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.

Veil Piercing Claim Triable By Jury; Consumer Fraud Act Applies to Failed Gas Station Sale – IL 3rd Dist.

An Illinois appeals court recently affirmed a $700K money judgment for a gas station buyer in a fraud case against the seller.

The plaintiff gas station buyer in Benzakry v. Patel, 2017 IL App(3d) 160162 sued the seller when the station closed only a few months after the sale.

The plaintiff alleged he relied on the seller’s misrepresenting the financial health and trustworthiness of the station tenant which led the plaintiff to go forward with the station purchase.  Plaintiff sued for common law and statutory fraud and sought to pierce the corporate veil of the LLC seller.

Affirming judgment for the plaintiff, the Third District discusses, among other things, the piercing the corporate veil remedy, the required evidentiary foundation for business records, the reliance element of fraud and the scope of the consumer fraud statute.

Piercing the Corporate Veil: Triable By Bench or Jury?

The jury pierced the seller LLC’s corporate veil and imposed liability on the lone LLC member.

The Court addressed this issue of first impression on appeal: whether a piercing the corporate veil claim is one for the court or jury.  The Court noted a split in Federal authority on the point.  In FMC v. Murphree, 632 F.2d 413 (5th Cir. 1980), the 5th Circuit held that a jury could hear a piercing claim while the  7th Circuit reached the opposite result (only a court can try a piercing action) in IFSC v. Chromas Technologies, 356 F.3d 731 (7th Cir. 2004).

The Court declined to follow either case since they applied only Federal procedural law (they were diversity cases).  The Court instead looked to Illinois state substantive law for guidance.

Generally, there is no right to a jury trial in equitable claims and piercing the corporate veil is considered an equitable remedy.  However, Code Section 2-1111 vests a court with discretion to direct any issue(s) involved in an equitable proceeding to be tried by a jury.  The appeals court found that the trial court acted within its discretion in deciding that the piercing claim should be decided by a jury. (¶¶ 29-30)

Consumer fraud – Advertisement on Web = ‘Public Injury’

The Third District reversed the trial court’s directed verdict for the defendants on the plaintiff’s Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) count.  Consumer fraud predicated on deceptive practices requires the plaintiff to prove (1) a deceptive act or practice by a defendant, (2) defendant’s intent that the plaintiff rely on the deception, (3) the occurrence of the deception during a course of conduct involving trade or commerce, (4) actual damage to the plaintiff, and (5) damage proximately caused by the deception.

The trial court sided with the defendant on this count since the plaintiff didn’t prove that defendants conduct resulted in injury to the public generally.  CFA Section 10a (815 ILCS 505/10a) used to require a plaintiff to prove that a misrepresentation involved trade practice that addressed the market generally.  However, a 1990 amendment to the Act changed that.  The current version of the Act doesn’t require a plaintiff to show public injury except under limited circumstances.

Even so, the Court still held that the defendant’s misstating the gas station’s annual fuel and convenience store sales on a generally accessible website constituted a public injury under the CFA.

Going further, the Court construed the CFA broadly by pointing to the statutory inclusion of the works “trade” and “commerce.”  This evinced the legislative intent to expand the CFA’s scope.  Since defendant’s misrepresentations concerning the tenant were transmitted to the public via advertisements and to the plaintiff through e-mails, the Court viewed this as deceptive conduct involving trade or commerce under the CFA.  (¶¶ 81-82)

Computer-Generated Business Records: Document Retention vs. Creation

While it ultimately didn’t matter (the business records were cumulative evidence that didn’t impact the judgment amount), the Court found that bank statements offered into evidence did not meet the test for admissibility under Illinois evidence rules.

The proponent of computer-generated business records must show (1) the equipment that created a document is recognized as standard, and (2) the computer entries were made in the regular course of business at or reasonably near the happening of the event recorded.

Showing “mere retention” of a document isn’t enough: the offering party must produce evidence of a document’s creation to satisfy the business records admissibility standard.  Here, the plaintiff failed to offer foundational testimony concerning the creation of the seller’s bank statements and those statements shouldn’t have been admitted into evidence.

Take-aways:

1/ The Court has discretion to order that an equitable piercing the corporate veil claim be tried to a jury;

2/ Inadequate capitalization, non-functioning shareholders and commingling of funds are badges of fraud or injustice sufficient to support a piercing the corporate veil remedy;

3/ Computer-generated business records proponent must offer foundational testimony of a document’s creation to get the records in over a hearsay objection;

4/ False advertising data on a public website can constitute a deceptive practice under the consumer fraud statute.

 

 

Veil Piercing Money Judgment Survives Res Judicata Defense – Mich. Court

Piercing the corporate veil, as metaphorical phrase and very real remedy, applies when a shareholder abuses the corporate form to shield himself from liability to corporate creditors. A prototypical piercing scenario is where a sole shareholder so controls his company that it blurs the separation between shareholder and company and is unfair to protect the shareholder from personal liability for company debts.  In such a case, the law views the company and shareholder as inseparable “alter egos” and a court will bypass the liability protection normally afforded a corporate shareholder.

Green v. Ziegelman, 310 Mich.App. 436 (2015) chronicles a piercing defendant’s efforts to avoid personal liability for a breach of contract debt by asserting the res judicata defense. After a 2006 breach of contract money judgment against an architectural firm went unsatisfied, the plaintiff sued the firm’s sole shareholder in 2012 to hold him responsible for the prior judgment.

The defendant – the sole shareholder of an architectural firm – moved for summary judgment that the claim against him was barred by res judicata.  He argued that the plaintiff could have sought to pierce the architecture firm’s corporate veil in the 2006 action but failed to do so.  Now, according to the defendant, it was too late.

The trial court disagreed and denied the shareholder’s summary judgment motion.  After the trial court entered judgment for the plaintiff after trial, the defendant appealed.

Result: Trial court judgment upheld.

Reasons: Michigan law applies a three-part res judicata test: if (1) there is a final judgment on the merits, (2) the second lawsuit’s issue could have been resolved in the first lawsuit, and (3) both actions (the first and second lawsuit) involve the same parties, a second claim will be barred by res judicata.

Res judicata extends not only to claims that were actually litigated but to claims that could have been raised.  The res judicata doctrine is applied to promote fairness; it balances a plaintiff’s right to have his day in court versus a defendant’s competing right to have litigation closure along with the court’s interest in case finality and conserving court resources.

To prevail on a piercing claim in Michigan, a plaintiff doesn’t have to prove a corporate shareholder committed intentional fraud.  It is enough if the shareholder acts “in such a manner as to defraud and wrong the [plaintiff]” or in such circumstances that a court “would aid in the consummation of a wrong” if it validated a company’s separate existence from its shareholder.

To determine whether the plaintiff could have (and should have) sought to pierce the architectural firm’s corporate veil in the 2006 case, the Court noted that under Michigan law, corporate officers are expected to respect a corporation’s separate existence from its individual members.  Because of this, absent evidence that the shareholder defendant abused the corporate form, a piercing claim would not have been well-founded when plaintiff sued in the 2006 case.

The appeals court found that since there was no evidence to signal misuse of the corporate form, there was no reason for the plaintiff to try to pierce the architect company’s corporate veil in the earlier lawsuit.  As a result, the 2012 piercing case did not stem from the same underlying transaction as the 2006 breach of contract case.

Upholding the piercing judgment, the appeals court held that the shareholder completely dominated the architectural firm such that the firm and shareholder were the same person.  Other important factors that led the court to approve the piercing judgment included evidence that the shareholder commingled personal assets with company assets, that the company failed to follow basic corporate formalities, and that 10 days after judgment, the shareholder dissolved the architectural firm and started a new one.

Take-aways:

1/ The res judicata defense won’t bar a piercing the corporate veil claim unless there was clear evidence of fraud or an alter-ego relationship between company and shareholder at the time a prior lawsuit against the corporation was filed;

2/ A plaintiff in a piercing suit under Michigan law isn’t required to show specific fraudulent conduct by the dominant shareholder.  It’s enough that there is an overall “feel” of unfairness based on a multitude of factors including failure to follow formalities, undercapitalization and commingling of personal vs. company assets.