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LLC Members Owe Company, Manager No Fiduciary Duty, Appeals Court Rules

 

Only managers in manager-operated limited liability corporations have a fiduciary duty to the company or to other members, the First District Court of Appeal ruled in a usurpation of corporate opportunity lawsuit involving a closely held LLC. Katris v. Carroll, No. 1-04-3639 (Dec. 23, 2005).

Peter Katris was one of four members/officers and two managers of an Illinois limited liability corporation, Viper Execution Systems LLC. Viper LLC was formed to market a type of options-related software, also called Viper, written by LLC member Stephen Doherty for member Lester Szlendak. Its articles of organization specified that management was vested in Katris and the other manager, William Hamburg.

Defendant Patrick Carroll employed Doherty before and during the organization, and defendant Ernst & Company later hired Doherty to work with Carroll. Their work included the writing of another software program, WWOW, which Katris believed was functionally similar to Viper. Five years after the organization, Katris sued Carroll and Ernst for collusion and usurpation of corporate opportunity because of WWOW’s similarity to Viper. (He also sued Doherty for collusion and breach of fiduciary duty, claims they later settled.)

Carroll and Ernst moved for summary judgment, arguing that collusion didn’t exist because it depended on Doherty’s fiduciary duty to Viper LLC. As a non-manager of the manager-managed Viper LLC, they argued, he had no such duty. Katris argued that Doherty’s written agreement to form Viper LLC and officer role left him subject to a manager’s duties. The trial court disagreed, granting summary judgment, and the appeals court upheld that decision.

In its analysis, the court noted that Article 15 of the Illinois Limited Liability Company Act explicitly says that a member of a manager-managed LLC in Illinois “who is not also a manager owes no duties to the company or to the other members solely by reason of being a member.” Katris agreed with the law, but asserted that different language in the law gave Doherty managerial status because he fulfilled some of the duties of a manager as director of technology:

In a manager‑managed company:

(3) a member who pursuant to the operating agreement exercises some or all of the authority of a manager in the management and conduct of the company’s business is held to the standards of conduct in subsections (b), (c), (d), and (e) of this Section [manager’s duties of loyalty and care] to the extent that the member exercises the managerial authority vested in a manager by this Act…

The appeals court found that the plain language of the statute giving no liability to non-managers was clear and perfectly adequate for determining the intent of the Illinois legislature in enacting the law, so it declined to reverse the trial court. Furthermore, it said, Doherty’s position as director of technology didn’t elevate him to a manager because the two managers, Katris and Hamburg, didn’t have a majority vote when they gave Doherty that role, meaning they couldn’t amend the operating agreement to make Doherty a manager. And furthermore, the court argued, Katris and Hamburg signed that agreement as “all the managers” of Viper LLC, undermining Katris’s argument that Doherty was given a managerial role:

The undisputed facts of this case show that Doherty was a member of a manager-managed LLC and exercised no managerial authority pursuant to the LLC’s operating agreement. Accordingly, the undisputed facts show that Doherty owed no fiduciary duties to Katris or the LLC pursuant to the Act and Katris’ collusion claim against Carroll and Ernst fails as a matter of law.