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Summaries and analysis of recent Delaware court decisions concerning business-related litigation.
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This case again illustrates the contractual nature of Delaware alternative entities and the important interpretive role the courts perform construing alternative entity agreements when internal governance disputes arise. The case arose out of the parties’ competing requests for declaratory judgment regarding Caiman Energy II, LLC’s (“Caiman”) limited liability agreement (“LLC Agreement”). The Defendants, including Caiman and EnCap Capital Management (“EnCap”), argued that the provisions of the LLC Agreement grant EnCap plenary power with respect to a Qualified IPO, including the ability to change the definition of a Qualified IPO and to modify the procedures the contracting parties would otherwise have to take relating to a Qualified IPO. EnCap asserted that it could implement an Up-C IPO using its authority to effect a Qualified IPO. An Up-C IPO refers to a transaction whereby a limited liability company (“LLC”), which is taxed as a pass-through entity, performs an IPO through a holding company that has an interest in the LLC. Plaintiff Williams Field Services Group, LLC (“Williams”) contended that the Encap proposed Up-C IPO was inconsistent with the terms of the LLC Agreement. More ›
Chancery Construes LLC Agreement as Imposing Only the Managerial Duty to Act in Good Faith and Dismisses Claims for Failure to Plead Bad Faith
Under Delaware law, the managers of a limited liability company owe the entity and its members the traditional common law fiduciary duties of care and loyalty. But parties may eliminate or modify those duties under the LLC’s operating agreement and impose contractual duties instead. When they do so, Delaware courts will analyze any challenged conduct of the manager against those contractual duties. Here, the Court of Chancery found the managers’ contractual duty to be a narrow one: act with a good faith belief that their conduct was in or not opposed to the LLC’s best interests. More ›
Court of Chancery Finds Agreements Unenforceable for Lack of Assent, Dismisses Remaining Claims for Lack of Personal Jurisdiction
Parties to a contract must provide evidence of an overt manifestation of assent for a contract to be enforceable under Delaware law. Upon remand from the Delaware Supreme Court, the Court of Chancery found such assent to be lacking and dismissed the remaining claims for lack of personal jurisdiction. More ›
Plaintiff was assigned a membership interest in the defendant, a Delaware limited liability company, and sought to exercise books and records inspection rights. But the LLC’s operating agreement circumscribed its members’ ability to transfer their interests, stating that any disposition without prior written consent of all members was “null and void,” and otherwise authorized only members to inspect books and records. According to the Court of Chancery, because the transferor never received prior written consent for the transfer to plaintiff, the transfer was void under the LLC agreement, plaintiff was not a member of the LLC, and plaintiff had no right to inspect the LLC’s books and records. In addition, the Court relied on the Delaware Supreme Court’s decision in CompoSecure, L.L.C. v. CardUX, LLC to find that the plaintiff could not rely on equitable theories to validate the transfer. According to the Court, equity can only validate voidable acts, not void acts. And the LLC agreement’s plain language in this case rendered the attempted transfer void, even if it would have been only voidable under common law.
Delaware law permits parties conducting their business as limited liability companies to include mandatory arbitration or forum selection clauses in their LLC agreements, even those naming a forum outside of Delaware. And the State’s public policy supports enforcing contracts, including forum selection clauses, unless specifically prohibited by statute or upon a showing of fraud or overreaching. There is an important statutory exception in this context. Under Delaware’s LLC statute, 6 Del. C. § 18-109(d), other than for arbitration, a non-managing member of an LLC cannot waive its right to sue in the Delaware courts for matters relating to the LLC’s “organization or internal affairs.” More ›
Section 109 of the Delaware Limited Liability Company Act is an “implied consent” statute. It provides for personal jurisdiction in Delaware over (i) “managers” named in the governing LLC agreement, and (ii) persons who otherwise “participate materially” in the LLC’s management. 6 Del. C. § 18-109(a). This recent decision is notable for holding that, based on the allegations, certain officers who performed important tasks for the LLC did not “participate materially” in its management for Section 109 purposes. The Court pointed to precedent holding that “material participation” for Section 109 purposes requires actual control or a decision making role. Here, one defendant was alleged to be a former manager who retained a “vice chairman” title and engaged a financial advisor on the LLC’s behalf. The other defendant at-issue served as the company’s President and CEO and had important day-to-day responsibilities. Such allegations fell short, however, in the circumstances alleged, where the plaintiffs’ complaint and arguments emphasized that, another defendant, who was designated as the “manager” in the governing LLC agreement, exercised “absolute control and discretion” and acted as “emperor, supreme leader and dictator for life.” The Court reasoned such contentions precluded a finding that the two officers possessed decision making authority of their own. Accordingly, they were not subject to personal jurisdiction under Section 109.
Superior Court CCLD Finds Court of Chancery Lacks Jurisdiction Over Dispute, Despite Forum Selection Clause in Agreement
Delaware law is clear that, while Courts will generally respect parties’ contractual choice of forum, a forum selection clause cannot confer jurisdiction or venue where it otherwise is not available. The contract at issue in this action, which arose out of stock purchase agreement in which plaintiff agreed to convey all of its issued and outstanding shares of a subsidiary to defendant, provided for exclusive jurisdiction in the Court of Chancery, or if the Court of Chancery lacked subject matter jurisdiction, the United States District Court for the District of Delaware. If the District of Delaware lacked jurisdiction, the venue would be in “any court of competent jurisdiction sitting in the State of Delaware[.]”
When the plaintiff filed suit in the Complex Commercial Litigation Division of Delaware’s Superior Court, the defendant argued that the parties’ dispute regarding post-closing tax matters should instead be filed in the Delaware Court of Chancery pursuant to 6 Del. C. § 18-111 (providing subject matter jurisdiction in the Court of Chancery to interpret and enforce LLC agreements and “any other instrument, document, agreement or certificate contemplated by … this chapter”). More ›
Under Section 18-802 of the Delaware LLC Act, the Court of Chancery may dissolve an LLC when it is “not reasonably practical” for it to carry on its business in conformity with its LLC agreement. This decision explains when that might occur, such as when the defined purpose becomes impossible to fulfill.
This is an important decision because it holds that an LLC agreement may make a contract void for failure to comply with the required provisions in the LLC agreement to enter into such a contract. If the contract is “void” it cannot be later ratified by implication when the parties follow the terms of the contract. Thus, when contracting with an LLC, it is necessary to read the actual LLC agreement to see if it requires any conditions to entering into a contract.
This is an interesting decision because it holds that an entity may bring a fraudulent inducement claim for statements made before it was formed when the statements caused it to be formed for a new business. It is also interesting because it awards attorney fees for lying during a trial.
When multiple LLC agreements for several entities contain provisions that relate across the entities, deciding how to interpret those provisions is a potential problem. As this decision points out, the separate identities of the entities need to be respected. Nonetheless, when the LLC agreements create contract rights, those rights can be enforced, just as a stockholders’ agreement can be enforced to require action by the signatories to the agreement.
An LLC agreement may provide what payout a departing member receives for his or her interest. It also may provide that a member may be forced to withdraw by his or her other members. This decision addresses what should happen when an LLC agreement provides for a forced withdrawal but is silent on the issue of the payout. Adopting the reasoning of a prior Delaware decision in the limited partnership context, the Court holds the forced-out member should receive the same sort of “fair value” awarded in stock appraisal cases. This is another example of how rules of law or equity may fill in gaps in LLC agreements and why such agreements must be drafted carefully.
Court of Chancery Holds That Notice and an Opportunity To Be Heard Are Not Prerequisites to Dismissing an LLC Manager “For Cause”
This decision holds that, absent contrary language in an LLC operating agreement, members do not need to provide notice and an opportunity to respond before dismissing a manager “for cause.” Note that the law governing when a corporate director can be dismissed “for cause” may require notice and an opportunity to contest the allegations against him. More ›
Alternative entity agreements may eliminate common law fiduciary duties and often do, supplanting them with contractual fiduciary duties. These frequently include an obligation to act “in good faith” or “in the best interests of the company,” broadly or in certain circumstances. Thus, even with fiduciary duty exculpation clauses in LLC agreements, managers may still find themselves exposed to a member’s allegations that they failed to satisfy their standard of conduct, as this decision illustrates. This decision also is interesting for its discussion of the potential impact of bankruptcy court sale orders on the Court of Chancery’s ability to enter equitable relief.
Under the LLC Act, as with the DGCL, an entity planning to dissolve and distribute its assets is required to set aside some reserve of assets to pay all known claims. Failure to set aside sufficient assets may result in revocation of the entity’s certificate of cancellation, thereby reviving the entity, as happened in this case. This decision explains when claims are “known” by the entity (i.e., the entity has actual knowledge of the claims) and how the entity may value those claims for purposes of retaining sufficient assets to potentially satisfy them. Importantly, the reserve need not match all potential damages dollar-for-dollar. The value of claims may be discounted based on their lack of merit, for example.