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Limited liability companies or “LLCs” have long been touted as the ultimate entity for investors and business owners alike: combining the best asset protection qualities and tax benefits of corporations and partnerships into a single hybrid entity. One of the big asset-protection selling points for LLCs is that they’re entitled to the same “charging order” creditor protection partnerships are entitled to.

Olmstead v. F.T.C., — So.3d —-, 2010 WL 2518106 (Fla. Jun 24, 2010)

This Florida Supreme Court case involved a $10 million judgment obtained by the FTC against the debtors for having “operated an advance-fee credit card scam.” Assets of these debtors were frozen and placed in receivership. Among the assets placed in receivership were several single-member LLCs. To partially satisfy its judgment the FTC obtained an order compelling the debtors to endorse and surrender to the receiver 100% of their right, title, and interest in their LLCs.

The debtors cried foul, arguing that the most the FTC was entitled to under Florida’s LLC Act was a charging order against their single-member LLCs. The case was appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, which in turn asked the Florida Supreme Court to rule on the charging-order issue. In what is sure to be a controversial opinion, the Florida Supreme Court ruled charging-order protection does NOT apply to single-member LLCs. Here’s a key excerpt explaining the court’s thinking:

Since the charging order remedy clearly does not authorize the transfer to a judgment creditor of all an LLC member’s “right, title and interest” in an LLC, while section 56.061 clearly does authorize such a transfer, the answer to the question at issue in this case turns on whether the charging order provision in section 608.433(4) always displaces the remedy available under section 56.061. Specifically, we must decide whether section 608.433(4) establishes the exclusive judgment creditor’s remedy-and thus displaces section 56.061-with respect to a judgment debtor’s ownership interest in a single-member LLC.

As a preliminary matter, we recognize the uncontested point that the sole member in a single-member LLC may freely transfer the owner’s entire interest in the LLC. This is accomplished through a simple assignment of the sole member’s membership interest to the transferee. Since such an interest is freely and fully alienable by its owner, section 56.061 authorizes a judgment creditor with a judgment for an amount equaling or exceeding the value of the membership interest to levy on that interest and to obtain full title to it, including all the rights of membership-that is, unless the operation of section 56.061 has been limited by section 608.433(4).

Section 608.433 deals with the right of assignees or transferees to become members of an LLC. Section 608.433(1) states the basic rule that absent a contrary provision in the articles or operating agreement, “an assignee of a limited liability company interest may become a member only if all members other than the member assigning the interest consent.” See also § 608.432(1)(a), Fla. Stat (2008). The provision in section 608.433(4) with respect to charging orders must be understood in the context of this basic rule.

The limitation on assignee rights in section 608.433(1) has no application to the transfer of rights in a single-member LLC. In such an entity, the set of “all members other than the member assigning the interest” is empty. Accordingly, an assignee of the membership interest of the sole member in a single-member LLC becomes a member-and takes the full right, title, and interest of the transferor-without the consent of anyone other than the transferor.

Section 608.433(4) recognizes the application of the rule regarding assignee rights stated in section 608.433(1) in the context of creditor rights. It provides a special means-i.e., a charging order-for a creditor to seek satisfaction when a debtor’s membership interest is not freely transferable but is subject to the right of other LLC members to object to a transferee becoming a member and exercising the management rights attendant to membership status. See § 608.432(1), Fla. Stat. (2008) (setting forth general rule that an assignee “shall have no right to participate in the management of the business affairs of [an LLC]”).

Section 608.433(4)’s provision that a “judgment creditor has only the rights of an assignee of [an LLC] interest” simply acknowledges that a judgment creditor cannot defeat the rights of nondebtor members of an LLC to withhold consent to the transfer of management rights. The provision does not, however, support an interpretation which gives a judgment creditor of the sole owner of an LLC less extensive rights than the rights that are freely assignable by the judgment debtor. See In re Albright, 291 B.R. 538, 540 (D.Colo.2003) (rejecting argument that bankruptcy trustee was only entitled to a charging order with respect to debtor’s ownership interest in single-member LLC and holding that “[b]ecause there are no other members in the LLC, the entire membership interest passed to the bankruptcy estate”); In re Modanlo, 412 B.R. 715, 727-31 (D.Md.2006) (following reasoning of Albright).

Our understanding of section 608.433(4) flows from the language of the subsection which limits the rights of a judgment creditor to the rights of an assignee but which does not expressly establish the charging order remedy as an exclusive remedy. The relevant question is not whether the purpose of the charging order provision-i.e., to authorize a special remedy designed to reach no further than the rights of the nondebtor members of the LLC will permit-provides a basis for implying an exception from the operation of that provision for single-member LLCs. Instead, the question is whether it is justified to infer that the LLC charging order mechanism is an exclusive remedy.

On its face, the charging order provision establishes a nonexclusive remedial mechanism. There is no express provision in the statutory text providing that the charging order remedy is the only remedy that can be utilized with respect to a judgment debtor’s membership interest in an LLC. The operative language of section 608.433(4)-”the court may charge the [LLC] membership interest of the member with payment of the unsatisfied amount of the judgment with interest”-does not in any way suggest that the charging order is an exclusive remedy.

Did the Florida Supreme Court get this one right?

According to the dissent’s lengthy opinion, they didn’t. The dissent focused on a strict construction of Florida’s LLC Act. However, if you step back and think about why partnerships are entitled to charging order protection in the first place, you have to admit the rationale doesn’t seem to apply to single-member LLCs. Although this policy argument isn’t explicitly stated in the Florida Supreme Court’s majority opinion, I think it goes a long way towards explaining why they ruled the way they did.

For those of you interested in understanding the charging-order policy issue I think is lurking in the background of the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling, is an excellent starting point. Below is an excerpt from that website explaining why charging-order protection makes sense in a multi-member LLC scenario, and why it doesn’t make sense for single-member LLCs.

The charging order protects the company and the member’s investment if one of the members is sued in his or her personal life. . . . The original charging order philosophy protected guys A, B from having to accept D as an unwanted partner if C, the person they originally went into business with gets sued. They don’t want to have to deal with D. To prevent this unwanted member . . . the charging order is all D can get out of C’s membership . . . The charging order limits D. He must wait for A and B to decide to distribute money. No distributions = no money.

The Single Member Hitch: When a the member of a single member LLC is sued, there is no other member to protect from D. Two bankruptcy courts have used this flaw in the LLC protection to allow creditors of a business owner to completely take over his LLC and liquidate it for cash. The first case was in Colorado and the nation held its breath to see what would happen next. The next case was in Idaho and actually used the Colorado case to base its decision on. This means the trend is starting to move in the direction of denying charging order protection to single member LLCs.