Puleo v. Topel
856 N.E.2d 1152 (Ill. App. 2006)
Plaintiffs Philip Puleo [and others]…appeal the order of the circuit court dismissing their claims against defendant Michael Topel.
The record shows that effective May 30, 2002, Thinktank, a limited liability company (LLC) primarily involved in web design and web marketing, was involuntarily dissolved by the Illinois Secretary of State…due to Thinktank’s failure to file its 2001 annual report as required by the Illinois Limited Liability Company Act (the Act) [Citation].
[In December 2002], plaintiffs, independent contractors hired by Topel, filed a complaint against Topel and Thinktank in which they alleged breach of contract, unjust enrichment, and claims under the account stated theory. Those claims stemmed from plaintiffs’ contention that Topel, who plaintiffs alleged was the sole manager and owner of Thinktank, knew or should have known of Thinktank’s involuntary dissolution, but nonetheless continued to conduct business as Thinktank from May 30, 2002, through the end of August 2002. They further contended that on or about August 30, 2002, Topel informed Thinktank employees and independent contractors, including plaintiffs, that the company was ceasing operations and that their services were no longer needed. Thinktank then failed to pay plaintiffs for work they had performed.…
On September 2, 2003, the circuit granted plaintiffs’ motion for judgment on the pleadings against Thinktank. Thereafter, on October 16, 2003, plaintiffs filed a separate motion for summary judgment against Topel [personally]. Relying on [Citation], plaintiffs contended that Topel, as a principal of Thinktank, an LLC, had a legal status similar to a shareholder or director of a corporation, who courts have found liable for a dissolved corporation’s debts. Thus, plaintiffs argued that Topel was personally liable for Thinktank’s debts.…
…The circuit court denied plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment against Topel.…In doing so, the circuit court acknowledged that Topel continued to do business as Thinktank after its dissolution and that the contractual obligations at issue were incurred after the dissolution.
However…the court entered a final order dismissing all of plaintiffs’ claims against Topel with prejudice.…The court stated in pertinent part:
Based upon the Court’s…finding that the Illinois Legislature did not intend to hold a member of a Limited Liability Company liable for debts incurred after the Limited Liability Company had been involuntarily dissolved, the Court finds that all of Plaintiffs’ claims against Defendant Topel within the Complaint fail as a matter of law, as they are premised upon Defendant Topel’s alleged personal liability for obligations incurred in the name of Thinktank LLC after it had been involuntarily dissolved by the Illinois Secretary of State.
Plaintiffs now appeal that order…[contending] that…the circuit court erred in dismissing their claims against Topel. In making that argument, plaintiffs acknowledge that the issue as to whether a member or manager of an LLC may be held personally liable for obligations incurred by an involuntarily dissolved LLC appears to be one of first impression under the Act. That said, plaintiffs assert that it has long been the law in Illinois that an officer or director of a dissolved corporation has no authority to exercise corporate powers and thus is personally liable for any debts he incurs on behalf of the corporation after its dissolution. [Citations] Plaintiffs reason that Topel, as managing member of Thinktank, similarly should be held liable for debts the company incurred after its dissolution.
We first look to the provisions of the Act as they provided the trial court its basis for its ruling.…
(a) Except as otherwise provided in subsection (d) of this Section, the debts, obligations, and liabilities of a limited liability company, whether arising in contract, tort, or otherwise, are solely the debts, obligations, and liabilities of the company. A member or manager is not personally liable for a debt, obligation, or liability of the company solely by reason of being or acting as a member or manager.…
(c) The failure of a limited liability company to observe the usual company formalities or requirements relating to the exercise of its company powers or management of its business is not a ground for imposing personal liability on the members or managers for liabilities of the company.
(d) All or specified members of a limited liability company are liable in their capacity as members for all or specified debts, obligations, or liabilities of the company if:
(1) a provision to that effect is contained in the articles of organization; and
(2) a member so liable has consented in writing to the adoption of the provision or to be bound by the provision.
[Another relevant section provides]:
(a) A limited liability company is bound by a member or manager’s act after dissolution that:
(1) is appropriate for winding up the company’s business; or
(2) would have bound the company before dissolution, if the other party to the transaction did not have notice of the dissolution.
(b) A member or manager who, with knowledge of the dissolution, subjects a limited liability company to liability by an act that is not appropriate for winding up the company’s business is liable to the company for any damage caused to the company arising from the liability.
[The statute] clearly indicates that a member or manager of an LLC is not personally liable for debts the company incurs unless each of the provisions in subsection (d) is met. In this case, plaintiffs cannot establish either of the provisions in subsection (d). They have not provided this court with Thinktank’s articles of organization, much less a provision establishing Topel’s personal liability, nor have they provided this court with Topel’s written adoption of such a provision. As such, under the express language of the Act, plaintiffs cannot establish Topel’s personal liability for debts that Thinktank incurred after its dissolution.…
In 1998…the legislature amended [the LLC statute]…and in doing so removed…language which explicitly provided that a member or manager of an LLC could be held personally liable for his or her own actions or for the actions of the LLC to the same extent as a shareholder or director of a corporation could be held personally liable [which would include post-dissolution acts undertaken without authority]. As we have not found any legislative commentary regarding that amendment, we presume that by removing the noted statutory language, the legislature meant to shield a member or manager of an LLC from personal liability. [Citation] “When a statute is amended, it is presumed that the legislature intended to change the law as it formerly existed.”
Nonetheless, plaintiffs ask this court to disregard the 1998 amendment and to imply a provision into the Act similar to…the Business Corporation Act. We cannot do so.…When the legislature amended section [the relevant section] it clearly removed the provision that allowed a member or manager of an LLC to be held personally liable in the same manner as provided in section 3.20 of the Business Corporation Act. Thus, the Act does not provide for a member or manager’s personal liability to a third party for an LLC’s debts and liabilities, and no rule of construction authorizes this court to declare that the legislature did not mean what the plain language of the statute imports.
We, therefore, find that the circuit court did not err in concluding that the Act did not permit it to find Topel personally liable to plaintiffs for Thinktank’s debts and liabilities. We agree with plaintiff that the circuit court’s ruling does not provide an equitable result. However, the circuit court, like this court, was bound by the statutory language.
Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court of Cook County.
- Is it possible the defendant did not know his LLC had been involuntarily dissolved because it failed to file its required annual report? Should he have known it was dissolved?
- If Topel’s business had been a corporation, he would not have had insulation from liability for postdissolution contracts—he would have been liable. Is the result here equitable? Is it fraud?
- Seven months after the LLC’s existence was terminated by the state, the defendant hired a number of employees, did not pay them, and then avoided liability under the LLC shield. How else could the court have ruled here? It is possible that the legislature’s intent was simply to eliminate compulsory piercing (see Corporation: General Characteristics and Formation under corporate law principles and leave the question of LLC piercing to the courts. If so was the court’s decision was correct? The current LLC act language is similar to the Model Business Corporation Act, which surely permits piercing (see Corporation: General Characteristics and Formation ).