Does Your LLC’s Operating Agreement Say What Happens if a Member or the LLC Gets a Judgment Against a Member?

Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders owned 60% and 40%, respectively, of World Wide Widgets, LLC, an Arizona limited liability company.  WWW manufactures and sells widgets.  Without WWW’s knowledge or consent Ned began working for Arizona Widgets, LLC, a competitor of World Wide Widgets, LLC.

WWW sued Ned for breach of fiduciary duty and misappropriation of trade secrets by disclosing information to Arizona Widgets, LLC.  The Arizona court awarded WWW a judgment for $100,000 and ordered that Ned transfer his entire membership interest in the LLC to the LLC.

WWW can use the collection process to collect the money from Ned’s non-WWW assets, but can WWW acquire Ned’s membership interest in the LLC if Ned does not voluntarily transfer his membership interest to the LLC?  Arizona Revised Statutes Section 29-655 states:

“On application to a court of competent jurisdiction by any judgment creditor of a member, the court may charge the member’s interest in the limited liability company with payment of the unsatisfied amount of the judgment plus interest. To the extent so charged, the judgment creditor has only the rights of an assignee of the member’s interest. . . . This section provides the exclusive remedy by which a judgment creditor of a member may satisfy a judgment out of the judgment debtor’s interest in the limited liability company.”

Emphasis added.

Section 29-655 seems to prevent WWW from forcing Ned to transfer his membership interest to the LLC because the charging order is WWW’s sole remedy.

The WWW fact pattern is similar to the facts in a recent Texas LLC case called “Gillet v. ZUPT LLC,” Houston 14th Court of Appeals, Case No. 14-15-01033-CV, 2/23/17.  In this case ZUPT, LLC, got a judgment that required its member Joel Gillet to transfer his entire membership interest to ZUPT, LLC.  Like Arizona, Texas LLC law provides that the charging order is the sole remedy of a creditor who gets a judgment against a member of a Texas LLC.

The Texas Court of Appeals ruled that the charging order exclusive remedy statute did not prevent a court order that Gillet transfer his membership interest to the LLC.  The Court stated:

“We hold that requiring turnover of a membership interest under these circumstances is proper for two reasons. First, the reasoning behind requiring a charging order as the exclusive remedy is inapposite when the judgment creditor seeking the membership interest is the entity from which the membership interest derives. Second, unlike a case in which a judgment creditor seeks to collect on its money judgment by forcing a sale of a membership interest, this case involves an explicit award of the membership interest itself from one party to the other as part of the judgment. For these reasons, we conclude that a charging order was not the exclusive remedy available to ZUPT, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion by ordering turnover of Gillet’s 45 percent interest in ZUPT.”

Unfortunately for Homer and World Wide Widgets, LLC, no Arizona appellate court has issued an opinion similar to the ZUPT, LLC, vs. Gillet opinion.  WWW will be forced to litigate the issue and hope to get an order at the appellate level requiring transfer of the membership interest to WWW.

Warning for Multi-Member Arizona LLCs

The lesson to be learned from the ZUPT, LLC, vs Gillet case is that all multi-member LLCs should have provisions in their Operating Agreements that provide appropriate remedies if a member of the LLC or the LLC get a judgment against another member.  The Operating Agreement should have language that creates remedies that allow the member or the LLC with the judgment  to get around the exclusive remedy of Section 29-655.  The remedies include a requirement that money be distributed to the creditor from funds payable to the debtor member and a requirement that the debtor member forfeit the debtor member’s membership interest in the LLC.

In an article called “Yet Another Intra-Member Dispute in ZUPT” debt collection attorney Jay Adkisson wrote:

“The decision by the Texas Court of Appeals is, in my humble opinion, right on target, but it by no means reflects (yet) anything like a majority rule or a judicial re-writing of the cold, hard language of the charging order statutes.

Practitioners who are drafting LLC and partnership agreements need to recognize this issue, and confer with the members as to what they want the outcome to be. If one member becomes indebted to the other members or the LLC, do they want to be restricted by a charging order or not? It should be relatively easy to draft around this issue, but in my experience almost nobody does so.”

As a result of ZUPT, LLC, vs Gillet and Jay Adkisson’s advice I have amended my multi-member LLC Operating Agreement to provide special remedies if a member or the LLC get a judgment against another member.

Member Fraudulently Amends Articles of Organization to Remove Other Member

From time to time a member of an Arizona LLC calls and tells me that another member of the LLC filed an amendment to the Articles of Organization with the Arizona Corporation Commission that removed the caller as a member of the LLC without the caller’s knowledge or consent.  There was no legal basis to file the amendment.

The caller always asks “what can I do?”  The simple answer is the caller should prepare and file another amendment to the Articles of Organization to correct the removal of the caller as a member.  This solution, however, is only a temporary band aid.  It does not solve the fundamental problem which is the members cannot get along.

Unfortunately this scenario is an all too common problem.  The Arizona Corporation Commission is, in actuality, a mere filing service.  If a person submits a document for filing and it satisfies the ACC’s filing requirements, the ACC will file the document.  The ACC does not confirm or verify that the information set forth in a document is correct.  Many times when members of an Arizona LLC can not agree on the management of the LLC one of the members will file an amendment to the Articles of Organization that removes another member without any legal basis for the removal.

People who file false documents with the ACC are usually unaware that they could be committing a felony.  Arizona Revised Statutes Section 29-613.A states:

“A person who . . . signs any articles, statement, report, application or other document filed with the [Arizona Corporation] commission that is known to the person as false in any material respect is guilty of a class 4 felony.”

The bottom line is that when this happens the members need to consummate a “company divorce,” i.e., a legal termination of their relationship as members of the same LLC.  The best solution occurs if the members agree on the terms and conditions of their company divorce and they sign documents that evidence their agreement.  If the members cannot agree, they have two options:

  • Continue their relationship as members of the LLC, which means ongoing disputes, problems and stress.
  • File a lawsuit in an Arizona Superior Court and ask the court to dissolve the LLC.  This option takes time and causes both members to pay large amounts of money to their lawyers.

As a result of this latest call, I revised my multi-member Operating Agreement (yes I have a single member and husband and wife owned Operating Agreement that is about 20 pages shorter) to include a section that obligates a member who causes a fraudulent amendment to the Articles of Organization to be filed with the ACC to pay each other member liquidated damages in the amount of $10,000.  If the liquidated damages are not paid within 30 days of the filing date the unpaid amount accrues interest at the rate of 10% per annum.  If the entire amount is not paid within one year of the filing date, the offending member’s membership interest in the LLC will be forfeited on the first anniversary of the date the false amendment to the Articles of Organization was filed with the ACC and the unpaid portion of the liquidated damages will be forgiven.

For more on this topic read my blog post called “Can One Member of an Arizona LLC Expel Another Member?

What are Arizona LLC Members Voting Rights?

Question:  The members of my multi-member Arizona limited liability company never signed an Operating Agreement.  The members now disagree on how to run the company.  What are the members’ voting rights?

Answer:  One of the primary reasons the members of a multi-member LLC should sign an Operating Agreement is to set rules on members’ voting rights and to set what major actions require the prior approval of a majority or super majority of the members or the unanimous approval of all members.  If the members fail to adopt a good Operating Agreement then the default voting rules of Arizona’s LLC law apply and its a matter of time before the members disagree on action and big problems arise.

When the members of an Arizona LLC fail to adopt an Operating Agreement that provides for members’ voting rights or if the members adopt an Operating Agreement that is voting rights deficient, Arizona Revised Statutes Section 29-681 applies and provides the default members’ voting rules and rights.

The voting rules that apply to an Arizona LLC that does not have an Operating Agreement with voting rules signed by all of the members are listed below.  There are only nine actions that require the approval of members – four of which of which require the approval of all members and five of which require the approval of a majority of the members.

  • All Members Get One Vote:  Every member has one vote regardless of how much money the member invested or how much of the LLC the member owns.  For example, if Homer and Marge Simpson invested $1,000 in World Wide Widgets, LLC and acquired a 1% membership interest as community property and Ned Flanders invested $99,000 for 99% of the company then each of the three members has one vote with respect to the nine major actions listed in Section 29-751Warning:  If you are the major investor and/or the owner of a majority of the percentage interests in an Arizona LLC Section 29-751 is the reason you must have a good Operating Agreement that sets forth voting rules and rights.
  • When Unanimous Approval is Required:  Only four actions require that all members approve the action.  “The affirmative vote, approval or consent of all members is required to:

1. Adopt, amend, amend and restate or revoke an operating agreement or authorize a transaction, agreement or action on behalf of the limited liability company that is unrelated to its purpose or business as stated in an operating agreement or that otherwise violates an operating agreement.

2. Issue an interest in the limited liability company to any person.

3. Approve a plan of merger or consolidation of the limited liability company with or into one or more business entities as defined in Section 29-751.

4. Authorize an amendment to the articles of organization that changes the status of the limited liability company from or to one in which management is vested in a manager or managers to or from one in which management is reserved to the members.”

  • When Approval of a Majority of the Members is Required: Only five actions require the approval of a majority of the members.  “The affirmative vote, approval or consent of a majority of the members, or if management of the limited liability company is vested in one or more managers, the affirmative vote, approval or consent of the sole manager or a majority of the managers, is required to:

1. Resolve any difference concerning matters connected with the business of the limited liability company.

2. Authorize the distribution of limited liability company cash or property to the members.

3. Authorize the limited liability company to repurchase all or part of any member’s interest in the limited liability company from that member.

4. Authorize the filing of articles of termination concerning the limited liability company.

5. Subject to subsection C, paragraph 4 of this section, authorize an amendment to the articles of organization, except that an amendment that merely corrects a false or inaccurate statement in the articles of organization may be filed at any time by a manager if management of the limited liability company is vested in one or more managers or by a member if management of the limited liability company is reserved to the members.

When there is no Operating Agreement Section 29-751.E.1 & 2 give the majority of members a lot of power to out vote the minority members and run the company.

The members failure to to adopt an Operating Agreement more often than not will eventually lead to a dispute among members as to how to run the company.  One of the most common reasons people call me is to learn their options when their Arizona LLC does not have an Operating Agreement and the members need a company divorce.

2016-11-16T08:23:42-07:00February 1st, 2015|FAQs, Member Disputes, Members, Operating LLCs|0 Comments

Do Members of an Arizona LLC Owe Fiduciary Duties to Other Members?

Question:  “Does a member of an Arizona limited liability company owe other members of the company any fiduciary duties?

Answer:   A March 27, 2014, Arizona Court of Appeals opinion in the case of TM2008 Investments, Inc., vs. ProCon Capital Corp. says that the members of an Arizona limited liability company do not owe any fiduciary duties to the other members unless the members signed an Operating Agreement that creates and imposes contractual fiduciary duties on the members.

Since the TM2008 Investments case involves fiduciary duties we should first explain what the term means.  The Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute says the following about fiduciary duties:

“A fiduciary duty is a legal duty to act solely in another party’s interests. Parties owing this duty are called fiduciaries. The individuals to whom they owe a duty are called principals. Fiduciaries may not profit from their relationship with their principals unless they have the principals’ express informed consent. They also have a duty to avoid any conflicts of interest between themselves and their principals or between their principals and the fiduciaries’ other clients. A fiduciary duty is the strictest duty of care recognized by the US legal system.”

If a person owes a fiduciary duty to another person it also means it is much easier for the principal to sue the fiduciary for breach of a fiduciary duty and win a judgment because there is a higher standard of care associated with the fiduciary duty than would otherwise apply.

The TM2008 Investments, Inc., vs. ProCon Capital Corp. case arises from a dispute among the two members of Doveland Developments, LLC, a company formed to buy land and develop it into homes.  Unfortunately the project was not successful.  The lender threatened to foreclose and sell the land and go after the owners of the two members (Steve Tackett and Bonnie Vanzant) of Doveland Developments, LLC, because they had personally guaranteed the payment of the loan.  The members of Doveland Developments, LLC, are TM2008 Investments, Inc., and ProCon Capital Corp.

When the lender notified the parties that the loan was in default Bonnie Vanzant paid the loan in full.  She then sued Steve Tackett under an indemnification agreement they had signed to collect from Steve one half of the money Bonnie paid to the lender under her personal guaranty of the loan.  TM2008 Investments filed a petition to dissolve and liquidate Doveland Developments due to the inability to conduct business in light of the members’ substantial disagreements. ProCon Capital filed counterclaims against TM2008 Investments for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing (count 1) and breach of contract (count 3), and against TM2008 Investments and the Bonnie and James Vanzant personally for breach of fiduciary duty (count 2).

The lawsuits were consolidated.  The trial court granted Bonnie Vanzant’s motion for summary judgment on the indemnification claim, but denied TM2008 Investments’ motion for summary judgment on the counterclaims.  Just before trial, ProCon Capital voluntarily dismissed with prejudice counts 1 and 3.  After jury trial on the claim for breach of fiduciary duty, the jury returned a verdict in favor of ProCon Capital and against TM2008 Investments and the Vanzants personally for $1,039,754.  The losers appealed.

The primary issue before the Arizona Court of Appeals was whether or not Arizona’s limited liability company law provides that a member of an Arizona LLC owes a fiduciary duty to the other members of the LLC.  ProCon Capital argued that because Arizona corporate and partnership law create fiduciary duties on shareholders and partners, respectively, Arizona law must therefor create fiduciary duties on members of an Arizona LLC.  The appellate court disagreed.  The court said:

We decline in this case to mechanically apply fiduciary duty principles from the law of closely-held corporations or partnerships to a limited liability company created under Arizona law. The legislature did not explicitly outline any such duties for members of an LLC; instead, the LLC Act allows the members of an LLC to not only create an operating agreement, but also delineate in that agreement the duties members owe one another.”

Translation:  The court said Arizona’s LLC statutes do not subject members of Arizona LLCs to any fiduciary duties and neither do any Arizona appellate court opinions.

However, the court said that an Operating Agreement can contain language that creates one or more fiduciary duties on members.  The Operating Agreement of Doveland Developments, LLC, contained this clause that ProCon Capital aruged created a fiduciary duty on TM2008 Investments, Inc, and Bonnie and James Vanzant:

It is agreed any Member shall not be liable to the Company or any other Member for any damages or the like relating to any vote, decision, action, inaction or the like taken on behalf of the Company in accordance with these provisions and other provisions of this Agreement if such is done in good faith and with reasonable business judgment including the duty to make management decisions with the care of an ordinarily prudent person in a like position and similar circumstances and in a manner believed to be in the best interests of the Company.

The appellate court found that the above quoted language did not create a fiduciary duty on the members.

The court reversed the trial court and sent the case back to the trial court.

Lessons to Be Learned

The TM2008 Investments, Inc., vs. ProCon Capital Corp. case stands for the following:

  • Arizona’s statutes that govern Arizona limited liability companies do not create fiduciary duties on members.
  • Members of an Arizona LLC can create one or more fiduciary duties by inserting appropriate language in the LLC’s Operating Agreement.

The issue of whether the Operating Agreement of a multimember Arizona LLC should or should not contain fiduciary duty provisions is a topic for another article.  Hint:  A member in control of an Arizona LLC would not want any fiduciary duties in the Operating Agreement, but the minority member would want the opposite.

Can One Member of an Arizona LLC Expel Another Member?

Question:  I am named in the original Articles of Organization of an Arizona limited liability company as a member.  Another member of the LLC signed an amendment to the Articles of Organization that removed me as a member.  Is that legal and does it terminate my membership in the LLC?

Answer:  No and no unless the member who signed the amendment had a contractual right to sign and file the amendment that removes you as a member of the LLC.  Arizona LLC law does not give a member of an Arizona LLC the right or power to unilaterally terminate the membership interest of another member.

As an Arizona limited liability company attorney who formed my first AZ LLC in October of 1992 and who has formed 7,800+ LLCs since then I must say that this is a very common scenario.  People think that the mere fact they file an amendment to the Articles of Organization that removes a member that the filed document has legal significance, i.e., that the person or entity that was a member yesterday is suddenly no longer a member today merely because the Articles were amended.

When a person or an entity acquires a membership interest in an Arizona LLC that person or owner has a property right recognized by Arizona law.  The owner of a property right cannot be divested of the property merely because somebody files a false document.  Example:  Homer Simpson owns a parcel of Arizona land.  Ned Flanders signs a deed that says Homer Simpson conveys the land to Ned and then records the deed.  This false deed does not transfer title to the property to Ned.  Ned’s deed is a legal nullity because it was not signed by the owner of the property.

The same concept applies to the property right that attaches to the member of an Arizona LLC.  If Ned Flanders signs and files an amendment to the Articles of Organization that removes Homer Simpson as a member that document does not cause Homer to cease to be a member.  There are four ways that Homer can cease to be a member of the company:

  • Homer dies.
  • Homer signs a document by which he assigns his membership interest to the LLC or one or more other people or entities.
  • Somebody has a legal or contractual right to terminate Homer’s membership interest.
  • A court terminates the membership.

Warning:  Arizona Revised Statutes Section 29-613.A states: “A person who . . . signs any articles, statement, report, application or other document filed with the commission that is known to the person as false in any material respect is guilty of a class 4 felony.”

Lack of a Good Operating Agreement Causes Common Big Problem

I met recently with a group of people who are members of an Arizona limited liability company that is a disaster because the members never signed a “good” Operating Agreement.  The multimember LLC was formed several years ago, but the members did not properly document their company.  Here’s a short list of the member’s problems:

  • A majority of the members say that until recently they never saw an Operating Agreement, but the “CEO” recently produced an Operating Agreement with forged signatures.  These members deny that the members signed an Operating Agreement.
  • Even if the members had signed the Operating Agreement presented to them the document was grossly deficient.  One big problem was that all major decisions be approved by ALL of the members.
  • The company has been run by a dictator since its formation.  This man has exercised total control and he acts without any input or approval from or approval of the members.
  • Members have come and gone without any documentation or approval of the members.
  • The members get a K-1 every year that lists their purported percentage of ownership of the LLC and their share of the LLC’s income.  Note if your LLC does not have an Operating Agreement that specifies how profits will be allocated Arizona Revised Statutes Section 29-3102.12  states:

Members’ respective interests in the Company’s profits are in proportion to their rights to share distributions.”

Arizona Revised Statutes Section 29-3404.A states:

Any distribution made by a limited liability company . . . must be in equal shares among Members,”

  • The dictator has determined the amount and timing of all distributions from the company to its members.  This is a violation of Arizona Revised Statutes Section 29-3407.B.3, which states:

“a majority in interest of the members shall decide . . . whether to make an interim distribution.”

  • The members have never been given copies of the LLCs’ federal or state income tax returns or its annual financial statements, all of which are required by Arizona Revised Statutes Section 29-3410.A.5, which says members are entitled to copies of the following records the LLC must keep :

“a copy of the company’s federal, state and local income tax returns and reports, if any, for the three most recent years”

The dictator has violated many Arizona LLC laws for which he is liable to the members and the company for damages.

My Recommendation

I recommend that members of an out of control Arizona LLC take the following actions:

  • Gather all the facts.  This includes one or more members demanding to see and copy the records that are required to be kept by Arizona Revised Statutes Section 29-3410.
  • Consult with an experienced Arizona LLC attorney like me to learn their rights, remedies and options.
  • Subject to complying with a valid Operating Agreement give all the members a notice and call of a meeting of the members to vote on the following issues: (i) removing and replacing management, (ii) hiring a CPA to conduct a forensic audit to determine how much money the company has received and where it went, and (iii) filing a lawsuit to get a court order removing anybody in management that does not voluntarily comply with the change of management resolution.
  • If the results of the forensic audit finds that money was embezzled or improperly paid, file a lawsuit against the people who are responsible.

Another option is to file a lawsuit asking the court to dissolve the company, but this is frequently the worst option.

2021-01-03T09:41:32-07:00September 15th, 2013|Member Disputes|0 Comments
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