Wednesday, January 26, 2005

This Fiesta Ain't No Party

Professor Daniel Kleinberger brought the case of Movitz v. Fiesta Investments, LLC to the attention of the LNET-LLC listserve. This case arises from the bankruptcy of a member of a family limited liability company. It should serve as a warning to those who believe that LLCs are bulletproof asset protection vehicles.

The debtor was a member of Fiesta, a family LLC that had two assets, interests in a leasing company and in another LLC. The leasing company was sold shortly after the debtor filed bankruptcy. Fiesta received cash distributions in the amount of $837,000 from the sale of the leasing company and regular quarterly cash distributions from the LLC.

Rather than distribute the cash to its members, "substantial amounts of cash . . . flowed out of Fiesta to or for the benefit of . . . members [other than the debtor or the bankruptcy trustee], including $374,500 in loans to members or to corporations owned or controlled by members, a $42,500 payment to one member, and $124,000 paid to another member to redeem his interest." In response to the bankruptcy trustee's demand for information and distribution, the managing member of Fiesta, the debtor's father, stonewalled. He stated that he "created 'Fiesta a few years ago to remove assets from our estate for estate tax purposes, and to accumulate investments for the benefit of our children after our deaths . . .[W]e see no reason to accede to the wishes of any member or assignee of any member which runs contrary to our original goals.'" The court rather dryly noted that "the outflow of over half a million dollars does not seem to be consistent with the original goal 'to accumulate investments for the benefit of our children after our deaths.'"

Fiesta argued that under Arizona law and under the terms of Fiesta's operating agreement, an assignee of an LLC interest remains a mere assignee and does not become a member of the LLC. Thus, it contended that the assignee would "only [be] entitled to receive to the extent assigned the share of distributions . . . to which such Member would otherwise be entitled with respect to the assigned interest." The court totally rejected that argument, concluding that:
All of the limitations in the Operating Agreement, and all of the provisions of Arizona law on which Fiesta relies, constitute conditions and restrictions upon the member’s transfer of his interest. Code § 541(c)(1) renders those restrictions inapplicable. This necessarily implies the Trustee has all of the rights and powers with respect to Fiesta that the Debtor held as of the commencement of the case.
The court was able to reach this conclusion because Fiesta, more specifically, its operating agreement, did not constitute an executory contract. As the court noted:
not only do there not appear to be any obligations imposed upon members by the Fiesta Operating Agreement, but there are certainly none with respect to either receipt of a distribution or proper management of the company by its managers. Members do not have to do anything to be entitled to proper management of the company by the managers. The Trustee’s complaint does not involve the Debtor’s lone arguable obligation not to voluntarily withdraw.
In responding to Kleinberger's posting, Jay Adkisson noted that the:
court's reasoning as to the executory/nonexecutory issue is probably correct.

But doesn't this have the potential to effectively gut charging order protection for a non-managing membership interest, at least to the extent that a creditor can maneuver a debtor-member into bankruptcy?
While Adkisson's analysis may be correct, the case could have been decided on much narrower grounds. Specifically, even if the trustee were merely an assignee of the debtor's rights to distributions, the actions of the other family members were nothing short of an attempt to fraudulently divert assets (i.e., the distributions) that rightfully should have been paid over to the trustee. The court's action in making the trustee a member is problematical since there are arguably some remaining obligations imposed upon the members.

While it is true that the members had no real management responsibility, they certainly had the right to participate in making certain types of decisions with respect to Fiesta's business. By way of example, it is reasonable to expect that at some point in time the members might have to consider refinancing or selling Fiesta's remaining asset. To the extent that each of the members entered into the LLC predicated on their faith in each of the other members' business acumen and judgment, their legitimate expectancies are being frustrated when the trustee becomes a member. At that point, they will have a partner that they did not bargain for.

Typically, I will draft operating agreements that allow members to assign most of their economic rights to family members, but require that voting rights be retained by the true "partners" in the deal. The reason is simple--the members agreed to join with each other in large measure due to their faith in the judgment of those specific individuals who are entering into the deal, not their spouses, their children, or trustees of family trusts. To the extent that any residuum of management decision making remains, the LLC remains an executory contract and the trustee should not be admitted as a substitute member.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What effect will the Iraqi election have on the holding in Fiesta?