Articles Posted in Fiduciary Duties

Minority Sharholder AttorneysIt was the stuff of which a good minority oppression claim is easily cooked up.  The party in control of the corporation had used the corporate bank accounts as his personal piggy bank while operating a competing business, paid himself inflated office rents and bankrolled an extra-marital affair with money taken from the business.

None of that, however, could carry the day in a lawsuit brought by the minority shareholders of a New Jersey corporation because they waited years to complain.

Minority Shareholder Oppression Alleged by Ousted Officer of Closely Held Corporation

Limited Liability Company Attorneys

The modern trend is business relationships is to allow the owners of an enterprise to contract among themselves in almost any manner they choose and order their own affairs as they see fit.  We see this in the law of a number of influential states, particularly Delaware, and in the model partnership and limited liability company acts.

Obligations of Good Faith and Fair Dealing in Partnership Agreements

One of the principles underlying this “contractarian approach”  is that the owners of a business can decide for themselves what fiduciary duties they will owe among each other and to the entity.  In virtually every case, it is a limitation of those duties, and most often in the context of a limited liability company or a partnership.

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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.

LLC Member Enjoined from Competing

An LLC member breached his fiduciary duty by competing with his own company, a trial court in New York City holds in issuing an injunction against one of the principals of a successful company that makes automated parking systems.

The case involves the company that makes Parkmatic parking systems, mechanical stickers and carousels for parking cars in limited spaces. The complaint in Zacharias v. Wassef alleges that the defendant Max Wassef responded to complaints of misconduct by his partner Zacharias by forming a new company to siphon off business using the Parkmatic name.

Limited Liability Company Member Claims Unfair Competition by Manager

Fiduciary Duty of Majority Owners

The three majority members of a five-member limited liability company decide that they want to take a major action, such as selling the assets of the business or buying another business. They present the decision to the minority and proceed over their objections (We’ll assume for the moment that the action is permitted by the Operating Agreement.) The minority are bitterly opposed. Is this a problem? Often, it is.

Majority Rule and Minority Rights

The line between what is a right as an equity owner and what is a breach of fiduciary duty to the minority members is often blurry. We presume that as the owner of equity in a business, be it a limited liability, partnership, or a corporation, that we have the right to vote our economic self interest.

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Statutory Fiduciary Duties May Be Limited or Eliminated – Sometimes

 

A Series on New Jersey’s Adoption of the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act

 

The revised limited liability company law that takes effect in March 2013 creates a new statutory structure of fiduciary duties for LLC members and managers.  The statutory standards are floor, not a ceiling, and courts are still able to find a duty based on the circumstances at issue.  Limited liability companies may alter or amend those duties by statute – or ratify a breach after it has occurred – but not without limits.

The new law is a significant improvement over the existing law, which is largely silent on the precise duties owed by members and managers to an LLC.  The current law seems to presume that the members will define these duties for themselves; an assumption that in practice is often not true.  It also opens the door to business practices that may be oppressive and assumes that all have an equal say in the terms under which an agreement is organized.  The new law adopts a “manifestly unreasonable” standard that limits the ability of LLC members to create businesses under contracts that include oppressive provisions.

The drafters of the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act (RULLC) noted that the model statute

rejects the ultra-contractarian notion that fiduciary within a business organization is merely a set of default rules and seeks instead to balance the virtues of “freedom of contract” against the dangers that inescapably exist when some have power over the interest of others.

 

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Law Specifies Fiduciary Duties for Members and Managers of New Jersey LLCsfd-proxy

 


A Series on New Jersey’s Adoption of the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act

The fiduciary duties imposed on a member or manager of a New Jersey LLC are at present elusively and poorly defined in the statute.  While the current act contains several provisions limiting the personal liability of members, nowhere does it clearly define the duties that are inherent in the relationship of the members.  Attempts to impose the fiduciary obligations that have traditionally been thought to be a fundamental aspect of the relationship of partners in a partnership, or the officers and directors in a corporation, have met with uneven results.

As we noted in our recent blog post (Fiduciary Duties Murky Under Delaware Law), reviewing a decision from the Delaware Supreme Court, the issue is still undecided in the most influential jurisdiction in the country on issues of business governance, and there is little guidance in the form of controlling authority in New Jersey.

Uncertain ResponsibilitIes of LLC Members

That uncertainty should change significantly when the revisions to New Jersey’s limited liability company law take effect in March 2013 for newly formed companies, and in March 2014 for existing LLCs.  In adopting the RULLC, the legislature put in place a new set of standards for the conduct of members and managers of LLCs organized under New Jersey law.  While some of the changes reflect much of the judge-made law applying equitable principles to the conduct of small business owners, there are some significant differences in the way those duties will now work, and anyone involved with a New Jersey limited liability company needs to have a firm grasp of the structure.

This definition of fiduciary duties is significant because courts are often hesitant to create new rules of law by analogizing to the law of corporations or partnerships.  A particularly contentious issue in New Jersey, for example, was whether a minority member of an LLC who was treated unfairly could bring an action for oppression and obtain the remedies available under corporate law.  These efforts have uniformly had anything but uniform results — in New Jersey and other states with similar limited liability company statutes.

The RULLC is more comprehensive that the present New Jersey Liability Company Act.  Under the current act, there is no explicit definition of the duties.  The current law simply provides that to the extent that “at law or in equity” a member or manager has any duties, including fiduciary duties, those duties can be varied by the operating agreement and that the member or manager can rely on the operating agreement (N.J.S.A. 42:2B-66).  The current act also provides that where the statute is silent, the “rules of law and equity” govern (N.J.S.A. 42:2B-67)  Many commentators see this as the express understanding that fiduciary duties are created by the equitable principles that are widely accepted as governing the relationships between members of business enterprises.  Others think not.

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Court Rejects as UnneceSsary Statutory Interpretation Finding Fiduciary Duties in LLC Act

One of the burning issues in limited liability company law is the existence and scope of company-stock-in-retirement-plans-cartoon
the fiduciary duties that are the core of the business relationship between the owners and managers of the business.  Our discussion of a recent decision from Delaware is intended to emphasize the unsettled nature of the question in much of the country and to provide a good starting point for an ongoing discussion of just how deep are the changes in the recently enacted changes to New Jersey’s limited liability company statute.

The decision, Gatz Properties, LLC v. Auriga Capital Corp., C.A. No. 4390 (Nov. 7, 2012), is significant to the members and managers of New Jersey LLCs not just because of the influence of the Delaware courts, but because the New Jersey statute – for a short while longer – contains an identical provision.  We don’t discuss the case at length here because our point is somewhat different – the the different way fiduciary duties are addressed by the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act adopted in September.  There are some excellent discussions of the case and its impact can be found on the blogs of Francis Pileggi’s blog (post here), Stoel Rives LLP (post here) and Peter Mahler (post here.)

There are those that argue that an LLC is at its core is a creature of contract, and that the relationship between the members or managers carries with it no inherent fiduciary obligations.  Thus, the argument goes, the members and managers owe each other no greater obligations that they do in any other contractual relationship and the only fiduciary duties that exist are those that are created by the LLC’s operating agreement.

Others, meanwhile, argue that a limited liability is a business enterprise and that the fiduciary relationships that one finds in other forms of business organization, such as corporations or partnerships, should apply.  In many states, including New Jersey, it is an open issue.  So when a Delaware Chancery Court judge went out of its way to find that the Delaware limited liability company statute itself creates fiduciary duties akin to those widely accepted in the context of corporate governance, people paid attention.  Delaware is still considered the fatherland of corporate governance and its decisions, even those of trial judges, carry a great deal of influence.

Any certainty, however, disappeared with the holding of the Delaware Supreme Court that the finding of the trial court concerning any fiduciary duties under the statute was dicta not necessary to the final outcome of the case, and expressly stating that the question of the fiduciary duties of limited liability company managers is still an open issue under Delaware law.

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Partnership Failed to Keep Inactive Partner Informed

The fiduciary duties owed among partners can change with time and circumstances, and the disclosures that were appropriate when all of the partners worked together in the business may become inadequate when one of the partners has ceased to take an active role.

This is the lesson of Munoz v. Perla, Docket No. A-5922-08T3 (App. Div. Dec. 20, 2011) in which the Appellate Division affirmed a trial court decision holding that the members of a partnership had failed to make adequate disclosure of the terms of the leases held by the engineering firm, of which the parties had all once been partners.

Although the case involved the now-repealed Uniform Partnership Act, and thus not all of the holdings may be applicable to partnerships formed under later law, the decision is instructive as to how the fiduciary relationships between partners my evolve as time passes and circumstances change. (For another reason decision involving fiduciary duties among partners, see our blog post here.)

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Promoters of LLC Subject to Breach of Fiduciary Duty Claims

Limited liability companies are clearly the vehicle of choice for new, closely held businesses.  That means that more often than not the principals have some existing relationship before they take up their new business together.  Can that prior relationship create fiduciary duties even before the company has begun operations?

A decision out of the New York Court of Appeals indicates that there may be fiduciary duties in such a relationship, in particular duties of full disclosure and fair dealing.  Moreover it appears that these duties may exist before the limited liability company is formed or membership interests are acquired.  In Roni LLC v. Arfa, 2011 N.Y. Slip Op. 09163 (Dec. 20, 2011),  The court held that the existence, or not, of a fiduciary relationship depends up the relationship of the parties and whether it meets the traditional criteria necessary to create fiduciary obligations.

Real Estate Investments by LLC

This case involved the conduct of promoters, the individuals who organize a new business and seek out other participants or investors.  The defendant promoters organized seven limited liability companies under New York law for the purpose of buying and renovating buildings in the Bronx and Harlem for resale.  The plaintiffs were a number of Israeli investors who acquired interests in the LLCs.

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