will confer legal standing for a corporate shareholder to sue in his individual capacity.

The plaintiffs’ central claim was that McGuirreWoods (MW) botched the underlying case by not timely suing Sidley Austin, LLP (Sidley) after the LLC’s majority shareholders allegedly looted the company.  Sidley got the underlying case tossed on statute of limitations grounds and because the plaintiffs lacked standing. minority shareholder plaintiffs lacked standing to individually sue Sidley since Sidley’s obligations ran squarely

The trial court in the legal malpractice suit granted summary judgment for MW due to plaintiffs’ lack of standing.  The court held that even if MW had timely sued Sidley, the claim still would have failed because they could not bring claims in their individual capacity when those claims belonged exclusively to the LLC. After the First District appeals court partially reversed on a procedural issue, MW appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Result: Plaintiffs’ lacked standing to assert individual claims against Sidley.  Judgment for MW.

Rules/Reasons:

Some cases describe the legal malpractice suit as a “case-within-a-case.”  This is because the thrust of a legal malpractice claim is that if it wasn’t for an attorney’s negligence in an underlying case, the plaintiff would have won that case and awarded damages.

The legal malpractice plaintiff must prove (1) defendant attorney owed the plaintiff a duty of care arising from the attorney-client relationship, (2) the defendant’s breached that duty, and (3) as a direct and proximate result of the breach, the plaintiff suffered injury.

Injury in the legal malpractice setting means the plaintiff suffered a loss which entitles him to money damages.  Without proof the plaintiff sustained a monetary loss as a result of the lawyer defendant’s negligence, the legal malpractice suit can’t succeed.

The plaintiff must establish that he would have prevailed in the underlying lawsuit had it not been for the lawyer’s negligence.  The plaintiff’s recoverable damages in the legal malpractice case are the damages plaintiff would have recovered in the underlying case. [¶ 12]

Here, the plaintiffs sued Sidley in their individual capacities.  Since Sidley’s obligations flowed strictly to the LLC, the plaintiff’s lacked standing to sue Sidley in their individual capacity.

Under the law, derivative claims belong solely to a corporation on whose behalf the derivative suit is brought.  A plaintiff must have been a shareholder at the time of the transaction of which he complains and must maintain his shareholder status throughout the entire lawsuit.  [¶ 23]

Illinois’ LLC Act codifies this common law derivative suit recovery rule by making clear that any derivative action recovery goes to the LLC.  By contrast, the nominal plaintiff can only recover his attorneys’ fees and expenses.  805 ILCS 180/40-15.

A nominal plaintiff in a derivative suit only benefits indirectly from a successful suit through an increase in share value. The Court held that the plaintiffs’ missing out on increased share value was not something they could sue for individually in a legal malpractice suit.  Had MW timely sued Sidley, any recovery would have gone to the LLC, not to the plaintiffs – even though they were the named plaintiffs.  Since the plaintiffs could not have recovered money damages against Sidley in the earlier lawsuit, they cannot now recover those same damages under the guise of a legal malpractice action.

An added basis for the Court’s decision was that plaintiffs lacked standing to sue by divesting themselves of their LLC interests.  Standing means one has a real interest in the outcome of a controversy and may suffer injury to a legally recognized interest.

Since plaintiffs relinquished their LLC membership interests before suing MW, they lacked standing to pursue derivative claims for the LLC.

Afterwords:

This case illustrates in vivid relief the harsh results flowing from statute of limitations and the standing doctrine as it applies to aggrieved shareholder suits.

The case turned on the nature of the plaintiff’s claims.  Clearly, they were suing derivatively (as opposed to individually) to “champion” the LLC’s rights.  As a result, any recovery in the case against Sidley would flow to the LLC – the entity of which plaintiffs were no longer members.

And while the plaintiffs did maintain their shareholder status for the duration of the underlying Sidley case, their decision to terminate their LLC membership interests before suing MW proved fatal to their legal malpractice claims.