Do Members of LLCs Owe A Fiduciary Duty To Each Other in CT?

A limited liability company is essentially a combination or mix of a corporation and a partnership.  The LLC as an entity provides the flexibility of a partnership with the ability to govern and create ownership interests similar to a corporation.  The legislature codified the framework for LLCs in Connecticut in Title 34, Chapter 613 of the General Statutes.  The statutory frameworks permits the owners or members of LLCs to include specific governance provisions in a document called an “operating agreement.” Many times members use an attorney to draft the operating agreement. The operating agreement may cover a variety of topics including:

  • duties and rights of members and managers
  • finance
  • distributions
  • ownership and transfer of property
  • admission and withdrawal of members
  • lawsuits by and against the company
  • merger, consolidation and conversion
  • dissolution

If the members of an LLC fail to address any of these issues, the provisions for the Connecticut general statutes apply as a default.  With some exceptions, the statutory framework basically provides for simple majority control. The failure to address these issues typically results in significant control in the majority member.  So, if a minority member wants some aspect of control on these topics, the member would be well advised to take care of it by using an attorney to negotiate or draft provisions in the operating agreement with protections as part of the admission process.

Notwithstanding the above, members holding a minority ownership interest in an LLC continue to have rights that may provide some protection depending on the circumstances and the operating agreement.  In particular, a minority owner might be permitted to assert claims in a lawsuit for  breach of fiduciary duty or breach of statutory duty to address various inequities and unfair management of an LLC.  A minority interest holder might seek to apply these rights in various situations such as:

  • freezing out of the minority owner from affairs of the business
  • unfairly devaluing the member’s ownership interest
  • operating the company in bad faith
  • depriving the member of books and records of the LLC
  • use of deception and fraud in a buy-out of a member
  • unfair expulsion of a member
  • inequitable assignment of membership interest or sale of business
  • improper dissolution or valuing of membership interests
  • self dealing with excessive guaranteed payments or distributions

The outcome of these claims might depend on whether the court acknowledges a fiduciary duty exists between members of an LLC or between a member-manager of an LLC and the other owners.  The existence of a fiduciary duty is significant because it requires the utmost good faith and loyalty.  It also might help the attorney because it shifts the burden of proof in a civil case requiring the member owing such a duty to prove good faith and fair dealing.  As a result, the question in many disputes involving minority ownership of LLCs is whether a fiduciary duty exists.

In Connecticut, by case law, a court may deem a fiduciary duty to exist when there is “justifiable trust confided on one side and a resulting superiority and influence on the other.”  The relationship is broadly defined to permit courts to consider new situations.  It is generally a relationship “characterized by a unique degree of trust and confidence.”  The superior position of one party typically will permit a great opportunity for abuse of confidence.

At the outset, a fiduciary duty is likely to be found to exist if the operating agreement includes such duties for members or managers.  As such, an individual that is offered a minority stake in an LLC might want to insist that the operating agreement impose a fiduciary duty on the manager or controlling members.  In addition to an operating agreement, a claim for breach of duty may be found in General Statutes Section 34-141.  The statute states in relevant part:

 A member or manager shall discharge his duties under section 34-140 and the operating agreement, in good faith, with the care an ordinary prudent person in a like position would exercise under similar circumstances, and in the manner he reasonably believes to be in the best interests of the limited liability company, and shall not be liable for any action taken as a member or manager, or any failure to take such action, if he performs such duties in compliance with the provisions of this section.

Further, there are a series of trial court cases in Connecticut where lawyers have argued this point and judges have recognized a fiduciary duty between managers and/or controlling members of an LLC and the other members.  The reasoning is based, in part, on the law dealing with partnerships and the fiduciary duty owed to each partner.  There is some dispute as to the existence and extent of this duty, but the Connecticut Supreme Court has chosen to keep an open definition of a fiduciary relationship.  Nevertheless, until such duties are further codified or deemed to exist as a matter of law, a controlling member or manager might opt to have such duties disclaimed in an operating agreement.

A fiduciary duty may or may not be desirable depending on your ownership interest or your role in the LLC.  The take away here is that an operating agreement is the best method to clearly define the duties of members and managers.  The operating agreement can include specific provisions on the extent and nature of the duties of a manager or member of an LLC.  In the absence of a specific provision in the operating agreement stating otherwise, members or managers may be deemed a fiduciary with respect to other members.  Although not required, a lawyer familiar with LLCs can assist in ensuring valuable rights are in an agreement or bringing a lawsuit when rights are violated.

No Contract, No Problem – Charter Oak Gets A Chance To Prove Its Case

 In a decision that will be officially release tomorrow (download)the Connecticut appellate court ordered a new trial in favor of Charter Oak Lending for the claims it brought against employees who defected to a competitor.   Unless there is a successful appeal to the Connecticut Supreme Court, this means Charter Oak will get a second chance to prove its claims against the key employees despite the lack of a written contract in place covering non-competition.   I originally posted about this case in November of 1999 when Charter Oak lost at the trial level.  The case result had generated media interest surrounding the claims because the damages and the lack of a contract governing the employment relationship. 

As I noted at the time, it is always better to have a written contract in place with employees to govern post termination conduct involving competition, solicitation, confidential information, and trade secrets. However, the lack of contract does not by itself leave a business without a remedy especially if the situation involves use of trade secrets or confidential information or the employees actively competing before departure.  

In Charter Oak, the trial court dismissed the claims finding that Charter Oak failed to make out a threshold case during the trial.  In other words, the case never reached the level of a final decision on the merits because the judge found that the basic elements of the claims were not met.  The basic claims were breach of fiduciary duty, misappropriation of trade secrets and unfair trade practices. 

The appellate court reversed the decision and found that facts existed to make out threshold claims for these causes of action.  Therefore, the trial court judge should have permitted the case to proceed to a final decision on the merits.  Significantly,  the appellate court deemed as sufficient Charter Oak’s claim that its client list was a trade secret entitled to protection under General Statutes 35-51 known as the Connecticut Uniform Trade Secrets Act (CUTSA).  The court stated:

to make out a prima facie case for a violation of CUTSA, the plaintiff was required to present sufficient evidence that, if believed, would prove that the information in its customer list had independent economic value and that the plaintiff made reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy.

Here were some of the facts that the court found sufficient to afford trade secret protection to the client list:

  • access was limited
  • the computers were encrypted
  • the building was secured where the computers were stored
  • employees were not permitted to share the list
  • employees understood the list was private
  • the lists were not sold or disclosed to third parties
  • the list could not be obtained from any other single source
  • the list gave Charter a competitive advantage

In addition to the ruling on CUTSA, the appellate court reaffirmed some aspects of the law with respect to fiduciary obligations of agents or employees.  The court affirmed the duty of loyalty owed by an agent to his or her principal.  This duty applies regardless of a whether a contract exists.  In the business context, this duty forbids an employee from actively competing against an employer concerning the subject matter of the agency or from using confidential information against the employer in competition.

Whether Charter Oak prevails in the new trial remains unclear.  However, the lack of a contract or written agreement should not prevent Charter Oak from getting a final decision on the merits.

Constructive Trusts In Connecticut For Fraud and Unjust Enrichment

In business litigation in Connecticut, attorneys many times seek to impose a constructive trust over assets or income connected to wrong doing, breach of fiduciary duty, or fraud by business partners or agents.  In a decision to be officially released on November 23, 2010, the Appellate Court upheld a trial court’s  imposition of a constructive trust over certain assets of a business.  The case is Trevorrow v. Marcuccio, and you can download it here.

A constructive trust is not a real trust.  Rather, it is a judicially created trust and thus the term "constructive."  It arises when one party unjustly holds title or rights to property, such as assets or profits of a business partnership or corporation.  The wrongdoing may involve simply retaining property, misappropriating property, or converting the property into another form.  The trust is imposed against the wrongdoer who will be deemed to hold title of the property for the benefit of the innocent party.  In Trevorrow, the Appellate Court stated:

the issue raised by a claim for a constructive trust is, in essence, whether a party has committed actual or constructive fraud or whether he or she has been unjustly enriched

Typically, you see attorneys seeking constructive trusts in cases involving fraud, duress, breach of fiduciary duty, or some type of commission of a wrong.  However, the Trevorrow court clarified that the equitable remedy of a constructive trust is not only available in cases of actual or constructive fraud, but it is also available in cases where one party has been unjustly enriched at the expense of another even without a finding of wrong doing. 

In short, in Trevorrow, there was no finding of fraud or unethical conduct.  Rather, the court simply found that one person in the business relationship would have been unjustly enriched if permitted to keep the property. The Trevorrow case also serves as reminder that the trial court’s enjoy discretionary equitable powers to impose constructive trusts if proper facts are present.