An academic’s day in court

Larry Ribstein —  20 December 2011

About a month ago I discussed a case in which I had written an amicus brief:

Last year I wrote here about Roni LLC v Arfa, which I cited as an example of the ”troubling lawlessness of NY LLC law.” In brief, the court sustained a non-disclosure claim based on “plaintiffs’ allegations that the promoter defendants planned the business venture, organized the LLCs, and solicited plaintiffs to invest in them” despite holding that the parties’ arms-length pre-formation business relationship did not support a fiduciary relationship.  I argued that this new pre-formation duty to disclose

promises to make a mess out of NY LLC law. It also creates significant problems for business people who now have a fiduciary duty, with uncertain disclosure duties, imposed on what the court itself recognized is basically an arms’ length market relationship. It’s not even clear how parties can contract out of this duty, since the whole problem is that they do not yet have a contract.

I later noted that my blog post was cited in the appellants’ brief on appeal, which triggered a response in the respondents’ brief (see n. 25) and then my amicus brief in connection with the appeal, which the NY Court of Appeals accepted for filing.

Now the NY Court of Appeals has decided the case.  In its brief opinion the Court said “we conclude that plaintiffs’ allegations of a fiduciary relationship survive the dismissal motion.” The Court added (footnote 2):

2 Based on the foregoing analysis, we need not decide the question of whether the promoter defendants’ status as organizers of the limited liability companies, standing alone, was sufficient to allege a fiduciary relationship.

In other words, the Court of Appeals, without saying so directly, effectively rejected the lower court’s determination that the complaint had not alleged a fiduciary relationship.  The Court did so in order to avoid a holding in favor of promoter liability that would, I argued, “make a mess out of NY LLC law.”

The Court elsewhere in its brief opinion alluded to another aspect of my amicus brief.  My brief pointed out (p. 6) that there was no authority for a pre-formation disclosure duty in LLCs, and that analogies from other business entities

should be drawn carefully because * * * the LLC has evolved as a unique entity, sharing some features of but ultimately distinct from all other business entities. See generally, Larry E. Ribstein, Rise of the Uncorporation ch. 6 (2010). 

In its opinion, the Court recognized (n. 1) that “[c]ertainly, there are differences between limited liability companies and traditional corporations, but the distinctions are not relevant to the allegations in this case.”  They were not relevant because the Court strained to accept the alternative basis for a fiduciary duty the lower court had rejected.

In short, I invited the Court not to wreck NY LLC law by imposing open-ended pre-formation promoter liability.  The Court accepted my invitation although this forced it to weave a circuitous course around the lower court’s opinion.

Now, I must avoid taking too much credit for the result in the case.  The NY court might have reached the same conclusion without my brief.  The case was very well argued by the defendant-appellant’s lawyer, David Katz, who raised all the relevant issues. 

All I can say for sure is that my brief made it harder for the Court of Appeals to accept the lower court’s promoter liability theory, and the Court did, in fact, reject that theory.   I think it’s plausible my brief affected some of the language in the opinion, and thereby the course of NY LLC law.

I make these points not solely out of pure ego (not that I’m totally devoid of same) but because they relate to the many words that have been spilled over the uselessness of legal academics.  You see, we academics do have some credibility because we devote ourselves to the study of underlying theory and policy rather than to achieving particular results in cases.  This is a quality that could be lost if legal academic is restructured so as to reduce the time and resources available for such work.

Larry Ribstein

Posts

Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. With a Whimper, Not a Bang: New York's Top Court Rules on LLC Promoter Liability : New York Business Divorce - December 26, 2011

    […] filed an amicus brief in the case supporting defendants' position, commented in one of his last blog posts that "the Court of Appeals, without saying so directly, effectively rejected the lower […]