Veil-piercing law varies widely from state to state, and a recent Maryland case is an example of the member-protective end of the spectrum. Its requirement for a showing of fraud in order to pierce an LLC’s veil creates a high hurdle for a plaintiff wishing to pierce the veil and impose liability on an LLC’s member. Serio v. Baystate Props., LLC, 60 A.3d 475 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Jan. 25, 2013).
An LLC will normally shield its members from personal liability for the company’s debts and obligations. That liability shield is not impenetrable, though, and can sometimes be pierced in court by the company’s creditors. When an LLC’s veil is pierced, the LLC’s separate entity status is disregarded and the company’s creditors can assert their claims not only against the LLC but also against the members personally.
Veil-piercing claims in lawsuits are common for two reasons. One is that often the LLC has few or no assets and cannot satisfy a judgment if the plaintiff wins its case. The other is that veil-piercing law in many states is unclear and unpredictable, which increases the likelihood of a plaintiff adding a veil-piercing claim in hopes of increasing its ability to collect on a judgment.
Facts. Baystate Properties, LLC contracted in 2006 with Serio Investments, LLC to build homes on two lots owned by Vincent Serio, the sole member of the LLC. The contract required Serio Investments to provide an escrow account from which Baystate was to be paid according to a draw schedule. Baystate also was to be paid an additional $25,000 upon the sale of each of the homes.
Payments to Baystate slowed and Baystate received none of the sale proceeds when the two homes were sold. In 2007 Baystate sued both Serio Investments and Vincent Serio for the amounts owing on the construction contract. After a bench trial in 2009, the court found for Baystate on its breach of contract claim, pierced the veil of Serio Investments, and entered judgment against Vincent Serio individually.
According to the trial court, the evidence did not support a finding of fraud but was sufficient to establish a paramount equity, and there would be an inequitable result if the corporate veil was not pierced. Id. at 484. The trial court based its conclusion on findings that (i) Serio individually owned the two lots that were the subject of the construction contract; (ii) Serio gave assurances to Baystate about impending sales of the lots; (iii) Serio lied about the sale and settlement of the first lot; (iv) Serio Investments had significant debts and no income other than Serio’s deposits, and was virtually insolvent; and (v) an escrow account was never established as required by the construction contract. Id.
Court of Special Appeals. The court first noted that Section 4A-301 Maryland’s LLC Act provides that no LLC member is to be personally liable for the LLC’s obligations solely by reason of being a member of the LLC, and that Maryland law treats piercing the veil of an LLC much like piercing the veil of a corporation. Id.
According to the court, the basic rule in Maryland is that “shareholders generally are not held individually liable for debts or obligations of a corporation except where it is necessary to prevent fraud or enforce a paramount equity.” Id. at 484 (quoting Bart Arconti & Sons, Inc. v. Ames-Ennis, Inc.,340 A.2d 225 (Md. 1975)).
Perhaps as a harbinger of its eventual conclusion, the court stated: “This standard has been so narrowly construed that neither this Court nor the Court of Appeals has ultimately ‘found an equitable interest more important than the state’s interest in limited shareholder liability.’” Id. (quoting Residential Warranty v. Bancroft Homes Greenspring Valley, Inc., 728 A.2d 783, 789 n.13 (Md. 1999) ). (The Maryland Court of Appeals is the state’s highest court.)
The court looked to the analysis of the Court of Appeals in Hildreth v. Tidewater, 838 A.2d 1204 Md. 2006), which concluded that in the absence of fraud, a paramount equity could be based either on preventing evasion of legal obligations, or on the company’s failure to observe the corporate entity (the “alter ego” doctrine). Serio, 60 A.3d at 486. Hildreth indicated that the alter ego rule should be applied only with great caution and in exceptional circumstances, id., and that generally the “evasion of a legal obligation” grounds will not apply if the party seeking to pierce the corporate veil has dealt with the corporation in the course of its business on a corporate basis, id. at 488.
After reviewing the conduct of Serio Investments, the court found that it was a valid, subsisting LLC when it entered into the contract with Baystate, that the addenda to the parties’ contract were all with Serio Investments, that the payments to Baystate were made by Serio Investments, and that other documents related to the project were all in the name of Serio Investments. Baystate understood that it was doing business with Serio Investments, and there was not enough evidence of either an attempt to evade Serio Investments’ legal obligations or of disregard of the entity status of Serio Investments. “In sum, Serio Investments fulfilled the contract with Baystate until, as Serio testified, the collapse of the housing market caused problems.” Id. at 489.
The court concluded that the trial court had abused its discretion in finding Serio personally liable and reversed the trial court’s judgment.
Comment. Maryland LLC members can take comfort that the Maryland courts will not lightly pierce the veil of their LLC, even if it is a single-member LLC. I have blogged about at least 11 different veil-piercing cases, and according to my informal survey Maryland’s case law appears to be the most resistant to piercing the veil.
Serio Investments was a single-member LLC, and the court put no emphasis on that factor. Some other states appear to have been strongly influenced by the single-member character of an LLC when piercing its veil. E.g., Martin v. Freeman, 272 P.3d 1182 (Colo. App. 2012), which I blogged about, here.