One of the goals in a business divorce is finality – ending a business relationship once and for all. But what if the end isn’t really the end?
When members of limited liability companies (LLCs) sell their interests in the LLCs to a third party, they may assume that the sale provides the desired end of their rights and obligations related to the company. But that may not be the case. It is possible that even after selling and assigning an LLC interest, the assignor may continue to owe fiduciary duties to the LLC and its members. This post reviews some of the pitfalls of assigning an LLC interest and discusses strategies that may help to avoid those problems.
The Texas LLC Act – Provisions Governing Assignments of LLC Interests
Chapter 101 of the Texas Business Organizations Code (the “LLC Act”) governs LLCs. The LLC Act provides that a member of an LLC may transfer his or her membership interest to another party in whole or in part. But the assignment of an LLC interest is different from the transfer of membership in the company. The assignment of the LLC interest does not give the assignee the rights to (1) participate in the management and affairs of the company; (2) become a member of the company; or (3) exercise any rights of a member of the company. The assignment of the LLC interest provides the assignee with the right to receive distributions issued by the company and information about the company’s finances, but that’s about it.
The LLC Act spells out these rights of the assignee: “An assignor of a membership interest in a limited liability company continues to be a member of the company until the assignee becomes a member of the company.” Further, the assignor does not have the right under the LLC Act to withdraw as a member from the company. (An LLC member also cannot be expelled from the company.) The result is that even after assignors assign the LLC interest and are enjoying “life on the beach,” they may still owe fiduciary duties as a member of the company.
As a side note, this discussion has assumed that there are fiduciary duties owed within the LLC at issue. But that is not always the case. The LLC Act permits the members to agree in the company’s certificate of formation or operating agreement to modify or even eliminate all fiduciary duties that are owed to the company and its members by the managers of the LLC. Tex. Bus. Org. Code § 7.001(d)(3). While including such a provision would certainly make it safer for a member to assign an LLC interest, doing so poses its own set of risks while the company is operating.
A Case Study: Villareal v. Saenz
The problem of fiduciary duties persisting after an assignment may sound far-fetched, but it is a real concern. In Villareal v. Saenz, the co-owners of an LLC agreed to a business divorce in which Saenz assigned the entirety of his interest in the company to Villareal. 5:20-cv-571, 2021 WL 1986831, at *2 (W.D. Tex. May 18, 2021). The assignment was part of a broad release of claims, both known and unknown. Villareal later filed suit, alleging that before signing the release, Saenz had engaged in various acts of misconduct, including misappropriating company trade secrets and embezzling funds, and that after the release, Saenz had taken over the company’s web and email domain, pulled down the website, and offered to sell it back to Villareal for $7,000.
A magistrate judge in the Western District of Texas recommended that all claims based on alleged acts arising before the release should be dismissed for failure to state a claim. But the magistrate judge also recommended that the claims against Saenz based on actions that allegedly took place after the release – including those for breach of fiduciary duty – should proceed. The court concluded that Saenz had not demonstrated that his fiduciary duties ended when he assigned his interest in the company to Villareal, and he may have breached those fiduciary duties by maintaining dominion and control over the company’s email server and website.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The key takeaway from Villareal v. Saenz is that disputes between owners regarding the fiduciary duties that exist after an assignment can be avoided by more clearly wording the company agreement or assignment. The following are specific steps that potential assignors can take before their assign their LLC interests to another party:
- First, assignors can make sure that the assignment provides an end to their membership in the company by agreement of all members, along with a mechanism set forth for the assignee to assume the membership interest.
- Second, assignors can include an express written release and waiver of any post-assignment duties to the company or its members (fiduciary or otherwise). This should be signed by the company and all of its members to be certain it is effective.
- Third, and most importantly, assignors can make sure at the outset, when forming the company, that the operating agreement provides a mechanism for transfer of the membership interest in connection with an assignment, specifying what happens to the member’s duties (fiduciary or otherwise) when the transfer takes place.
The bottom line is that when assignor is trying to exit the company, he or she does not want to have any continuing duties to the company. To ensure this takes place, the assignment documents and the terms of the LLC Agreement should confirm that these duties no longer exist after the assignment takes place.