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Our law firm takes the position that an entity (such as an LLC or corporation, etc.), if properly maintained and used, can serve an important function in terms of liability protection, in addition to other forms of risk management such as insurance. This may be a business owner looking to put some distance between him and his business operations, or it may be an entity which forms subsidiaries or has sister companies setup for legitimate operational reasons.
However, there are limits to how much liability protection an entity can serve to provide. Even though the presumption is that a legal entity such as an LLC or corporation is separate from the owners and management, i.e., “veil piercing” is rare, don’t shoot yourself in the foot by doing things, such as commingling business and personal funds, or failing to do things such as entity maintenance or appropriately title assets that would rebut this presumption.
With that in mind, here is a brief snapshot of a few recent court cases throughout the country that have discussed “piercing the veil” and some of the factors that were considered:
In a case called Knopf v. Phillips (S.D.N.Y., 2016), which was decided last month (December 2016), the number one factor as to whether or not the “veil” of corporate/entity protection should be “pierced” was the disregard of corporate formalities. The court ruled that the plaintiff’s adequately pleaded a claim for veil piercing/alter ego because the defendant had “abused the corporate form” to defraud the plaintiffs. Another factor which is often analyzed in these cases, including this one, is the fact that the defendant has “undercapitalized” his business as evidenced by the inability to pay debts, in conjunction with the fact that the defendant had diverted thousands of dollars from one entity to another entity despite the inability to pay its debts. The takeaway from this case is that if you’re going to setup an entity, take the time to treat it as a separate entity and be sure you have enough funds inside the business to service debts of the business.
A few months earlier (October 2016), 5th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, a case called Janvey applied some of the same analysis as in Knopf yet because of the facts, reached a different conclusion. In Janvey, it involved a parent company and a subsidiary and whether the parent company should be liable for the actions of the subsidiary. Here, the outcome was in favor of the parent company that the “veil” should not be pierced between the subsidiary and the parent company, and one of the factors the court looked at was how assets of the subsidiary were titled and how the subsidiary was operated. Had there been a disregard and failure to appropriately hold title of the subsidiaries assets in the name of the subsidiary rather than the parent company, or had the overall operations of the subsidiary collapsed into the parent company where it would have been indistinguishable to differentiate between the subsidiary’s business operations and the parent company’s operations, the court might have more seriously considered allowing the veil to be pierced. This is one reason why in the real estate context it is important to ensure that if a parent company with subsidiary’s is going to be utilized, that assets are appropriately held and maintained by the subsidiaries rather than everything in the name of the parent company.
A case in Ohio in November 2016 called Premier Therapy v. Childs, provides further instruction. Some of the factors the court looked at were “lack of corporate records” and “disregard of corporate roles”, as well as the entity’s inability to pay its debts to due siphoning of funds for personal use. In this case, the business had been unable to pay its debts and was essentially insolvent at the time the plaintiff was injured by the acts of the business, so the court (appellate court) decided there was more than enough facts to allow a jury trial to make a determination whether to pierce the LLC/corporate veil. This case highlights the importance to keep corporate records such as annual minutes.
Lastly, a case out of California last year (2016) called Boeing v. Energia highlights the importance of properly maintaining entities with the state, holding annual meetings, and keeping corporate records. The defendant was a parent company which had setup multiple subsidiaries to hold various assets such as licenses, etc., and some of the main reasons the court disregarded the corporate veil was because the subsidiaries were not properly maintained (Delaware) in terms of annual filings and payment of franchise taxes, and also because there was a dearth of corporate meetings and records held and maintained by the subsidiary. In applying Delaware law, despite a court’s reluctance to pierce the veil, it may do so when a “parent and subsidiary operate as a single economic entity” and there is an “overall element of injustice or unfairness that is present”.
Although a typical requirement for the veil of your entity to be pierced by a plaintiff or injured party is that the entity was used to perpetuate fraud, illegal acts, or unlawful behavior, and certainly we hope you aren’t committing such acts, you nevertheless don’t want to open up yourself to a “pierce the veil” claim for failure to appropriately maintain your entity.
For more on this general issue in the LLC context, which would receive the about the same analysis for “veil piercing” as a corporation, please read https://kkoslawyers.com/llcs-and-limited-liability-protection-a-primer-for-the-small-business-owner/ . For a brief list of our suggestions for best practices in operating your entity, please read http://markjkohler.com/piercing-the-corporate-veil-what-you-need-to-know-that-t/ . Our office not only sets up entities for clients, but just as important, we offer services such as our company maintenance program, “corporate cleanup”, registered agent services, and mail forwarding services, all of which can to varying degrees provide support to a small business owner in terms of entity maintenance.  In fact, the New Year is a good time to consider setting up annual company maintenance with our office through our discounted rates that are being offered right now.