Arbitration of contract disputes is not generally required unless the parties agree to arbitration in their contract. LLC founders will therefore often include mandatory arbitration clauses in their LLC agreement. These are intended to require all disputes about the LLC to be arbitrated instead of being tried in court.
Montana Arbitration Clause. Arbitration clauses are usually enforceable. The Montana Supreme Court, however, recently refused in a case of first impression in Montana to enforce an LLC agreement’s arbitration clause. Gordon v. Kuzara, 2010 MT 275, 358 Mont. 432 (December 21, 2010). The plaintiff in Gordon sought judicial dissolution of the LLC, and the defendant filed a motion to compel arbitration based on the arbitration clause in the parties’ LLC agreement. Peter Mahler has nicely described the case and the court’s reasoning in his New York Business Divorce blog.
The gist of the court’s holding was that arbitration was not mandatory because the arbitration language in the LLC agreement did not cover a request for judicial dissolution. The contract said that arbitration was mandatory if any member was “challenging this agreement, any activity conducted pursuant to this agreement, or any interpretation of the terms of this agreement.” Gordon, 358 Mont. at 432.
That language is broad, but the dissolution petition was not based on a right granted by the LLC agreement. The LLC agreement had no provision requiring judicial dissolution, and the request for a dissolution order was instead based on the statutory remedy under the Montana LLC Act. Mont. Code Ann. § 35-8-902. Although the petitioner cited examples of conduct by the other member to show that the LLC was no longer economically feasible, the court concluded that the request for dissolution was based on the statutory remedy, not the LLC agreement. Gordon, 358 Mont. at 437.
Idaho Attorneys’ Fees. Arbitration is not the only contractual dispute resolution procedure that can turn out to be unavailable when dissolution is sought. Last year I posted about a case in Idaho, Henderson v. Henderson Investment Properties, LLC, where an attorneys’ fees clause in an LLC agreement was not enforced.
The trial court awarded attorneys’ fees in Henderson based on the LLC agreement’s attorneys’ fees clause, which covered actions brought to enforce any provision of the LLC agreement. The Idaho Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s award because the plaintiff did not seek to enforce the LLC agreement, but instead sought judicial dissolution, a statutory remedy.
Drafting Lessons. Both the Montana case and the Idaho case involved contractual clauses that were not enforced because they were not written broadly enough to encompass a petition for the LLC’s dissolution. One case involved a clause requiring arbitration, the other involved a clause requiring the loser to pay the winner’s attorneys’ fees.
In my post on the Henderson case I discussed how the attorneys’ fees clause could have been written to cover a dispute over dissolution, by adding language along the lines of “or to interpret or enforce any rights under the [State] Limited Liability Company Act.” The attorneys’ fees clause would then apply to either a dispute over the terms of the LLC agreement or to a dissolution petition. The broader language I suggest should have changed the result in Gordon, as well.
Another approach would be to add an express reference to dissolution in the attorneys’ fees clause or arbitration clause, as suggested by Peter Mahler in his post. That would remove all doubts about whether dissolution is covered, but would not extend to disputes over other statutorily granted rights that often are not referred to in the LLC agreement. For example, LLC statutes usually require that certain documents and records be provided to members on request.