Parties to litigation normally cannot keep their identities out of the public eye--plaintiffs and defendants are named in the complaint that starts a lawsuit. Complaints are public documents that are filed with the court. But a group of allegedly defrauded investors in Ohio recently used a limited liability company to bring a securities fraud lawsuit while keeping their names out of the court records.
The events that led to this lawsuit are sadly reminiscent of the Bernie Madoff debacle. Fair Finance Co. is an Ohio loan company founded in 1934. The company was owned by the Fair family and sold investment certificates to Ohio residents for a generation, including to members of Ohio’s Amish community. In 2002 wealthy Indianapolis investor Timothy Durham took control of the company.
In November 2009 the FBI raided Fair Finance’s offices and seized computers and records. Federal investigators suspected that Fair Finance was being operated as a Ponzi scheme, according to court records. The ongoing investigation has not yet resulted in any charges or arrests, but the company and its eight Ohio offices have been closed since November 24, 2009.
On December 21, a lawsuit was filed by a group of Ohio residents against Fair Finance and several other defendants, including Timothy Durham. In their complaint the plaintiffs seek rescission and damages for breach of contract, securities fraud, and negligent misrepresentation.
The lawsuit was brought by 16 plaintiffs. Two are trusts, 13 are individuals, and one is Fair Recovery, LLC. Fair Recovery is an Ohio LLC that was formed on December 10, 2009. According to the complaint, Fair Recovery is pursing the claims of 20 individual investors, all of whom are members of the LLC. The LLC members invested a total of $1,360,000 in Fair Finance.
Under Ohio’s LLC Act, an LLC is formed by filing Articles of Organization, and according to Fair Recovery’s Articles of Organization, its purpose is “to engage in any lawful act or activity.” The Articles are not required to disclose the LLC’s members, and Fair Recovery did not disclose its members' identities.
According to local newspaper reports, some members of the local Amish community invested with Fair Finance and have claims against it. The articles point out that the Amish faith discourages its members from settling disputes in court, and speculate that Fair Recovery was formed to press the legal action on behalf of Amish investors and to keep their names out of the public record. The law firm representing Fair Recovery and the other plaintiffs declined to say whether any are Amish.
This is a rather novel use of an LLC. Apparently Fair Recovery has no other business, and was formed simply to press the claims of its members in the litigation against Fair Finance. Using such an entity would not normally confer any benefit in litigation, so it appears that the only added value it provides is protection of the privacy of its members.
It remains to be seen how well the LLC will hold up as a privacy shield. For one thing, the identity of Fair Recovery’s members will probably become the subject of pretrial discovery procedures. For example, the defendants will be entitled to depose the Fair Recovery members to investigate the details of their claims. But pretrial discovery information is not usually filed with the court, so the identity of the Fair Recovery claimants presumably will be kept out of the court records prior to trial. The trial itself should be open to the public, but it may or may not be necessary at trial for testimony to identify the Fair Recovery members. Fair Finance must know, of course, who its investors are. It can probably determine easily who the Fair Recovery plaintiffs are, and could disclose that information if it chose to do so.