The effective date of an LLC member’s expulsion may be a critical issue in business divorce litigation and may be tied to critical events or the litigation.
Courts will look at the facts and circumstances of the case before determining the effective date, but are often guided by the parties’ own intent.
A court may give the expulsion a retroactive date, often the date that litigation was commenced.
A limited liability company member withdraws by voluntary dissociation, which occurs when the company has notice of his ‘express will” to withdraw. Voluntary dissociation terminates management rights, but not economic rights.
A court may refuse relief on a claim when the plaintiff has acted with unclean hands with regard to the subject matter of the action. The doctrine applies to an evil practice or wrong conduct in the particular matter for which the court has been asked to provide a remedy.
A member in a manager-managed limited liability company owes no statutory duty of loyalty to the company, but will owe a statutory duty of loyalty under the common law if he or she is also an employee.
A sales representative who held a non-equity percentage interest in a New Jersey limited liability company effectively withdrew as a member of the company by leaving his “share certificates’ with the company’s lawyer, a trial and appellate court have agreed.
This withdrawal, known under New Jersey’s version of the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (RULLCA) as a voluntary dissociation occurred even though the circumstances surrounding that act – leaving a certificate with a lawyer – was disputed. Dissociation in limited liability and partnership law is an act by which an individual owner’s association with the business is severed, voluntarily or involuntarily. It may apply in either a resignation or an expulsion.
The Appellate Division case at issue, Decandia v. Anthony T. Rinaldi, LLC (see opinion here) involved a dispute between a sales representative who received a commission styled as a membership interest in a construction company, but which was actually a non-equity profit interest in his own originations. The sole equity owner of the firm, Rinaldi, retained all of the management rights in the business. Continue reading
There are circumstances in which a member of a limited liability company in most states may be expelled as a member from the company. This is known as involuntary dissociation.
An action may be brought by the LLC seeking a court order of involuntary dissociation on the basis that the member has engaged in wrongful conduct that has or will harm the company, has repeatedly breached the operating agreement, or because it is not ‘reasonably practicable’ for the company to continue with him or her as a member.
Dissociated members lose their rights to participate in management, but retain their financial interest and a right to receive distributions.
In litigation over an involuntary dissociation, a court may order a sale of the interests of a member to the LLC or to any other party to the litigation.
The expulsion of a member is likely the most litigated issue in disputes involving members of a member of a limited liability company. The expulsion, or involuntary dissociation, is a remedy for wrongful conduct or breach of the operating agreement. We represent majority owners when they are trying to remove a member and we represent the minority member who is fighting removal. Not all states permit removal or expulsion for misconduct and some recent decisions indicate that in the states that do, it will likely be harder than once thought.
Involuntary Dissocation of a Limited Liability Company Member
There was a belief, perhaps unreasonably so, that Courts were unwilling to keep people in business together when plainly the owners were no longer capable of maintaining a working relationship. The New Jersey Supreme Court, in the first decision by any state supreme court on the topic, held that the concept of “not reasonably practicable” to stay in business together means more than a personality conflict. It requires a structural inability to act, such as ongoing deadlock or significant wrongful conduct. Continue reading
The law that controls any business organizations is a creature of state law, and disputes among owners in a business divorce involve the application of the law where the business was formed. More often than not that means the law of the state in which the dispute is being heard, but not always. And significantly, at least for our present purposes, it does not mean that we will find the answer to a business divorce issue in the state in which the litigation is pending, even among the binding decisions of the state law where the enterprise was formed.
Here’s an example: a New York court is called upon to determine whether a managing member of a limited liability company breached his or her duty in negotiating a sale of a substantial asset to a third party that the manager negligently believed was an objectively fair price. The plaintiff seeks to expel the manager or to force a dissolution and sale of the business as a going concern. Does the Court apply New Jersey law? If there is no New Jersey case on point – and there is no binding decision on all of the points in this scenario – does the Court apply New York law, and to which issues?
Even if this case is litigated in New Jersey, and there is no law on point, where does the trial court look to guidance. The nearly automatic response is Delaware, because the courts of Delaware have by far the most developed body of law applicable to corporate governance disputes. However, Delaware may be the wrong choice if the limited liability company statute needs interpretation. A well-reasoned decision from an Appellate Court in Illinois, for example, should be much more persuasive to a court construing New Jersey’s limited liability company statute because of the similarity between the two states’ laws.
Litigating with a former employee for violation of a restrictive covenant agreement becomes more complicated when the former employee was terminated without good cause. And because we are an at-will employment economy, this becomes an issue more frequently than one might imagine.
As one author notes, it typically is not the underperformer who creates a problem for their former employer. It’s the superstars, of course, that threaten to walk out the door not because they were fired but because they plan on taking a big chunk of business.
Include Poor Performance as Grounds for Termination
An Illinois appellate court affirmed a finding of breach of fiduciary duty and the expulsion of a limited liability company member under a version of the Uniform Limited Liability Company Act. The case is of interest for the way it construes the model partnership and limited liability company acts.
Explusion of LLC Member After Transfer of Interests
The court in Kenny v. Fulton Assocs., LLC, 2016 IL App (1st) 152536 (Ill. App., 2016) holds first that under Illinois’ LLC statute the actual activities of the parties determined their fiduciary duties, not the agreements. The management of the entities were vested in one side as manager, but the day-to-day operations actually handled by the other side. The management of the business creates a fiduciary duty under Illinois law. The other significant holding is that refusing to honor a valid transfer of an interest is not just a breach of contract, but a breach of fiduciary duty. Finally, the court affirms the holding that when one of the principals is a lawyer that represents the firm, his breach of duty as an attorney is also a breach of fiduciary duty as a member or partner.
Here is the hard reality. The chances that your case, or any case, will get to a real trial on the merits is way less than one in 10. The truth is that only between two and five cases out of 100 will be resolved with a trial.
What does that mean for a party drawn into civil litigation? The statistics point to a group of “best practices” that effective litigation counsel should employ. It is a blend of efficient trial preparation, motion practice, management of discovery and, perhaps most of all, advanced negotiation skills. We review some of those here as a starting point for developing a case strategy.
Civil Trials in Business Litigation is a Rare Event
But one can also dissociate themselves by resigning as member, or, under the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (RULLC), by giving notice of their express will to withdraw as a member. This lawsuit tells us that there are no specific words required; the intent to quit if expressed to the LLC, will be sufficient.
Dissociation by Express Will of Member
Seasoned Negotiators, Effective Apologies
As negotiation trainer Jim Camp warns, an effective negotiator learns how to let the other side be “ok,” even when you’re not. The fact is that no matter how well we listen, no matter how well we employ our negotiator’s tool kit to learn the real interests of the other side, we’re going to make mistakes.
Reading through a recent court opinion out of the New York Supreme Court, I am struck by the way the law has diverged in corporate governance litigation. There are two distinctly different approaches to the business divorce. Crossing the Hudson can make a world of difference in operating a closely held business.
Business Divorce State by State
Understanding the different approaches taken by the courts of different states is something that should be considered by business owners not just when they form the business, but as they work through the inevitable conflicts that are part of running a business.