A North Carolina court last month was faced with troubling issues involving assignments of LLC member interests and changes of control. There was no dispute that the assignments conveyed the assigning members’ economic rights. The question was whether the associated control rights (management and voting) were retained by the assignor, conveyed to the assignee, or left inchoate and unusable by either the assignor or assignee until and unless the assignee was admitted as a member. The court in Blythe v. Bell, No. 11 CVS 933, 2012 WL 6163118 (N.C. Super. Dec. 10, 2012), had to resolve conflicting provisions of North Carolina’s LLC Act applicable to assignments and member withdrawals.

Drymax Sports, LLC was formed as a North Carolina limited liability company in 2003 by Hickory Brands, Inc. (HBI) and four individuals. The members and their initial percentage holdings were:

William Blythe                       40%            

HBI                                        30%            

Nissan Joseph                       20%            

Rob Bell                                  5%            

Virginia Bell                             5%         

In 2007 HBI assigned all of its interest in equal parts to Rob Bell and Virginia Bell. In 2008 Joseph assigned his interest to HBI.

By 2011 a number of disputes between the members had arisen, and Blythe filed a lawsuit against the other members. After completion of pre-trial discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the effects of the two assignments. The Blythe opinion is the trial court’s ruling. (The Blythe court is a specialized North Carolina Business Court, which handles cases involving complex and significant corporate and commercial law issues.) 

Control Dispute. The motions were essentially a fight for control of Drymax. Blythe contended that the assignments by HBI and Joseph divested them of control but did not convey control rights to the assignees because the assignments were not approved by unanimous member consent. Id. at *5. That would leave only Blythe, Rob Bell, and Virginia Bell with control rights, resulting in Blythe’s effective voting control being increased from 40% to 80%, even though his economic interest would remain at 40%.

The defendants contended that HBI’s assignments to Rob Bell and Virginia Bell did not require unanimous member approval because they already were members, and that the assignments therefore conveyed control rights. The defendants also argued that Joseph’s assignment to HBI (which was at that time a non-member) did not convey control rights, and that Joseph retained his control interests because HBI was not admitted as a member. Id. at *6.

The court found that there was no operating agreement and that therefore the effects of the assignments were determined by the default provisions of the North Carolina Limited Liability Company Act. Section 57C-5-02 provides that an LLC interest is assignable but that an assignee receives only the economic rights, i.e., the right to receive the distributions and allocations to which the assignor would have been entitled. Section 57C-5-04(a) provides that an assignee may become a member by complying with the operating agreement (if there is one) or by the unanimous consent of the members, and that an assignee who becomes a member has the rights of a member, including voting control, with respect to the interest assigned.

Section 57C-5-02 disenfranchises members who assign all of their member interests: “Except as provided in the articles of organization or a written operating agreement, a member ceases to be a member upon assignment of all of his membership interest.” This rule is phrased as an absolute – it does not depend on whether the assignee is admitted as a member.

These two sections, when read together, appear to require that if a member assigns all of its interest to an assignee that is not admitted as a member, neither the assignor nor the assignee will be able to vote or use any control rights associated with the transferred interest.

The court also referred to Section 57C-5-06, which states: “A member may withdraw only at the time or upon the happening of the events specified in the articles of organization or a written operating agreement.” Withdrawal is not defined in the LLC Act, but the court characterized this section as a limit on a member’s right to terminate its membership. Id. at *5.

Conflicts in the LLC Act. The court wasfaced with the following rules: (i) a non-member assignee of an LLC interest who is not admitted as a member cannot vote the interest; (ii) an assignor of 100% of its LLC interest is no longer a member, and therefore has no right to vote that interest; and (iii) a member cannot withdraw from the LLC unless allowed by the articles of organization or a written operating agreement. But if the assignor is not able to vote the assigned interest, hasn’t it effectively withdrawn in violation of rule (iii)? And if neither the assignor nor the assignee can vote the assigned interest, then is it correct that no one can vote it and therefore there could be control shifts among the remaining members?

The court concluded that the rule against withdrawal trumps the rule that the assignor of 100% of its interest is no longer a member. It held that (a) HBI’s assignments to Rob Bell and Virginia Bell transferred HBI’s economic and control rights to them because the Bells were already members at the time of the assignment, and (b) Joseph’s assignment to HBI did not cause Joseph to lose his member control rights with regard to the assigned interest because HBI was at that time not a member. Id. at *8. Therefore no voting control was suspended – HBI’s assignments to the Bells transferred control because they already were members, and Joseph retained control regarding his assignment because HBI was not a member. Blythe’s 40% interest continued to represent 40% of the voting.

The court based both prongs of its ruling on the LLC Act’s prohibition on unilateral member withdrawal: “Plaintiffs’ construction providing otherwise would conflict with Section 57C-5-06 … because under Plaintiffs’ construction, a member could voluntarily assign all his interest and immediately cease being a member without the need for any other member’s consent…. The court cannot find a fair reading of the Act, reconciling all its provisions, that reflects a legislative purpose that allow[s] a member to cease being a member leaving his prior control interest inchoate.” Id.

The Court’s Ruling. The Blythe court was on the horns of a dilemma. It was faced with a square conflict between Section 57C-5-06 (a member may withdraw only if allowed by the articles of organization or a written operating agreement) and Section 57C-5-02 (except as provided in the articles of organization or a written operating agreement, a member ceases to be a member upon assignment of all of its membership interest).

Joseph assigned all of his interest. Under the statute he therefore ceased to be a member, but he was also barred from withdrawing as a member. The court sliced the Gordian knot by holding that Joseph did continue as a member and retained the control rights associated with the interest assigned, until his assignee is admitted as a member.

The court’s decision resolved the conflict for Joseph’s assignment, but the court ignored the same conflict inherent in HBI’s assignment of all of its interest to Rob Bell and Virginia Bell. Because the Bells were already members they received control rights as well as economic rights for the interests they received from HBI. The court made no mention of the fact that HBI’s assignment and the associated transfer of the control rights to the Bells amounted to a withdrawal by HBI, in conflict with the LLC Act’s bar on withdrawal.

An alternative approach would have been for the court to simply enforce Section 57C-5-02’s requirement that a member ceases to be a member upon assignment of all of its membership interest. If such an assignment amounts to a prohibited withdrawal, then the other members could assert a cause of action for that violation of the statute and sue for damages.

Other Statutes. The statutory provisions that the Blythe court wrestled with are not an anomaly. Delaware and Washington both have essentially the same rules as North Carolina regarding assignments and withdrawal, including the same conflict between the assignment rules and the “no withdrawal” rule. And it appears that neither has a reported opinion dealing with a similar fact pattern where there is no LLC agreement.

Solution. These statutes should be amended to eliminate this conflict. One approach that would do minimal violence to the existing rules would be to recognize that the prohibition on withdrawal is not as important for most LLCs as it is to partnerships. By simply changing the default rule so that withdrawal is allowed unless prohibited by the LLC agreement or certificate of formation, the statutory conflict that Blythe dealt with would be eliminated. LLCs would still be able to limit withdrawal in their LLC agreements if desired.

The Oregon LLC Act is a good example of that approach. Oregon’s rules on LLC assignments are essentially the same as those of Washington, Delaware, and North Carolina, except that a member may voluntarily withdraw from an LLC on six months’ notice unless prohibited by the LLC’s articles of organization or operating agreement. Or. Rev. Stat. § 63.205.