LLC managers tempted by the old saw “no harm, no foul” should read William Penn Partnership v. Saliba, No. 362, 2010, 2011 Del. LEXIS 91 (Del. Feb. 9, 2011). The case shows that LLC managers having a conflict of interest in an LLC’s transaction must do more than ensure that the deal is economically fair to the LLC. They must also use fair procedures and comply with the LLC agreement.
The LLC managers in William Penn were members of the LLC, and they were also investors and directors of a corporation (Buyer) that wanted to purchase the LLC’s motel, its only substantial asset. Two of the other members did not want the motel sold, and if the sale could not be stopped they wanted to purchase the motel themselves. The mangers proceeded to manipulate the LLC’s sale and approval process through repeated material omissions and misrepresentations to the other members, and failed to hold a vote as required by the LLC agreement. The property was sold to Buyer, and the other members sued the managers for breach of fiduciary duties.
The LLC’s operating agreement was silent on the managers’ fiduciary duties, so the court found that they owed the traditional fiduciary duties of loyalty and care to the LLC’s members. William Penn, 2011 Del. LEXIS 91, at **14-15. Because of their financial interest in both the LLC and the Buyer, the managers bore the burden of demonstrating the entire fairness of the transaction. Id. at **15.
The entire fairness standard requires that the fiduciary demonstrate both fair dealing and a fair price in the transaction. Fair dealing involves aspects such as how the transaction was structured, timing, disclosures, and approvals. Fair price addresses the economic and financial aspects of the transaction. Id. at **15-16. The managers argued that the deal was entirely fair because the purchase price was more than the appraised value, but the court pointed out that both elements of the entire fairness test must be satisfied.
The Delaware Supreme Court found ample evidence in the record to support the Chancery Court’s conclusion that the managers breached their fiduciary duties. They prevented a fair and open process by a variety of machinations – withholding full information, providing misleading information, and imposing an artificial deadline on the transaction. Id. at **20.
In order to determine damages, the Chancellor ordered an appraisal of the property. The appraisal came in at $5.58 million, less than the $6.6 million the property had been sold for, leaving the plaintiffs with no conventional damages remedy.
Not to be balked by the rule that litigants normally bear their own legal fees, the Chancery Court used its equitable power and awarded attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs. The Supreme Court found that there was no abuse of discretion: “The Chancellor’s decision to award attorneys’ fees and costs was well within his discretion and is supported by Delaware law in order to discourage outright acts of disloyalty by fiduciaries.” Id. at **22.
“No harm, no foul” didn’t work – even though the managers’ breach of fiduciary duties did not result in damages to the other members, the court nonetheless stung them with an award of the members’ attorneys’ fees.