LLC Members Not Liable to Deceased Member’s Estate; Partnership’s Assets Become LLC’s Upon Conversion

The First District recently examined the nature of a limited liability company (LLC) member’s personal liability and the requirements for converting a general partnership to an LLC.

In Daniel v. Ripoli, 2015 IL App (1st) 122607, a case with a labyrinthine fact pattern, an LLC member’s estate sued an accounting company LLC to recover distributions the estate claimed was owed the deceased member under the LLC operating agreement.

The LLC defended by asserting that the deceased’s distribution amount was permanently reduced before he died by an amendment to the operating agreement.  The trial court entered a money judgment of about $200,000 for the plaintiff and the LLC appealed.

Held: reversed.  The operating agreement’s amendment lessened the deceased member’s distribution amounts from the amendment date forward.

Rules/Reasons:

1/ In Illinois a contract can be modified by express agreement or by conduct.  A contractual modification that’s not expressly agreed to can be ratified by acquiescence in a course of conduct consistent with recognizing the modification;

2/ An LLC provides more insulation from liability for its members than does a corporation for its shareholders;

3/ Under Section 10-10(a) of Illinois’ LLC Act, 805 ILCS 180/10-10(a), LLC members aren’t liable for debts of the LLC unless (1) the articles of organization provide for personal liability; and (2) the member has consented in writing to the adoption of a personal liability provision;

3/ The failure of an LLC to observe usual corporate formalities in connection with the operation of its business is not a basis for imposing personal liability on LLC members or managers;

4/ When a general partnership converts to an LLC, all that’s required is each partner vote for the conversion.  The partnership does not need to also transfer all of its assets to the newly formed LLC;

5/ Once the conversion from partnership to LLC is complete, all debts and assets of the partnership automatically become those of the LLC;

7/ An LLC member can sue the LLC or another member for legal or equitable relief with or without an accounting to enforce the member’s rights under the LLC Act, the operating agreement or any other rights of the member;

8/ The death of an LLC member results in the member’s disassociation from the LLC;

9/ The LLC Act does not allow for a deceased member’s estate to sue the LLC or other LLC members on the deceased member’s behalf;

805 ILCS 180/10-10(a), (c), 180/15-20.

The court held that here, once the accounting general partnership converted to an LLC, the LLC members (who were the erstwhile partners) had no liability to non-members like the plaintiff.

Additionally, the parties’ conduct indicated a mutual recognition that the deceased’s distributions were reduced by the deceased member accepting lesser distributions for several years before he died.  The court then reversed the judgment against the LLC.

Afterwords:

A former LLC member’s estate has no standing to sue an LLC absent legislative decision to the contrary;

A partnership’s assets and liabilities become those of an LLC upon conversion to the LLC form;

Basic contract formation principles apply when determining LLC members’ rights and duties under an operating agreement.

 

 

Illinois Agency, Ratification and Alter-Ego Basics: Case Snapshot

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Photo credit: passionateproject.blogspot.com

Several recurring commercial litigation issues are examined in Saletech, LLC v. East Balt, Inc., 2014 IL App (1st) 132639, a case that chronicles a dispute over a written distribution agreement for the sale of bakery products.

The plaintiff entered into the agreement with a Ukranian subsidiary  of various U.S. companies.  The plaintiff sued these U.S. defendants, claiming they were bound by the foreign subsidiary’s breach, that they were alter egos of the subsidiary, or at least ratified the subsidiaries’ conduct.  The trial court granted the U.S. companies’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action on all counts and the plaintiff appealed.

Held: Affirmed.

Rules/Reasons: Finding for the defendants, the court applied black-letter agency law, ratification and corporate liability rules.

Agency Law and Ratification

– agency is a fiduciary relationship where a principal has the right to control the agent’s conduct and the agent has the power to act on the principal’s behalf;

– an agent’s authority can be actual or apparent.   Actual authority can be (a) express or (b) implied and means that the principal has explicitly granted the agent authority to perform a certain act;

apparent authority arises where (a) the principal holds the agent out as having authority to act on the principal’s behalf and (b) a reasonably prudent person would assume the agent has authority to act in light of the principal’s conduct;

– to show apparent agency, the plaintiff must prove (1) a principal’s consent or knowing acquiescence in the agent’s exercise of authority; (2) the third party’s good-faith belief that the agent possessed such authority; and (3) the third party’s detrimental reliance on the agent’s authority;

– apparent agency must be based on conduct of the principal; not the agent;

ratification applies where a principal manifests an intent to be bound by an agent’s unauthorized act, after the fact;

– ratification can be shown mainly by a principal retaining the benefits of the unauthorized act.

¶¶ 14-15, 21

Here, the Court found the plaintiff failed to establish that the foreign subsidiary (who signed the contract) was the agent for the solvent U.S. defendants.  The plaintiff made only naked allegations of a principal-agent relationship between the domestic and foreign entities.

Without allegations that the defendants knew of the subsidiaries’ distributor agreement or that they held out the foreign firm as having actual or apparent authority to bind the defendants, the plaintiff’s agency allegations were too conclusory to survive a motion to dismiss under Illinois fact-pleading rules.

The plaintiff also failed to plead facts to show the defendants ratified any unauthorized conduct of the foreign company.  For example, plaintiff didn’t allege that the defendants accepted benefits from the distributorship contract after plaintiff alerted defendants to the foreign firm’s misconduct.

Alter-Ego

The plaintiff’s alter-ego allegations were also lacking. The plaintiff claimed that the signing foreign company was an alter-ego of the U.S. companies.

The alter ego doctrine affixes liability to a dominant person (or company) that uses a sham entity as a front or “conduit” in order to avoid contractual liability.  An alter ego plaintiff must make a “substantial showing” that one corporation is a dummy or “front” for another.

In breach of contract cases, the required showing for alter ego (piercing) liability is even more stringent than in tort cases.  This is because a party to a contract presumably entered into the contract with another company voluntarily and is presumed to suffer the consequences if the counterpart breaches and has no collectable assets. ¶ 25

The court found that here, the plaintiff failed to plead sufficient facts to demonstrate a unity of interest between the foreign company and the U.S.-based defendants that would permit the court to impute liability to the U.S. defendants.

Additionally, the plaintiff’s bare allegation that the defendants were “commingling funds” in order to defraud creditors lacked factual support and wasn’t enough to state a breach of contract claim predicated on an alter ego theory. ¶¶ 17-18, 22, 29.

Afterwords:

(1) Illinois fact-pleading rules require more than bare parroting elements of a cause of action to survive a motion to dismiss;

(2) Ratification only applies where plaintiff can plead facts showing a principal retained benefits of an improper agent transaction;

(3) Piercing the corporate veil based on alter ego allegations is difficult to prove; especially in breach of contract setting.

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Illinois Court Gives Agency Law Tutorial In Commercial Lease Fight

Three agency law issues that I regularly encounter in commercial litigation practice are (1) authority, (2) ratification and (3) a contract that doesn’t identify a valid entity.

The authority question posed is whether an individual – typically a company employee or independent contractor – can bind the company by the individual’s conduct.

Ratification applies where a corporate principal accepts the benefits of an agent’s unauthorized conduct.

The third, “unclear party” issue arises where a contract is signed by an individual on behalf of an unsueable entity such as a street address (i.e. “Tenant: 15 S. Wacker Drive”) or a generic business name with no “Inc.”, “Ltd.” or “LLC” designation.

Cove Management v. AFLAC, Inc. 2013 IL.App (1st) 120884, features all of these in a commercial lease dispute involving a large insurance company.

The lease designated the company as “tenant” but was signed by an independent  (non employee) sales agent.  After a lease default, the plaintiff landlord sued the company to recover rent damages.

The trial court dismissed the suit, buying the company’s argument that the agent who signed the lease wasn’t authorized to sign on the company’s behalf.  The landlord appealed.

Held: Affirmed.

Rules/Reasoning:

Even though the agent used business cards, envelopes and stationery submitted that bore the company colors and logo, it wasn’t enough to saddle the company with lease liability.

The Court rejected this argument as it laid out the operative Illinois agency rules:

An agent’s authority to bind a principal can be actual or apparent;

Actual authority can be express or implied;

Express authority is authority explicitly granted to the an agent by the principal, while implied authority is proven circumstantially based on the nature of the agent’s position;

Apparent authority is authority imposed by law – regardless of whether there is actual (express or implied) authority – based on a principal holding out an agent as having authority to bind the principal;

– Apparent authority must be based on words or conduct of the principal; not of the agent;

– If there is no showing of detrimental reliance by a third party on the agent’s authority; there can be no finding of apparent authority;

– A third party dealing with an agent has a duty to inquire into an agent’s supposed authority and can’t blindly rely on an agent’s claim that he has authority to enter contracts on behalf of his corporate principal;

Ratification applies where a principal learns of an unauthorized action (taken by a supposed agent) but retains the benefits of the transaction;

– Ratification requires the principal- with full knowledge of an agent’s unauthorized act – to manifest the intention to accept the benefits of the unauthorized act or to acquiesce in the transaction

¶¶ 9-14.

The Court found that there was no actual authority since the agent’s independent contractor agreement specifically provided that the agent could not sign contracts for the company.

There was also no apparent authority since plaintiff pointed to no conduct by the company that clothed the agent with authority to execute leases in the company’s name.

All of plaintiff’s apparent authority arguments were based on conduct of the agent; not the company.

The Court also found the lessor failed to show the company ratified the agent’s conduct.  All rent payments that were made came from the agent and there was  no evidence the company even knew the lease existed before suit was filed.

The corporate lack of lease knowledge also doomed the lessor’s alternative unjust enrichment/quantum meruit counts.  Since the company didn’t know about the lease, the plaintiff couldn’t show it conferred a benefit on the insurance company based on the sales agent renting the office space.  (¶¶ 34-35). (Quantum meruit requires plaintiff to prove that the defendant benefitted from plaintiff’s services.)

Take-aways: This case demonstrates the paramount importance of precision in lease drafting.  The insurance company defendant probably should have vetted all independent agent leases to ensure that the leases don’t designate the company as tenant.

Procedurally, the case shows how important it is to file counter-affidavits in response to a section 2-619 or summary judgment motion.  Since the landlord didn’t file a counter-affidavit in response to the company’s own affidavit, the Court had to accept the company’s version of events as true.  This spelled defeat for the landlord.