When an LLC manager signs a contract on behalf of the LLC there is usually no question whether the LLC is bound by the manager’s signature. But consider – what’s the result when the manager is an investor and an officer of the other party to the contract, and the LLC members disapprove of the contract and attempt to reject it on grounds that the manager lacked authority to enter into the contract because of the manager’s conflict of interest? The Oregon Court of Appeals was faced with this scenario in Synectic Ventures I, LLC v. EVI Corp., No. A139879, 2011 Ore. App. LEXIS 337 (Or. Ct. App. Mar. 16, 2011).
The Loan. Three LLC investment funds (Synectic) loaned $3 million to EVI Corporation pursuant to a 2003 loan agreement. The loan agreement called for repayment by December 31, 2004, but EVI had the right to convert the debt into equity in the form of EVI stock if it received additional investments of at least $1 million before the December 31 deadline.
Conflict of Interest. The Synectic LLCs were managed by Craig Berkman, at first directly and later through management firms he controlled. Berkman was involved with both parties to the loan. In addition to being Synectic’s manager, Berkman was also the board chairman and treasurer of EVI, and held EVI warrants and stock options.
Amendment. In September 2004, as the year-end due date of the loan approached, Berkman executed an amendment to the loan agreement on behalf of Synectic that extended EVI’s repayment date one year, to December 31, 2005. Berkman also approved the amendment in his capacity as an EVI board member. The Synectic members were unaware of the amendment at the time it was made. Berkman was removed as manager in December 2004, and in 2005 Synectic learned of the amendment and notified EVI that the amendment was not authorized and that EVI was in default on the loan.
EVI raised $1 million in additional investment before December 31, 2005 and converted the loan into equity, thereby avoiding default (if the amendment was binding on Synectic).
Synectic sued EVI to collect on the loan, and EVI defended on grounds that it was not in default under the amended loan. The trial court concluded that the amendment was valid and binding on Synectic and that EVI was therefore not in default.
Authority. The Court of Appeals began with a look at Or. Rev. Stat. § 63.140(2)(a), which provides in part:
Each manager is an agent of the limited liability company for the purpose of its business, and an act of a manager, including the signing of an instrument in the limited liability company's name, for apparently carrying on in the ordinary course the business of the limited liability company, or business of the kind carried on by the limited liability company, binds the limited liability company unless the manager had no authority to act for the limited liability company in the particular matter and the person with whom the manager was dealing knew or had notice that the manager lacked authority.
This section provides for the manager’s apparent authority in the ordinary course of the LLC’s business. Many state LLC acts have similar provisions for managers and members (if the LLC is member managed), e.g., Washington, Utah, and New York. Both the Uniform Partnership Act and the Uniform Limited Partnership Act have similar provisions for the apparent authority of general partners.
Under Or. Rev. Stat. § 63.140(2)(a), if the manager has no authority and the third party has knowledge of the lack of authority, the principal will not be bound. The court therefore reviewed Synectic’s operating agreements to determine Berkman’s authority, and concluded that the agreements gave Berkman the exclusive authority to manage the business of the LLCs and to take action without the consent of the members. The operating agreements also provided that third parties could rely on Berkman’s authority to bind the LLCs without further inquiry. Synectic, 2011 Ore. App. LEXIS 337, at *12-13. Under these provisions it appeared to the court that the amendment was within the authority granted to Berkman in the operating agreements: “As such, at first blush it would appear that Berkman’s act of executing the amendment was within the express authority granted to him in the operating agreements.” Id.
Synectic argued that Berkman’s actual authority was limited by letter agreements Berkman had entered into with some of Synectic’s investors, and by his acts of self-dealing and breach of fiduciary duties. Id. at *13.
The court held that the letter agreements did not limit Berkman’s authority because they were between Berkman and some of the Synectic members, but not with Synectic. If the letter agreements obligated Berkman to those members, any breach was between him and them and did not affect his authority to act for Synectic. Id. at *17.
Fiduciary Duties. Synectic’s operating agreements obligated Berkman to carry out his duties in accordance with the standard of conduct specified for LLC managers in the Oregon LLC Act, which includes the duty of care and the duty of loyalty. Or. Rev. Stat. § 63.155. Synectic contended that Berkman’s breaches of those duties without member approval invalidated his execution of the amendment. But before the court considered whether Berkman had breached his fiduciary duties, it examined whether the remedy requested by Synectic would be available even if Berkman had breached his duty.
The court concluded that the language of Or. Rev. Stat. § 63.140(2)(a) controlled: the act of a manager binds the LLC “unless the manager had no authority to act for the limited liability company in the particular matter and the person with whom the manager was dealing knew or had notice that the manager lacked authority.” Berkman had the express authority under the operating agreements to enter into the amendment. Synectic took no action to limit his authority, and the loan extension was within the ordinary course of the LLC’s business. Even if knowledge of Berkman’s self-dealing were imputed to EVI, any inquiry by EVI would only have led to the conclusion that Berkman had authority to execute the amendment. Synectic, 2011 Ore. App. LEXIS 337, at *23-24.
In short, Berkman had actual, unqualified authority under the operating agreements, and his act of executing the amendment therefore was binding on Synectic even if it was a breach of his fiduciary duties.
Conflict of Interest. Synectic also pointed out that under Or. Rev. Stat. § 130(2)-(4), a transaction involving an actual or a potential conflict of interest between a member or a manager and the LLC requires the consent of a majority of the members, unless the operating agreement provides otherwise. The Synectic operating agreements clearly allowed members to have conflicts of interest, but said nothing about actual or potential manager conflicts.
Strangely enough, the court found that Berkman’s alleged conflict between his role as Synectic’s LLC manager and his role as EVI’s board member and treasurer was excused by the Synectic operating agreements. While it is correct that Berkman was a member, Synectic’s allegation was that Berkman had a conflict because of his status as a manager, not as a member.
The court’s opinion says not a word about why the operating agreements’ waivers of member conflicts should apply to Berkman in his capacity as manager. Berkman was acting as Synectic’s manager when he signed the amendment, not as a member. For an operating agreement to allow members to have a conflict of interest is a far cry from allowing a manager to have a conflict of interest – non-managing members are passive and don’t make the management decisions that could be affected by a conflict of interest. Synectic may still be trying to puzzle this one out.