Don’t Confuse Joint Tenancy with Tenancy-By-Entirety Ownership – Indiana Court Cautions

Title to real estate is typically held in one of three ways: tenancy in common, joint tenancy and tenancy by the entirety.

The salient characteristic of tenancy in common is that each owner holds a ½ interest in the property and that upon an owner’s death, his/her share passes to his/her heir.

Joint tenancy’s hallmark is its survivorship feature: when a joint tenant dies, his/her share passes to the surviving joint tenant. The deceased’s interest will not pass to an heir.

With tenancy by entirety (“TBE”) ownership, sometimes described as “joint tenancy with marriage,” the property is immune from one spouse’s creditor’s judgment lien. This means the creditor of one spouse cannot foreclose on the TBE property. However, to qualify for TBE protection, the parties must be married and live in the property as a primary residence. If the property owners are married but do not use the home as the marital homestead, TBE won’t shield the property from creditor collection efforts.

In Flatrock River Lodge v. Stout, 130 N.E.2d 96 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019), an Indiana appeals court delved into the joint tenancy vs. TBE dichotomy and how the difference between the two realty title vehicles dramatically impacts a judgment lien’s enforceability.  The trial court denied the creditor’s motion to foreclose a judgment lien because the subject real estate was held in joint tenancy. On appeal, the Court considered whether a judgment creditor could foreclose on joint tenancy property, force its sale, and apply the proceeds against the judgment.

The judgment debtor owned real estate in joint tenancy with his daughter. The debtor died during pendency of the lawsuit and by operation of law, the title to the property vested in the daughter. Before the debtor died, however, the plaintiff/creditor recorded its judgment lien against the property.

The creditor moved to foreclose its judgment lien against the property. The debtor’s daughter argued the property was exempt from execution by Indiana’s tenancy-by-entirety statute (the TBE statute). Indiana Code Section 34-55-10-2(c)(5).  The trial court agreed with debtor’s daughter and denied the creditor’s motion.

Reversing, the Indiana appeals court first rejected the defendants’ argument that since the debtor died, the property escaped plaintiff’s lien. The court noted that the plaintiff’s judgment lien attached from the moment it recorded its judgment against the property – some two years before debtor’s death. As a result, the debtor’s daughter took the property subject to the plaintiff’s lien.

Next, the appeals court rejected the trial court’s finding that the property was immune from the plaintiff’s judgment lien.

In a joint tenancy, each tenant acquires an equal right to share in the enjoyment of the land during their lives. A joint tenant is severed where one joint tenant conveys his/her interest to another and destroys the right to survivorship in the other joint tenant(s). Once a joint tenancy conveys his/her share to another, he/she becomes a tenant in common with the other co-tenant.

Each joint tenant can sell or mortgage his/her interest in property to a third party and most importantly (for this case at least), each joint tenant is subject to a judgment creditor’s execution. [8]

TBE ownership only exists between spouses and is grounded in legal fiction that husband and wife a single unit. A TBE cannot be severed by the unilateral action of one tenant. An attempted transfer of a TBE ownership interest by only one spouse is a legal nullity. The key difference between joint tenancy and TBE is that with the latter, a creditor of only one spouse cannot execute on the jointly owned property

The Court noted that under Indiana Code 34-55-10-2(c)(5), property held in TBE is exempt from execution of a judgment lien. However, this statute applies uniquely to TBE ownership; not to joint tenancy. According to the court, “[h]ad the Indiana legislature intended to exempt from execution real estate owned as joint tenants, it would have done so.” [14]

Take-away:

This case shows in stark relief the perils of conflating joint tenancy and tenants-by-entirety ownership. If a property deed does not specifically state tenancy by the entirety, the property will not be exempt from attachment by only one spouse’s creditor.

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.

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.