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Maintaining Your LLCs Articles and Resources

Corporate Opportunities

Does the Rule Apply to Real Estate?

If you invest in and/or syndicate real estate what are the duties to your investors? You owe them a duty of loyalty. But how far does that go?

The issue of corporate opportunities is important. I wrote a whole chapter on it (from which part of this is excerpted) in my newest book “Veil Not Fail.” Before discussing its applicability to real estate lets review it in a business setting.

The simplest case involving a breach of the duty of loyalty is where a corporate executive expropriates for themself a business opportunity that rightfully belongs to the corporation. For example, assume that a company distributes window shades but a key executive takes the exclusive distributorship rights for a new type of awning. The corporation should have obtained the distributorship. It is in their core business.

The duty of loyalty requires officers and directors to apprise the corporation (or LLC or LP) of “corporate opportunities.” The corporation gets to decide if it wants it or not. If the company doesn’t move forward then the executive may be free to pursue it, or not. The decision may be at the company’s discretion.

A corporate opportunity is any investment, purchase, lease or any other opportunity that is in the line of the corporation’s business, and is of practical advantage to the corporation. If an officer or director embraces such opportunity by taking it as their own, they may violate their duty of loyalty, especially if by doing so their self-interest will be brought into conflict with the corporation’s interests. Will the officer be loyal to the company or their own business? The conflict is clear.

During their time in office, officers will likely discover business opportunities for the corporation. The officer may also have personal business opportunities that are somehow related to the corporation’s business. For example, if the officer is an inventor who focuses on telecommunications products, they will likely be interested in all such business opportunities. The corporation may be able to pursue some opportunities the officer discovers for the corporation, others it will not. If the corporation turns down one opportunity is the officer then able to pursue it?

Delaware courts have established a test for corporate opportunities. If an officer’s self-interest comes into conflict with the corporation’s interest, the duty of loyalty can be breached. The law will not permit an officer to pursue opportunities (1) that the corporation is financially able to undertake, (2) that is in the line of the corporation’s business, and (3) that is of practical advantage to the corporation.

On the other hand, if the corporation is not financially able to embrace the opportunity, has no interest in the opportunity, and the officer does not diminish their duties to the corporation by exploiting the opportunity, then the person may be allowed to pursue the opportunity.

Evidence that the opportunity was presented directly to the individual, and then not shared with the corporation, may be used to show that the corporate opportunity rules were not followed. In most states, the simplest way to avoid a problem is to present the opportunity to the corporation and allow it the chance to pursue or reject it. If the corporation cannot or will not take advantage of the opportunity, the employee, officer, or director may be free to pursue the opportunity.

Though formal rejection by the board is not strictly necessary, it is safer for the whole board to reject a corporate opportunity. The decision shouldn’t be based on individual board member’s opinions. There must be a presentation of the opportunity in some form.

After the corporation has rejected the opportunity, and before pursuing the opportunity, the employee, officer, or director should unambiguously disclose that the corporation refused to pursue the opportunity and ensure that there is an explanation for the refusal.

Resignation before completion of the questionable activity may not constitute a defense to liability arising from a corporate opportunity. Courts have found liability even where officers and directors resigned before the completion of the transaction. Although there are no certain guidelines for determining which opportunities belong to the controversy and liability may be avoided if officers use rigorous caution regarding corporate opportunities.

But again, what about real estate opportunities? Many syndicators are pursuing several investments at the same time. They always owe a duty to do their best. But does that prevent them from pursuing new projects without involving every investor?

The key to this issue is clarity. In a real estate based LLC Operating Agreement it must be stated that the principals are free to go after any investment. While existing investors may be offered the right to invest in future projects (always a good marketing technique) the syndicators must be allowed the freedom to pursue any and all opportunities for their own account.

Check your Operating Agreement and Offering Documents to make sure this important language is included.

How to Set Up Single Member LLCs

You must be very careful when you are the only owner of your LLC. Single member LLCs require extra planning and special language in the operating agreement.

One example: What happens when the single owner/member passes? Who takes over? It may be months before that is sorted out, and your business will falter without a clear leader.

Difficulties of Owning a Single Member LLC

You want the asset protection benefits of a limited liability company. But what if you don’t want any partners? What if you want to be the sole owner of your own LLC?

You can do that with a single owner LLC (sometimes known as a single member LLC).

But you have to be careful.

Before we discuss how to properly set up and use a single owner LLC we must acknowledge a nationwide trend. Courts are starting to deny sole owner LLCs the same protection as multiple member LLCs. The reason has to do with the charging order.

The charging order is a court order providing a judgment creditor (someone who has already won in court and is now trying to collect) a lien on distributions. A chart helps to illustrate:

Illustration showing typical multi-member LLC structure

John was in a car wreck. Moe does not have a claim against XYZ, LLC itself. The wreck had nothing to do with the duplex. Instead, Moe wants to collect against John’s assets, which is a 50% interest in XYZ, LLC. Courts have said it is not fair to Mary, the other 50% owner of XYZ, to let Moe come crashing into the LLC as a new partner. Instead, the courts give Moe a charging order, meaning that if any distributions (think profits) flow from XYZ, LLC to John then Moe is charged with receiving them.

Moe is not a partner, can’t make decisions or demands, and has to wait until John gets paid. If John never gets paid, neither does Moe. The charging order not only protects Mary but is a useful deterrent to frivolous litigation brought against John. Attorneys don’t like to wait around to get paid.

But what if there is only a single owner?

Illustration that shows a single member LLC structure

In this illustration there is no Mary to protect. It’s just John. Is it fair to Moe to only offer the charging order remedy? Or should other remedies be allowed?

How the Court Has Ruled Against LLCs With One Member

In June of 2010, the Florida Supreme Court decided the Olmstead vs. FTC case on these grounds. In a single owner LLC there are no other members to protect. The court allowed the FTC to seize Mr. Olmstead’s membership interests in order to collect. Other states have followed the trend.

Interestingly, even two of the strongest LLC states have denied charging order protection to single owner LLCs in limited circumstances.

In September of 2014, the US District Court in Nevada decided the bankruptcy case of In re: Cleveland.

The court held that the charging order did not protect a single member LLC owner in bankruptcy. Instead, the bankruptcy trustee could step into the shoes of the single owner and manage the LLC. This is not surprising since bankruptcy trustees have unique and far reaching powers, which are routinely upheld by the courts. (But know that, incredibly enough, a bankruptcy trustee can’t get control of the shares of a Nevada corporation. This is a special planning opportunity available to Nevada residents – or those who may become Nevada residents.)

In November of 2014, the Wyoming Supreme Court rendered a surprising verdict in the Greenhunter case.

The court held that the veil of a single owner LLC could be pierced. The issue centered on a Texas company’s use of a Wyoming LLC it solely owned. The LLC was undercapitalized (meaning not enough money was put into it) and it incurred all sorts of obligations. It wasn’t fair for the Texas company for the single owner to hide behind the LLC. The fact that a single owner LLC was involved was a material issue. The court pierced through the LLC and held the Texas company liable for the LLC’s debts.

Even though these are fairly narrow cases, both Nevada and Wyoming have held against single member LLCs. Again, this is the trend.

Luckily there are some things you can do to protect your assets as a single member LLC…

Strategies for Protecting Your Assets

One strategy is to set up a multi-member LLC structured in a way that gives the intended single member all of the decision making power. For example, parents can have adult children over 18 become member(s) or for those under 18 you can use a Uniform Gift to Minors Act designation. You may want to use an irrevocable spendthrift trust for children or others. A local estate planning attorney can help you set these up correctly.

But what is the smallest percentage you have to give up for the second member? Could you give up just 1/100th of 1 percent? Most practitioners feel that the percentage should not be inordinately low and that 5% is a suitable second member holding. So the ideal structure would be that John owns 95% of the LLC and the other 5% is owned by a child (or other family member) and/or an irrevocable trust.

Accordingly, in a state that doesn’t protect single owner LLCs, you have an excellent argument for charging order protection. There is a legitimate second member to protect. To further that legitimacy it is useful to have the second member participate in the affairs of the LLC. Attending meetings and making suggestions recorded into the meeting minutes is a good way to show such involvement.

But what if you don’t want to bring in a second member?

There are plenty of good reasons to set up a sole owner LLC. Other owners can bring a loss of privacy and protection. And if you paid 100% for the whole asset, why should you bring in another member anyway? Or, what if you don’t have any children or other family members that you want to bring in?

If a single member LLC is truly the best fit for you, there are three key factors to know and deal with.

1. The Corporate Veil

Many states’ LLC laws do not require annual meetings or written documents. Some see this as a benefit but it is actually a curse.

If you don’t follow the corporate formalities (which now apply to LLCs) a creditor can pierce the veil of protection and reach your personal assts. With a single owner LLC this is especially problematic. Because you are in complete management control it may appear that you aren’t respecting the entity’s separate existence or that you are comingling the LLC’s assets with your own personal assets. Without a clear distinction of the LLC’s separate identity, a creditor could successfully hold you personally responsible for the debts of the LLC (as they did in Wyoming’s Greenhunter case above.) Maintaining proper financial books and records and keeping LLC minutes can help demonstrate a definitive and separate identity for your single owner LLC. You must work with a company which appreciates the importance of this for single owner LLCs.

2. Different State Laws

LLC laws vary from state to state. Some states offer single owner LLCs very little protection. The states of California, Georgia, Florida, Utah, New York, Oregon, Colorado and Kansas, among others, deny the charging order protection to single owner LLCs.

Other states offer single owner LLCs a very high level of protection in traditional circumstances. So we have to pick our state of formation very carefully. In order to deal with this trend against protection, we use the states that do protect single member LLCs.

Wyoming, Nevada, Delaware, South Dakota and Alaska (collectively “the strong states”), have amended their LLC laws to state that the charging order in standard collection matters is the exclusive remedy for judgment creditors – even against single owner LLCs.

So how do we use these state laws to our advantage? Let’s consider an example:

A chart showing a properly structured single member LLC

In this example, John owns a fourplex in Georgia and a duplex in Utah. Each property is held in an in-state LLC (as required to operate in the state). The Georgia and Utah LLCs are in turn held by one Wyoming LLC. (This structure works in every state except California, which requires extra planning. Be sure to take advantage of our free 15-minute consultation if you are operating or residing in California).

I break down potential lawsuits into two different types of attacks: Attack #1, the inside attack and Attack #2, the outside attack.

In Attack #1, the inside attack, a tenant sues over a problem at the fourplex owned by GEORGIA, LLC. They have a claim against the equity inside that LLC. Whether GEORGIA, LLC is a single owner or multi-owner LLC doesn’t matter. The tenant’s claim is against GEORGIA, LLC itself. Importantly, the tenant can’t get at the assets inside UTAH, LLC or WYOMING, LLC. They are shielded since the tenants only claim is against GEORGIA, LLC.

The benefit of this structure comes in Attack #2, the outside attack. If John gets in a car wreck, it has nothing to do with GEORGIA, LLC or UTAH, LLC. But, the car wreck victim would like to get at those properties to collect on the judgment. If John held GEORGIA, LLC and UTAH, LLC directly in his name, the judgment creditor could force a sale of the fourplex and duplex since neither state protects single owner LLCs.

However, since John is the sole owner of WYOMING, LLC he is protected by Wyoming’s strong laws. The attacker can only get at WYOMING, LLC and gets a charging order, which means they have to wait until John gets a distribution and therefore could possibly never get paid. If John doesn’t take any distributions, there’s no way for the attacker (or his attorney) to collect. A strong state LLC offers a real deterrent to litigation, even for single owner LLCs.

3. Operating Agreement

Like bylaws for a corporation, the Operating Agreement is the road map for the LLC. While some states don’t require them, they are an absolute must for proper governance and protection. A single owner LLC operating agreement is very different than a multi-member operating agreement. 

For example, if a single owner transfers their interest in the LLC, inadvertent dissolution of the entire LLC can occur. This is not good. Or, again, what if the sole owner passes? Who takes over? Our Single Member Operating Agreement provides for a Successor Manager (a person you pick ahead of time) to step in.

The best way to deal with these issues, as well as others, is to have a specially drafted operating agreement to properly govern your Single Member LLC. Corporate Direct provides such a tailored document for our clients. When it comes to business and investments, you must do it the right way.

Mom’s Mistake is No Excuse – You Need a Professional Registered Agent

Mom’s Mistake Is No Excuse!

Do you have your registered agent service properly in place?

A recent Ohio case illustrated the significant pitfalls of lax procedures.

Your registered agent’s job is to accept service process, meaning notice of a lawsuit. If you don’t receive that notice the persons suing you can get a default judgment – meaning, since you didn’t respond to the charge in time, they win by default. You’ve just lost a case you had no idea was even brought against you!

The new case is John W. Judge Co. v. USA Freight, L.L.C, 2018-Ohio-2658 (Ohio App., July 6, 2018). The facts are that Judge alleged USA Freight owed them $4,405.05. They served their complaint by certified mail upon the registered agent and service was accepted by the mother of USA Freight’s owner. The mother didn’t speak much English, didn’t know the U.S. legal system and didn’t give the lawsuit papers to anyone.

By not responding to the lawsuit USA Freight had a default judgment entered against them. This is when they first learn of Mom’s mistake. They immediately tried to vacate (set aside) the judgment on the basis of “excusable neglect.”

But the Court concluded that when a company is required by law to maintain a statutory agent for service of process, and when certified mail service is successful at the statutory agent’s address that is on record with the Ohio Secretary of State, then the subsequent mishandling of the served documents by the person who signed for and received the documents at the statutory agent’s listed address did not amount to “excusable neglect.”

A full discussion of the case follows. Know that the lesson here is that you want a professional resident agent service to accept important notices for you. Excuses for not responding – even an excuse involving dear ol’ Mom – will not pass muster in the courts.

The Facts of Judge

Judge filed a complaint against USA Freight for money damages arising from alleged unpaid engineering services in the amount of $4,405.05. Judge requested that the complaint and summons be served upon USA Freight via certified mail at the address of USA Freight’s registered statutory agent, Mukhabbat Vasfieva. The trial court received the certified mail receipt, showing that the complaint and summons had been delivered and signed for by “Mukhabbat Koch” on March 24, 2016. USA Freight failed to file a response to Judge’s complaint; accordingly, Judge moved the trial court to enter a default judgment in its favor. The trial court granted Judge’s motion and entered a default judgment against USA Freight for the amount requested plus interest and costs.

After obtaining a certificate of judgment, Judge obtained a writ of execution ordering the court bailiff to levy on the goods and chattels owned by USA Freight.

Three weeks after the writ of execution was filed, USA Freight filed a Rule 60(B) motion to vacate the default judgment on grounds that it never received the complaint and summons, and was otherwise unaware of who signed for the certified mail service. USA Freight attached a supporting affidavit from Baris Koch, who averred that he was the General Manager of USA Freight and that his father was the owner. Koch also averred that he did not receive notice of Judge’s complaint until the court’s bailiff contacted him regarding the writ of execution. Koch further averred that he spoke with the members and employees of USA Freight to ascertain if anyone affiliated with the company had signed for service of the complaint and that he was unaware of anyone who had. Lastly, Koch averred that USA Freight had meritorious defenses to Judge’s lawsuit, which included a claim that USA Freight had paid Judge in full for its services and that any unpaid amounts were owed by Garrett Day, LLC, and/or Mike Heitz. In addition to the affidavit, USA Freight attached several invoices from Judge and copies of checks that USA Freight made payable to Judge. USA Freight also attached a written description and map of the property on which Judge provided its engineering services, indication that Garrett Day, LLC owned part of the property on which Judge’s services were rendered.

Judge filed a response opposing the motion to vacate on grounds that USA Freight failed to establish the necessary elements for such relief under Rule 60(B). The trial court then held an evidentiary hearing on the motion to vacate. At the hearing, the parties submitted no additional evidence, but simply gave oral arguments.

During that time, USA Freight explained that the certified mail receipt was signed by the mother of USA Freight’s owner. USA Freight explained that the owner’s mother was not part of the company or involved in its day-to-day operations, but that she happened to be present when the complaint was served and did not provide it to any of the members of the family who were involved in the business. USA Freight further explained that the owner’s mother understood and spoke very little English, and had very little knowledge of the legal system. USA Freight therefore claimed it was entitled to relief under Rule 60 (B)(1) for excusable neglect.

At the close of the hearing, the trial court invited the parties to submit post-hearing memoranda in support of their position. After receiving the parties’ memoranda, the trial court issued a decision and entry granting USA Freight’s motion to vacate. In granting the motion, the trial court found “excusable neglect,” noting that USA Freight’s conduct was not willful and that it did not exhibit a disregard for the judicial system. The trial court further found that USA Freight had demonstrated that it had a meritorious defense to Judge’s claim for money damages. Judge appealed from the trial court’s decision granting USA Freight’s motion to vacate.

The Decision in Judge

On appeal, Judge argues that the trial court erred in granting USA Freight’s motion to vacate the default judgment under Rule 60(B), because USA Freight failed to establish that it was entitled to relief under Rule 60(B). More specifically, Judge claimed that USA Freight failed to establish that it did not respond to Judge’s complaint due to excusable neglect.

After reviewing the necessary requirements for USA Freight to obtain relief from a final judgment under Rule 60(B), the Ohio Court of Appeals noted that, because Judge did not dispute the existence of a meritorious defense or that USA Freight filed its motion to vacate within a reasonable time, the only issue before the Court was whether it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to conclude that USA Freight was entitled to relief under Rule 60(B)(1) on grounds of “excusable neglect.” The Court noted that, in considering whether neglect is excusable under Rule 60(B)(1), a court must consider all the surrounding facts and circumstances. The Court pointed out that the phrase, “excusable neglect” in Rule 60(B)(1) is an elusive concept which has been difficult to define and to apply.

The Court observed that the Ohio Supreme Court had determined that neglect is inexcusable when the movant’s inaction revealed a complete disregard for the judicial system and the right of the appellee. The Court also observed that the Ohio Supreme Court had held that “excusable neglect” in the context of a Rule 60(B)(1) motion generally means the failure to take the proper steps at the proper time, not in consequence of the part’s own carelessness, inattention, or willful disregard of the processes of the court, but in consequence of some unavoidable or unexpected hindrance or accident, or reliance on the care and vigilance of his counsel or no promises made by the adverse party. The Court explained that courts generally find “excusable neglect” in those instances where there are unusual or special circumstances that justify the neglect of a party or the party’s attorney. That said, the Court cautioned that the concept of “excusable neglect” must be construed in keeping with the proposition that Rule 60(B)(1) is a remedial rule to be liberally construed, while bearing in mind that Rule 60(B) constitutes an attempt to strike a proper balance between the conflicting principles that litigation must be brought to an end and justice should be done.

After discussing the conflicting principles that must be borne in mind in ruling upon a Rule 60(B) motion, the Court pointed out that the supporting affidavit signed by USA Freight’s General Manager, Baris Koch, averred that he first learned of Judge’s lawsuit against USA Freight when he trial court’s bailiff notified him that a writ of execution had been filed against the company. The Court noted that the record indicated that the bailiff was ordered to levy execution against USA Freight, and that USA Freight filed its motion to vacate approximately three weeks later. The Court further noted that Koch has averred in his affidavit that he was unaware of any member or employee of USA Freight who had signed for or received service of the complaint; and that, as of the date he signed the affidavit, Koch claimed he did not know who signed for the complaint; and that it was not until the hearing on the motion to vacate that USA Freight explained, through counsel, that service of the complaint and summons was signed for by the mother of the owner of USA Freight. USA Freight explained that the owner’s mother had no role within the company and that she happened to be present when the complaint was delivered by certified mail. USA Freight further explained that the owner’s mother understood and spoke very little English, and that she did not provide the complaint to any of the family member who were involved in USA Freight’s business operations. Although no testimony or affidavits were submitted to verify this information, the trial court found USA Freight’s explanation credible and that it constituted “excusable neglect” under Rule 60(B)(1).

Judge argued that the trial court’s decision was an abuse of discretion because USA Freight failed to provide any evidence establishing that the person who received and signed for the complaint was the non-English speaking mother of USA Freight’s owner. The Court noted that the owner’s mother did not appear at the hearing; that her name was never disclosed on the record; and that USA Freight also never disclosed what the owner’s mother did with the complaint after she received it. In an effort to establish that the person who signed for the complaint was not the owner’s mother, Judge provided the trial court with two prior certified mail receipts with signatures that matched the signature on the receipt at issue. Judge pointed out that one of the prior receipts indicated that the signatory was an “Agent” of USA Freight.

Judge further argued that it was USA Freight’s responsibility to maintain a valid statutory agent who is designated to receive service of process at the agent’s listed address; that it was indeed neglectful for USA Freight to use an address where certified mail could be received and mishandled by a non-English-speaking individual who was not affiliated with USA Freight’s business; and that such conduct did not constitute “excusable neglect.” In support of this claim, Judge cited the following three unpublished decision, providing that insufficient or negligent internal procedures in an organization may not comprise “excusable neglect” and that, therefore, may not support vacation of a default judgment: (1) Middleton v. Luna’s Resturant & Deli, L.L.C., 201-Ohio-4388, 2011 WL 3847184 (Ohio App., Aug. 29, 2011) (unpublished decision); (2) LaKing Trucking, Inc. v. Coastal Tank Lines, Inc., 1984 WL 6241 (Ohio App., Feb. 9, 1984) (unpublished decision) (summons received in a corporate mail room but lost before being brought to the attention of the proper office does not rise to excusable neglect); and (3) Miller v. Sybert, 1975 WL 7351 (July 25. 1985) (unpublished decision)(ordinary mail delivered to defendant when mail is accessible to other persons and where it was never picked up by defendant’s friends while he was out of the state does not constitute “excusable neglect”). The Ohio Court of Appeals noted that the above-cited three unpublished decisions were in accord with the following two decisions: (1) Andrew Bihl Sons, Inc. v. Trembly, 67 Ohio App.3d 664, 667, 588 N.E2d 172 (Ohio App. 1990) (ignoring mail for more than three months due to illness and failing to delegate a competent agent to handle business affairs does not constitute “excusable neglect”); and (2) Meyer v. GMAC mtge., 2007-Ohio-5009, 2007 WL 2773653 (Ohio App., Sept. 25, 2007) (unpublished decision) (employee’s failure to forward the complaint to the appropriate corporate department does not constitute “excusable neglect”).

Finally, Judge argued that the mother’s ignorance of the legal process did not amount to “excusable neglect.”

The Rationale of Judge

Having reviewed the record, the Ohio Court of Appeals found that Judge had presented strong arguments in support of its position that the trial court had abused its discretion in finding “excusable neglect,” especially with regard to USA Freight’s responsibility to maintain a valid statutory agent. The Court cited the Ohio Revised Code for the proposition that “[e]ach limited liability company [such as USA Freight] shall maintain continuously in this state an agent for service of process on the company.” See, R.C. 1705.06(A). The Court pointed out that a limited liability company is required to provide the Ohio Secretary of State with a written appointment of its statutory agent that sets forth the name of the agent and the agent’s address in this state. See, R.C. 1705.06(B)(1)(a), (C); and that the Ohio Secretary of State then kept a record of the statutory agent’s name and address. See, R.C. 1705.06(C). The Court noted that Rule 4.2(g) of the Ohio Rules of Civil Procedure provided that, to serve a limited liability company, a plaintiff may direct service of process to “ the agent authorized by appointment or by law to receive service of process”’ that [c]ertified mail service upon such an agent is effective upon delivery, if evidenced by a signed return receipt”; and that Rule 4.1 (A)(1)(a) provided that “[s]ervice is valid if ‘any person’ at the address signs for the certified mail, whether or not the recipient is the defendant’s agent.”

Applying these principles to the facts and circumstances of Judge, the Ohio Court of Appeals noted that Judge had served its complaint on USA Freight’s statutory agent via certified mail at the address on record with the Ohio Secretary of State and that the certified mail was received at the address of USA Freight’s statutory agent and signed for by the mother of the owner of USA Freight. Under these circumstances, the Court concluded that service of the complaint, because the mother of USA Freight’s owner mishandled the complaint, this type of scenario had not been found to constitute “excusable neglect.”

In support of its conclusion, the Court cited the following decision of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio: Chicago Sweetners, Inc. v. Kantner Group, Inc., 2009 WL 1707927 (N.D. Ohio, June 17, 2009) (unpublished decision) (finding no “excusable neglect” where a defendant company was properly served with a complaint via certified mail to its statutory agent’s address, the certified mail was received and signed for by an administrative assistant of the defendant company, who was also the mother of the defendant company’s president, and the mother thereafter mishandled the complaint so that the defendant company never received the notice of it).

In reaching its decision, the Ohio Court of Appeals agree with Judge, that insufficient or negligent internal procedures in an organization may not compromise excusable neglect and that, therefore, they may not support the vacation of a default judgment,” citing, Middleton, supra, and Denittis v. Aaron Costr., Inc., 2012-Ohio-6213, 2012 WL 6738472 (Ohio App., Dec. 31, 2012) (unpublished decision). In so agreeing, the Court stressed that USA Freight was, by law, responsible for maintaining a valid statutory agent that was calculated to receive service of process at the agent’s listed address; that USA Freight has chosen a statutory agent address where it was possible for a non-English-speaking person who was unaffiliated with the company to receive important documentation that was served at the address; and that, due to USA Freight’s negligence in choosing its statutory agent and/or failure to implement internal procedures to ensure that documentation served at the statutory agent’s address was directed to the appropriate person, the complaint at issue was mishandled by the owner’s mother.

The Court emphasized that “excusable neglect” does not result from the party’s own carelessness, inattention, or willful disregard of the processes of the court, but in consequence of some unavoidable or unexpected hindrance or accident; and that, had USA Freight chosen a better statutory agent, or had better procedures in place for receiving service of process at the statutory agent’s address, then the mishandling of the complaint would likely have been avoided.

Accordingly, the Ohio Court of Appeals concluded that the circumstances in Judge did not constitute an unavoidable or unexpected hindrance or accident. In addition, the Court pointed out that, while abuse of discretion was an extremely high standard of review that required the Court to find the trial court’s “excusable neglect” decision unreasonable, the Court, nevertheless, had reached that conclusion. The Court reiterated that the trial court’s decision was unreasonable, because the mishandling of the complaint was the result of USA Freight’s own negligence, and stated that, a company should be adequately prepared to receive service of process at the statutory agent’s address.

Although the Court recognized that Rule 60(B) motions are to be liberally construed in favor of the movant, the Court, nevertheless, found that USA Freight’s negligence in choosing its statutory agent and its procedures for receiving service of process was in willful disregard of the processes of the Court. Therefore, the Court narrowly held that, when a company is required by law to maintain a statutory agent to receive service of process, and when there is successful service of process via certified mail at the statutory agent’s address that is on record with the Ohio Secretary of State, the subsequent mishandling of served documents by the person who signed for and received the documents at the statutory agent’s listed address does not amount to “excusable neglect.”

Conclusion

The Ohio Court of Appeals decision in Judge should serve as a warning to companies and LLCs to check their statutory agent procedures in order to ensure that documents served at their statutory agent’s address are directed to the appropriate person(s); otherwise, they may by subject to enforceable default judgments against them in lawsuits of which they were entirely unaware.

Don’t let this happen to you!

What’s new in 2021?

Let’s start with the good…

California Raises their Homestead Exemption

The homestead exemption is an excellent creditor protection strategy for personal residences.

It all started in Texas when they were an independent republic from 1836 to 1846 and in need of settlers. Texas passed a law whereby creditors could not reach the equity of your homestead (your farm, ranch or dwelling). It worked like a charm and other U.S. states followed suit,

While the homestead amounts in Texas as well as Florida, Kansas, and Oklahoma are unlimited, other states have their own dollar limit. In Arizona, for example, the amount of equity you can protect is $150,000. So, if your home is worth $500,000 and you have a first deed of trust securing your mortgage of $350,000 there is $150,000 in equity exposed. By filing the homestead exemption form with the county recorder’s office (a process that may vary state to state) you have set aside the $150,000 in equity for your benefit as against a later creditor.

California’s homestead has been kept at a low and confusing amount for many years. A single home owner could protect $50,000 while an elderly married couple could protect $175,000 in equity. But those dollar amounts didn’t reflect the high cost of California real estate. A $50,000 homestead in some high rent areas may not protect a backyard Tuff Shed. So California, after years of inaction, did the right thing. They raised the homestead amount and indexed it for inflation.

The new homestead has a baseline amount of $300,000 but can go as high as $600,000 in counties with expensive real estate. Assume a couple is burdened by credit cards and car loan debt but they’ve built up equity in their home. Before, with the lowered homestead amount, they could lose their home to foreclosure. Now with the $600,000 in protection (and rising every year with inflation) the couple could go through a Chapter 13 bankruptcy and keep their home.

Homesteads offer significant protections to homeowners. It is good to see California recognize that.

And we’ll end with the not so good…

Congress and Corporate Transparency: A New Burden for Small Businesses

The Federal government wants to know who owns your business. In December, 2020 Congress passed the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA). Before this bill companies did not have an obligation to report their true owners to the feds. As long as the company paid their taxes there wasn’t an issue.

But within the federal bureaucracy and law enforcement circles there are people who just need to know more. Arguing that shareholder anonymity allowed bad people to engage in financial crimes, including – sound the alarms – money laundering and terrorist financing, the CTA passed both houses. Instead of requiring the states, which govern corporate formation, to collect such information, beneficial ownership data on every corporation and LLC must now be reported every year to the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN).

Opponents argued that such information could be easily gained and misused. Proponents countered with hubris, stating that all the sensitive data would be stored on private networks away from public scrutiny. Their assurances of confidentiality occurred the same week as the identification of the massive Solar Winds hack, the Pearl Harbor of cyber-attacks, in which the Russians gained God access to thousands of federal websites and networks.

But never mind that. Law enforcement’s desire to know who owns every corporation, LLC, LP and other state-chartered entity is clearly written into the legislation. FinCEN must keep the names and addresses confidential (servers willing) except when:

  1. Federal Agencies involved law enforcement, intelligence and national security want it;
  2. State and local agencies involved in criminal or civil investigations after obtaining a court order want it;
  3. Foreign intelligence agencies want it; and
  4. Other federal regulatory agencies including the IRS want it.

As such this confidential information can be expected to be used by both governments and dark web hackers. By 2023, every business entity at the time of its formation and on an annual basis thereafter must report its beneficial owners’:

  1. Full legal name;
  2. Date of birth;
  3. Current residential or business street address; and
  4. Unique identifying number from a U.S. passport, state drivers license or similar state issued ID.

The complete disclosure requirements, including the meaning of ‘beneficial owner’, will be further fleshed out by future regulations.

Corporate Direct will keep you informed of these new rules and will attempt to assist you with filing your FinCEN report. Failing to properly file will carry penalties of up to $10,000.00 and two years in prison. So while not welcoming this new reporting burden, we will work with you to stay on the safe side of it.

Distributing LLC Money

You’ve set up your LLC. Now it’s time to make money, and flow the profits into your bank account. It’s time to think about how you will be distributing LLC Money between bank accounts. In the example we’ll use in this article, you have transferred title in a real estate rental property (a duplex) into your new LLC, which is called XYZ, LLC. You have also, as is required to follow the corporate formalities, set up a bank account in the name of XYZ, LLC. You haven’t hired a property management company yet as you are going to try managing the property yourself.

In the first month, your two duplex tenants pay the rent on time. You are thinking to yourself: “This is good. This is how it’s supposed to work.” You deposit the rent checks, which are properly made out to XYZ, LLC, into the new XYZ, LLC bank account. You have a mortgage and trash pick-up payment to make, so you write two checks against the new LLC bank account to cover those obligations.

Glory be, after those payments, at the end of the month you have a profit! What do you do?

You could pull some of the money out, transferring it from XYZ, LLC to your personal account, knowing that you’ll have to pay taxes on a portion of it at some point. More likely, you may leave the money in XYZ, LLC and build up a reserve of cash to be able to cover any unforeseen issues. Some owners may leave the money in the LLC account until near the end of the year. After speaking with their CPA to understand how much income is sheltered by depreciation and how much tax they’ll owe they will pull enough money out of XYZ, LLC to pay their tax obligation, if any, as well as take a profits distribution for themselves at the end of the year.

Things are working well and you decide to invest in another rental property, a fourplex. You’ve heard that by putting your new fourplex into XYZ, LLC you are creating a target rich LLC. If a tenant at the duplex sues XYZ, LLC for a faulty condition they could not only reach the equity in the duplex but also in the new fourplex. They have a claim against the LLC and on an inside attack they can get what is inside XYZ, LLC, which would be both the duplex and fourplex. You don’t want to do that.

So you set up ABC, LLC to take title to the fourplex. Following what you did with XYZ, LLC you set up a new LLC bank account for ABC, LLC and deposit tenant checks made out to that LLC into the new ABC, LLC bank account.

Along the way you come to appreciate that the state in which ABC, LLC and XYZ, LLC were formed offers weak asset protection for the outside attack. The inside attack, where a tenant sues the LLC directly, offers the same protection in all states. But the outside attack where, for example, a car wreck victim has a personal claim against you and is suing from the outside to get at your assets, varies from state to state. California, New York and Utah are weak states. The car wreck victim and their attorneys can get at your valuable real estate to satisfy a claim. Wyoming, Nevada and Delaware are strong states featuring charging order protection, which is briefly described in this short video. For more detail, see my book, Loopholes of Real Estate.

LoopholesRE Sutton.Front Cover.Final .HiRes .2019
For now, we want you to focus on distributing LLC money through this new structure. As before, the new holding LLC we form in Wyoming opens its own bank account under the name Padre, LLC.
How to Properly use LLC Bank Accounts

 The profits you generate from the two title holding LLCs on the top line will, whenever you want, be distributed to the new Wyoming holding LLC. We don’t want to directly distribute to your personal bank account moneys from XYZ, LLC and ABC, LLC because you don’t personally own them anymore. Instead, you own Padre, LLC, which in turn owns XYZ, LLC and ABC, LLC. So the money flows from XYZ, LLC and ABC, LLC to Padre, LLC. Whenever you want to take a distribution you will take it from Padre, LLC, which is the entity you directly own. XYZ, LLC and ABC, LLC are technically owned by Padre, LLC and not you. But that is good, because it provides excellent asset protection when a strong state is used. As well, Padre, LLC is a good place to hold money because it is asset protected in Wyoming. If you hold the money in your personal bank account you are not as protected.

Some people will complain that in the structure example above, a total of three bank accounts is not needed. Two points are critical here. First, it is useful to know that with online banking and fairly low minimum balance requirements the use of three separate accounts is neither burdensome nor expensive. Second, and more importantly, by not using separate bank accounts you run the risk of a creditor seeking to pierce the veil of your entity. You must not commingle money between personal and separate business accounts. There must be a clear line of money flows from duplex tenants into XYZ, LLC, from that entity into Padre, LLC and from the Wyoming holding LLC into your personal bank account. You cannot skip a step and risk being held personally liable for a claim.

Again, distributing LLC money correctly is not going to be a burden. And even if it was it is required for you to maintain your asset protection edge, so just do it. Work with your CPA on the timing of distributions and payment of taxes and all will be fine.

Besides, it’s how everyone else does it anyway.

The Crimes of a Nominee Officer

Matt wanted to open a confidential mail order business and he needed to operate with absolute privacy. No one could ever know that he ran a business that sold sensitive supplement products over the internet. Matt lived in Las Vegas and knew he needed a Nevada LLC for his new business. He had heard that the state of Nevada allowed both corporations and LLCs the use of nominee officers, whereby someone else’s name, a nominee, was used for all the state filings. In this way, privacy was achieved because Matt’s name would not be listed on the Nevada Secretary of State’s website as an LLC manager. No one could ever, he believed, find out about the new business. Matt’s friend told him there was a formation company in a nearby strip mall that set up LLCs for privacy. Matt made an appointment. The gregarious salesman explained to Matt how it worked. Their company provided an individual to serve as nominee manager. This person’s name was listed on the Annual List of Managers filed with the state. Once that was done the LLCs owner, Matt, then held a meeting and elected a new manager – Matt, to manage the business. Matt liked the privacy involved and paid a significant amount of money for the formation company to proceed. The nominee’s name was listed with the state and then Matt, signing the meeting minutes prepared by the formation company, named himself the real manager for the upcoming year. Matt got the business going. As the sole owner of the LLC he was a cosigner on the bank account. His in-house bookkeeper could sign checks up to $2,500. Anything above that amount required only Matt’s signature. In many cases where he didn’t want his name to appear, he paid the bills with cashier’s checks. The business grew. In the second year, when the Annual List to the state was due, the formation company prepared minutes that took Matt off as manager, put the nominee in as manager for the filing with the state and, once the filing was done, put Matt back in charge. Matt came to realize that he didn’t like the high fees the formation company charged for the nominee service. So before the third year’s filing was due he obtained a new registered agent. This essentially terminated his relationship with the formation company. Matt didn’t want to be bothered with all the minutes and managers being changed back and forth so he just left the nominee’s name on as manager and filed the Annual List with the state of Nevada. Matt assumed that the formation company would never know otherwise. It was just a name. Then disaster hit. Matt’s sensitive supplement products caused a number of heinous injuries to honest, doubt-free individuals. The online reviews indicated that many were in need of significant medical attention. Matt was confident he could beat this. He instructed his new registered agent company to dissolve the LLC. With the business shut down there would be nothing to go after, thought Matt. It would all blow over. But that is never the case when a large number of innocent people are injured. A government attorney was assigned the case. Using Nevada law, she went to the registered agent’s office and requested the names of the owners and managers. The registered agent was reluctant to turn it over until they learned that in a criminal case they were required to turn over such information. Learning of the investigation, Matt finally hired an attorney. Jerry set Matt straight on a number of legal issues. Selling untested compounds to the general public was one issue. But Matt’s misuse of the nominee service provided the government with an even easier case against him. Jerry clarified Nevada law with Matt. When the manager of an LLC (or the officer of a corporation) resigns, an amended list of managers should be filed with the state. Each time they annually switched managers around they ran afoul of Nevada law. Jerry told Matt that the formation company had provided him with inaccurate information. Matt was angry, which Jerry noted was a common experience when relying on non-lawyers to provide legal advice. Jerry said there was a wrinkle in all of this. If Matt had simply left the nominee on as manager for the whole year, with Matt serving as assistant manager and doing all the work, no filing problem would have occurred. It is perfectly acceptable to list someone as a nominee officer. It was the changing back and forth without notifying the state that caused the problems. Filing false reports with the state of Nevada can result in significant penalties. In this case the false filings were doubled. First, the Annual List was filed under a knowing falsehood. The nominee was listed as manager but would be replaced in days without proper notification. (Again, you are better off leaving the nominee as the manager.) Second, in later years, Matt listed the nominee as manager without paying the formation company for the nominee service. He used a name of a nominee who clearly was not acting as a nominee. Matt knowingly submitted a false report to the state.
Nevada corporate law (at NRS § 78.150(3)(a)(2)) and LLC law (at NRS § 86.263(3)(a)(2)) requires the lists to include a declaration under penalty of perjury that the corporation or LLC “acknowledges that pursuant to NRS 239.330, it is a category C felony to knowingly offer any false or forged instrument for filing with the Office of the Secretary of State.”
A category C felony requires a court to sentence a wrongdoer to state prison for not less than one year with a maximum term of five years. Monetary fines may also be imposed.
Nevada law further states in § 78.150 and § 86.263 that a person who files a list with the Secretary of State which identifies an officer, director, manager or managing member “with the fraudulent intent of concealing the identity of any person or persons exercising the power or authority…in furtherance of any unlawful conduct is subject to the penalty set forth in NRS 225.084.”
The penalty for filing a false statement of material fact includes actual damages (involving a minimum of $10,000 for each violation), costs of suit and attorney’s fees and punitive damages as the facts may warrant. Jerry represented Matt as the government investigated both the untested supplement issues and the LLC filing issues. In the end, the government didn’t want to deal with all the experts and time required to prove the supplement case. Matt had clearly done all the LLC filings with the intent of improperly concealing his identity. The government’s case was so easy. Jerry did his best, but as it turned out, Matt was sent to prison for five years and owed millions in actual and punitive damages.

Be very cautious when using a nominee service.

Do not blindly accept the advice of those who don’t know the law. Leave your nominee on the annual list and work as an assistant manager or vice president. When the nominee is no longer used, file an amended list with the state. If you use the nominee’s name but you don’t pay for the service you can be charged with a felony and sent to prison. If you use a nominee to conceal your involvement in wrongful conduct the penalties are significant. It is easy to follow the law. It is also easy to avoid the advice of people who don’t know the law. Now that you know what not to do, here are some points to help you understand how and why you would use a Nominee Manager/Officer.
  • Nominee Manager / Officer can be used to provide privacy on state records. Each jurisdictions business statutes determine what information is made part of the public record, so this can vary depending on the state your entity is formed in.
  • Once a Nominee Manager/Officer is in place, the Member/Shareholder retains all operational authority, signature rights over any financial accounts, the right to enter any sort of financial or lease arrangement with any other entity, etc.
  • Agreement is signed between Member(s) and Nominee that outlines the parameters of the service.
  • Members/Shareholders retain the ability to vote the nominee officer out of the corporation if you so choose. Any state records that name the Manager, etc., must then be updated to show who is the current Manager/Officer/Director.

Black Swan Events and Force Majeure Clauses

Force Majeure is a French term meaning superior force. It is also a contract clause that relieves parties from performance when an extraordinary event occurs. Such challenges, known as ‘black swan’ events or generically ‘Acts of God’, may be mitigated by a force majeure clause acknowledging that contracts can’t be fulfilled when issues are outside of everyone’s control.

Did the Coronavirus arise from bat soup in a filthy, fetid wild animal market? Or was it accidentally leaked from China’s national biology lab in Wuhan? It doesn’t really matter. It is a superior force that was not foreseeable. (Although some would argue that with so many novel infectious diseases arising over the last 20 years, epidemics should now be expected).

With that last thought in mind, going forward, you should work with your attorney to include specific force majeure provisions in your contracts. A well drafted clause may excuse performance during events that are beyond the reasonable control of the parties. These can include acts of terrorism, labor shortages and strikes, new government regulations, fire and floods. Events such as epidemics, pandemics, biological outbreaks and wide spread illness should now also be incorporated into force majeure clauses.

What if your current contract does not include such language or the event doesn’t trigger a force majeure clause? Your fall back position is the doctrine of “frustration of purpose.” This doctrine can excuse contractual performance if events have now made it impossible to perform, or the central purpose of the contract has been frustrated due to unforeseeable events. However, Courts do not favor upending contracts under this doctrine. You are better off relying on a well drafted force majeure clause.

It is interesting to note that a Chinese agency is issuing force majeure certificates to local companies unable to perform on their contracts due to the Coronavirus challenge. It would be nice to just wave a certificate and make all the issues go away. But in the United States and other common law countries, force majeure is a question of fact for the Court. Was the event reasonably foreseeable? Were any notice provisions complied with? Does prior case law shed any light on the current situation? These are all facts to be considered. A government certificate won’t work here.

Still, your Chinese counterpart is probably struggling even more than you are. Is litigation even advisable? And if so, could you even collect?

The bigger issue for everyone is to understand the nature and need for force majeure clauses in your contracts. Well, that and the need for alternate sources of supply outside of China.

The End-of-Year Legal Audit You Can’t Afford to Skip

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” – Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin’s famous words were written to advance fire safety. Shortly thereafter, in December of 1736, the Union Fire Company was formed and Philadelphia became the safest city in the colonies.

Then, as now, survival does not allow for rest. The survival of any organization requires being prepared, organized and ready to respond. Set into this milieu comes the rise of the legal audit. As businesses look for ways to reduce their exposure to risk as well as comply with the onslaught of new regulations, an annual review with the company’s attorney and insurance broker is ever more a feature of proper corporate governance.

What is covered in an annual legal audit?

Some of the items will be specific to the company and the industry they are within. For example, the audit for a vegetarian restaurant will be different than that of a veterinarian practice. But the following common key areas should be reviewed by all businesses in an annual audit:

1. Structure

Corporations, LLCs and other business entities should hold annual meetings and memorialize the proceedings in the form of minutes. If you haven’t followed this important corporate formality, corporate cleanup services are available. The minute book containing key corporate documents should be kept up to date. This will be crucial in the event of a surprise IRS audit. It is also good practice for avoiding a piercing of the corporate veil and the imposition of personal lability for corporate debts.

2. Directors/Managers

The corporate directors or LLC managers should be properly listed with the state of formation (and qualification). Failure to stay current could mean that certain company decisions may be voidable. The lines of authority should be respected and maintained as a matter of proper governance.

3. Intellectual Property

An audit can uncover the need for trademark, patent, copyright and/or trade secret protection. Asserting and maintaining intellectual property rights is a key business strategy that can lead to the creation of valuable company assets. An annual review of these issues is not only prudent, but vital to the company’s future.

4. Employment

In the crush of commerce many things can slip by unnoticed. Did you hire a few new people this year? Did they sign employment agreements? Do you have the protections in place involving trade secrets, non-solicitation, non-competition and confidentiality? A legal audit will identify any gaps. If you need any standard legal templates, we offer 135 legal forms and contracts here.

An annual audit can also reveal if all the required postings and workplace paperwork is in order. Have you properly posted the EEO and minimum wage notices? These seemingly benign matters come with penalties for non-compliance.

If you have an employee handbook do any of the policies require revision? Your company attorney may not pursue this important issue. Likely, they are too busy to even ask. It is up to you to handle it.

5. Insurance

An annual insurance review is always recommended. Is your existing insurance adequate for your ever changing business and the market in which you operate? If your business is expanding is your current insurance at the right level to cover your increasing risks?

Since almost every business has some sort of internet presence nowadays you must analyze if you need the newest form of protection – cyber liability insurance. If you accept orders over the web, if you store any customer records electronically, or if you have any interface at all with the internet you must consider cyber liability insurance. With all the hacking and illegal activity associated with electronic records this issue must be discussed in your next insurance review.

The ounce of prevention a legal audit will provide can save many thousands of dollars in legal and other unnecessary costs when an identifiable issue becomes a major problem. Work with your attorney and insurance broker this year and every year to put out the fires before they harm the entire organization.

P.S. Not sure if your company is protecting you as it should? Get an evaluation by an expert. Get a Corporate Cleanup.

10 Rules for Asset Protection Planning

Asset protection planning defends your assets from future creditors, divorce, lawsuits or judgments. How can you best plan to protect your personal and business assets? Here are some guidelines to implement strong asset protection.

  1. Plan Your Asset Protection Strategy BEFORE You’re Sued
    Once a lawsuit has arrived, it’s too late to put protections in place and there is little you can do. Take action before a claim or liability arises. In fact, a strong asset protection structure can discourage lawsuits because the better protected your assets are, the stronger a deterrent it is.
  2. Keep Your Personal and Business Assets Separate
    If you don’t insulate your own assets from those of your business, you could be in trouble. If you operate your business in the form of a sole proprietorship or as a general partnership, these businesses are not registered entities, which means that your personal assets are not insulated from those of your business.
  3. It’s Risky to Be A Sole Proprietor
    As an example, if you’re a sole proprietor and an angry customer sues you, any assets you own such as your house or car are not protected. Nor are financial assets such as your bank account. These can all be taken should a judgment be found against you.
  4. A Two-Man Partnership is Double the Risk
    Maybe you have thought about forming two-man partnership with your friend. This may perhaps be an even worse idea than operating as a sole proprietorship. What this means is that you are as liable for your friend’s errors as you are for your own. You are also liable for anything purchased in the name of your partnership. Remember that one partner’s signature is enough to bind both partners to a debt or other type of obligation. Again, this leaves you unprotected and without any recourse should something happen; you could be left holding the bag.
  5. Use a Registered Corporate Entity for Asset Protection
    To protect yourself, use a registered corporate entity. Most people don’t realize there’s a risk in keeping assets and property in your name, which also means keeping the liability and the risk. To succeed in business, to protect your assets and to limit your liability, you want to select from one of the good entities / structures that are truly separate legal beings. They are:
    • C Corporations
    • S Corporations
    • Limited Liability Companies (LLCs)
    • Limited Partnerships (LPs)

    Each one has it’s own advantages and specific uses. Each one is utilized by the rich and knowledgeable in their business and personal financial affairs. And, depending on your state’s fees, each one can be formed for $800 or less so that you can achieve the same benefits and protections that sophisticated business people have enjoyed for centuries.

  6. Meet Annual Requirements so That Legal Protection Remains Intact
    You’ll need to keep your company’s registration up-to-date, hold annual meetings and keep annual minutes, keep business funds separate from your own, and avoid signing any business-related documentation in your name. This is known as maintaining the corporate veil and we provide this service to many of our clients. This keeps your own assets separate from those of your business. By the same token, you are also protected from any debts or disasters incurred by your business.
  7. Protect Your Business Assets in a Business Entity
    You need to protect your business and real estate assets from yourself. A limited liability company is an excellent way to help protect key assets. (Learn how to become incorporated now.) For example, if you have a rental property, you should hold assets either in a limited partnership or in an LLC. These protect you from personal liability if anything should happen on the property and it also provides you another advantage. Should someone become injured on your property, you are protected from being sued directly by the tenant. Remember that the business’s assets are still at risk of suit should the tenant decide to sue. However, if you have adequate insurance, you can help protect yourself from having the claimant lay claim to your assets so as to satisfy your obligation. This strategy comes with a caveat though.
  8. Ensure You Have a Comprehensive Commercial Insurance Policy
    A comprehensive commercial insurance policy can help you keep the property instead of having it end up as a part of a court-ordered settlement. What should you look for?
    • The liability insurance should cover injuries to third parties on your property.
    • It should cover trespassing, especially if you have undeveloped or vacant land.
    • If you have people working on your property as your employees, you should also have Worker’s Compensation insurance.
    • The insurance should also have “increased cost of construction” additions if your building should become damaged or require reconstruction. That means you’ll be covered at today’s construction prices instead of those of previous years.
    • If you are a landlord, “loss of rents” riders can help you recover costs in the event your building is damaged and uninhabitable so that you can pay relocation costs or receive income from the property while it’s being rebuilt to offset right losses.
    • A final consideration is a “higher limits” rider, so that you have extra protection in the event a catastrophic claim is filed in one of these categories.
  9. Use Entities as a Second Line of Defense
    It is extremely important to carry adequate and proper insurance coverage, but as we know, insurance companies have an economic incentive to avoid covering all claims. They find reasons to deny coverage. So while you will have insurance you will use entities as a second line of defense to protect your personal assets from your business claims.
  10. Avoid Incorporation Scams
    You need to know that there are a number of other corporate information scams in the marketplace. A popular one is the $99 incorporation. For just $99, they claim you will be bulletproofed and asset-protected. “C’mon down. We’ll set you right up”, they say.

    We have tested such services to see how they could possibly do all the work necessary to completely and properly form and document a corporation or LLC for just $99. These providers fall into two camps.

    1. The first camp does the minimal work needed to form an entity. They file the articles. That’s it. Once you pay the $99 they will no longer take your phone calls or questions. Eventually you will be sent a document with a state seal on it indicating that you are incorporated. But you will not be sent the minutes, the bylaws, or any issued stock – all of the other components necessary to be a complete corporation. Of course, if you hadn’t read this article, you would probably think in your blissful ignorance that for just $99 you were protected. You are not.
    2. The second camp uses the $99 as a come-on. They offer an a la carte menu in which the $99 is just for the filing of the articles. The bylaws are another $350. The meeting minutes are $250, and so on. By the time you are done they have gained your confidence and that $99 has ballooned up to $2,000 to $3,000 for just one entity.

Are Individuals Protected Within Their LLC?

New Texas Case Sends Shock Waves

LLCs are set up to make personal assets inaccessible for any obligations of the entity. Protection may be lost, however, if you are not aware of your personal conduct when managing business through your LLC. The case below deals with water and environmental issues, an area where governments like to hold individuals liable.

In State v. Morello, the Texas Supreme Court recently found that an agent or a member of an LLC can be found personally liable for any violation of statutes or regulations.

In Morello, the State of Texas brought a civil action under the Texas Water Code against both Bernard Morello and his single member entity, White Lion Holdings, LLC (White Lion).

In 2004, Morello purchased a piece of property that was subject to a hazardous waste permit and compliance plan under the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ). After the purchase, Morello assigned the TCEQ compliance plan and all other property interests from his own name into White Lion.

In hindsight, Morello should have first taken title in the LLC, as he would have removed his individual name from the chain of title. Once your name is associated with the title to environmental problems, you can be held personally responsible for the remediation and cleanup.

Over time, the obligations were not performed, and the state decided to press charges against both White Lion and Morello for violating the TCEQ compliance plan.

The state’s argument for targeting Morello as an individual rested on section 7.102 of the Texas Water Code stating that any “person who codifies, suffers, allows, or permits a violation of a statute…within the [TCEQ’s] jurisdiction…shall be assessed” civil penalties.

Morello’s argument depended on a section of the Texas Business Organizations Code which states that, “a member…is not liable for a debt, obligation, or liability of a limited liability company.”

Morello eventually worked its way up to the Texas Supreme Court. The high court ultimately ruled in favor of the State, writing that “the State’s position is not based on the Business Organizations Code; it is based on the Water Code.” The Texas Supreme Court also found Morello personally liable on three primary arguments.

First, the Court found no reason whatsoever to exclude an individual from the term “person” from section 7.102. Second, the Court found that White Lion being the sole owner and being solely responsible for the compliance plan was immaterial. Third, the Court cited cases stating that a corporate agent may not escape individual liability where that agent “personally participated in the wrongful conduct,” citing that Morello’s actions were in his capacity as an agent and member of White Lion.

The Court’s opinion stated that where a statute applies to any “person,” an “individual cannot use the corporate form as a shield when he or she has personally participated in conduct that violates the statute.”

Haven’t We Seen This Before?

Federal and state courts have consistently rejected the position that where an environmental statute applies to a “person,” corporate officers can avoid individual liability for violating a statute if they personally participated in the wrongful conduct:

Riverside Mkt. Dev. Corp. v. Int’l Bldg. Prods., Inc., 931 F.2d 327, 330 (5th Cor. 1991) (concluding that the federal act “prevents individuals from hiding behind the corporate shield” when they “actually participate in the wrongful conduct”)
U.S. v. Ne. Pharm. & Chem. Co., 810 F.2d 726, 745 (8th Cir. 1986), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 848 (1987) (“[I]mposing liability upon only the corporation, but not those corporate officers and employees who actually make corporate decisions, would be inconsistent with Congress’ intent to impose liability upon the persons who are involved in the handling and disposal of hazardous substances.”)
T.V. Spano Bldg. Corp. v. Dep’t pf Natural Res. & Envtl. Control, 628 A.2d 53,61 (Del. 1993) (concluding that the State could impose personal liability on an officer who “directed, ordered, ratified, approved, or consented to the improper disposal”)
People ex. Rel. Burris v. C.J.R. Processing, Inc., 647 N.E.2d 1035, 1039 (Ill. App. Ct. 1995) (“[C]orporate officers may be held liable for violations of the [state environmental act] when their active participation or personal involvement is shown.”).

While these cases involved different statutes than the one at issue here, it is important to know that under an environmental regulation applicable to a ‘person,’ an individual cannot use the corporate form as a shield when he or she has personally participated in conduct that violates the statute.

And Morello was not held liable for a debt, obligation, or liability of White Lion as he asserts is prohibited by the Business Organizations Code. See Tex. Bus. Orgs. Code § 101.114. Rather, he was held individually liable based on his individual, personal actions.

The Morello case is groundbreaking and could have a ripple effect across Courts in the United States. It is important for people to be aware of their behavior when acting as a member or an agent of an LLC, even before the entity is formed. This recent Texas case demonstrates that in certain specific circumstances individual persons may be found personally liable for any wrongdoing.

Ted Sutton is a graduate of the University of Utah. He will be attending Law School at the University of Wyoming in the Fall of 2019.