A recent Delaware Court of Chancery decision interpreted the advancement provisions of an LLC Agreement by applying case law interpreting DGCL Section 145 in the corporate context. In Freeman Family LLC v. Park Avenue Landing LLC, C.A. No. 2018-0683-TMR (Del. Ch. Apr. 30, 2019), the court reviewed the applicability of “defined phrases” that are familiar prerequisites for advancement in the corporate context pursuant to DGCL Section 145, and analyzed that same language that was used in an LLC agreement provision granting advancement.
The highlights of this decision are based on the assumption that the reader is familiar with the principles of advancement for officers and directors pursuant to DGCL Section 145, and the leading Delaware court decisions on the topic–even if they are not aware that I have written several book chapters on advancement and published multiple articles on advancement and handled many advancement cases.
This case involved a request for advancement by a member (not a manager) of an LLC seeking advancement for the cost of defending a suit in New Jersey brought by the managing member of the LLC relating to the call right of the member under the LLC Agreement. (The plaintiff-member of the LLC involved in this case was itself an LLC.)
The two issues that the court addressed in this case are: (1) Does corporate case law apply to the provisions for advancement in an LLC Agreement which contains language that mirrors the corporate statute, DCGL Section 145; and (2) Whether the underlying action for which advancement is sought, arises “by reason of the fact” that the party seeking advancement acted in its “official” capacity? The court answered both questions in the affirmative.
Highlights of this Decision–Assuming Familiarity with Delaware Corporate Advancement Case Law:
· The court referenced the well-known truism that advancement cases are particularly appropriate for resolution on a paper record, such as via dispositive motions. See footnote 22 and accompanying text.
· The court cited other Delaware cases that have applied corporate case law to analyze the contractual terms of advancement in an LLC Agreement. See, e.g., Hyatt v. Al Jazeera American Holdings, II, LLC, 2016 WL 1301743 (Del. Ch. Mar. 31, 2016) (highlighted on these pages previously). See also other cases cited at footnotes 36, 37 and 38.
· The court explained that LLCs and corporations differ most pertinently in regard to indemnification: “mandating it in the case of corporate directors and officers who successfully defend themselves, but leaving the indemnification of managers or officers of LLCs to private contract.” See footnote 46 and accompanying text.
· The court recited the guidelines that the Delaware courts used to determine if someone was acting “by reason of the fact”–for purposes of being entitled to either indemnification or advancement, and restated the familiar standard that the operative phrase will be satisfied “if there is a nexus or a causal connection between any of the underlying proceedings and one’s official corporate capacity . . . without regard to one’s motivation for engaging in that conduct.” See footnotes 50 and 51 and accompanying text.
· By contrast, the court cited examples of cases where the “by reason of the fact” requirement was not satisfied, which is best exemplified by disputes involving personal contractual obligations that do not involve the exercise of judgment, discretion, or decision-making authority on behalf of the corporation. See footnote 53 and accompanying text. Because the party seeking advancement in this case was a member and not an officer or a director, the context was unusual, but the LLC Agreement clearly defined the responsibilities of the member.
· The court reasoned that the causal relationship between the official capacity of the member and the underlying lawsuit was met for several reasons: (i) The underlying case in New Jersey was about the failure of the member to carry out its responsibilities specified in the LLC Agreement: (ii) The underlying lawsuit in New Jersey is based on whether the member discharged its official duties such that the call rights could be exercised; and (iii) The underlying dispute fully implicates whether or not the member seeking advancement carried out its official duties. Thus, the court held that the “by reason of the fact” requirement and the “official capacity requirement” were met.
· The court distinguished five cases in which advancement or indemnification claims were denied because the underlying litigation involved a personal interest that lacked a sufficient connection to official duties. Those five cases that were distinguished are cited in footnote 56–most of which have been highlighted on these pages: Bernstein v. TractManager, Inc., 953 A.2d 1003 (Del. Ch. 2007); Cochran v. Stifel Fin. Corp., 2000 WL 1847676 (Del. Ch. Dec. 13, 2000) (rev’d in part on other grounds, 809 A.2d 555 (Del. 2002)); Lieberman v. Electrolytic Ozone, Inc., 2015 WL 5035460 (Del. Ch. Aug. 31, 2015); Dore v. Sweports, Ltd., 2017 WL 45469 (Del. Ch. Jan. 31, 2015); Charney v. Am. Apparel Inc., 2015 WL 5313769 (Del. Ch. Sept. 11, 2015).
· Regarding whether the “undertaking” provided by the party seeking advancement satisfied the statutory undertaking requirement, the court ruled that the sufficiency of an undertaking is determined by looking at the substance–and not the form alone–of the document containing the undertaking.
Postscript: It was recently reported by The Chancery Daily that the Vice Chancellor who wrote this opinion published it the day after giving birth to a baby boy. Wow. That’s a dedicated jurist. Congratulations to Her Honor and her family on their new addition.