A recent New York case dealt with one of the most fundamental characteristic of LLCs – the LLC as a legal entity. Sealy v. Clifton, LLC, 890 N.Y.S.2d 598, 2009 N.Y.App. Div. LEXIS 9020 (N.Y.App.Div. 2009). One of two LLC members, each owning a 50% interest, asked the trial court to partition the LLC’s real estate. In a partition action, real estate held by joint tenants or tenants in common is divided into portions so that each co-owner is awarded full, individual ownership of a portion of the real estate. The trial court refused to dismiss the partition action, but the Appellate Division reversed and required dismissal by the trial court.

Under state LLC laws, an LLC is a legal entity, in effect a legal person. An LLC can sue and be sued, own property, enter into contracts, and do many of the things that an individual human being can do. E.g. N.Y. Ltd. Liab. Co. Law §§ 203(d), 202.

Since an LLC is a legal person, the property it owns is the property of the LLC, not of the members. The New York LLC Act is clear: “A membership interest in the limited liability company is personal property. A member has no interest in specific property of the limited liability company.” N.Y. Ltd. Liab. Co. Law § 601. Other state LLC laws have similar provisions.

Relying on Section 601, the Sealy court held that the LLC, not its members, owned the real estate. Because the members were not co-owners of the real estate, the partition action had to be dismissed. Sealy, 2009 N.Y.App. Div. LEXIS 9020, at *1. Prior New York law allowed partition actions to be brought only by co-owners.

Perhaps the reasoning of the Sealy plaintiff was: “I am a part owner of the LLC; the LLC owns the real estate, therefore I am a part owner of the real estate.” In other words, something like “I own the box, ergo I own what’s inside the box.” The analogy is not apt, but perhaps it convinced the trial judge, since he refused to throw out the partition request.

That theory breaks down because an LLC is a legal entity, a legal person. The real estate in Sealy was owned by the LLC, not by the members. The only way a member could reach the real estate would be to cause the dissolution and winding up of the LLC. In that process either the real estate would be liquidated and its proceeds distributed to the members, or the real estate could be divided by the LLC and the individual parcels of the real estate distributed in kind to the members. But the member apparently had not pursued dissolution.

The legal personhood of LLCs, like that of corporations, partnerships and other entities, is a legal doctrine thoroughly woven into our legal, business, financial and political systems. It allows the law to treat LLCs as persons for many purposes – but not all. For example, LLCs cannot marry, adopt children, hold public office, or vote in public elections.

Some constitutional rights apply to legal entities. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court last month invalidated a federal ban on corporate expenditures for public communications intended to affect federal elections. The Court held that the First Amendment’s mandate that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech” applies to corporations. Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 175 L. Ed. 2d 753 (2010). The Court’s opinion saw corporations as entitled to be heard in the political arena, like individuals. This was a controversial five-to-four decision that overruled prior Supreme Court precedent.

The boundaries of the legal doctrine that treats corporations and LLCs as persons will continue to be mapped and delineated. And as in Citizens United, the boundary may shift from time to time.