This article addresses "piercing the corporate veil," which refers to the limited circumstances under which the liability shield of a registered legal entity may be pierced and the individuals behind that entity held personally accountable. Knowing when this might or not occur is an important factor in asset protection since a piercing event defeats the central purpose of forming an LLC in the first place.
Piercing the veil is an equitable remedy the applicability of which depends on the specific facts at hand; nonetheless, the liability barrier of a registered entity may be pierced only in exceptional circumstances. See Wilson v. Davis, 305 S.W.3d 57, 59, 69 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 2009, no pet).
§ 101.114. Liability for Obligation
Except as and to the extent the company agreement specifically provides otherwise, a member or manager is not liable for a debt, obligation, or liability of a limited liability company, including a debt, obligation, or liability under a judgment, decree, or order of a court.
Section 21.223 further defines and limits the exposure of shareholders and members:
§ 21.223. Limitation of Liability for Obligations
(a) A holder of shares, an owner of any beneficial interest in shares, or a subscriber for shares whose subscription has been accepted, or any affiliate of such a holder, owner, or subscriber of the corporation, may not be held liable to the corporation or its obligees with respect to:
(b) Subsection (a)(2) does not prevent or limit the liability of a holder, beneficial owner, subscriber, or affiliate if the obligee demonstrates that the holder, beneficial owner, subscriber, or affiliate caused the corporation to be used for the purpose of perpetrating and did perpetrate an actual fraud on the obligee primarily for the direct personal benefit of the holder, beneficial owner, subscriber, or affiliate.
(1) the shares, other than the obligation to pay to the corporation the full amount of consideration, fixed in compliance with sections 21.157-21.162, for which the shares were or are to be issued;
(2) any contractual obligation of the corporation or any matter relating to or arising from the obligation on the basis that the holder, beneficial owner, subscriber, or affiliate is or was the alter ego of the corporation or on the basis of actual or constructive fraud, a sham to perpetrate a fraud, or other similar theory; or
(3) any obligation of the corporation on the basis of the failure of the corporation to observe any corporate formality, including the failure to:
(A) comply with this code or the articles of incorporation or bylaws of the corporation; or
(B) observe any requirement prescribed by this code or the articles of incorporation or bylaws of the corporation for acts to be taken by the corporation or its directors or shareholders.
Did you notice that language? That a defendant must "perpetrate an actual fraud on the obligee primarily for the direct personal benefit of the holder, beneficial owner, subscriber, or affiliate?" Strong stuff. Actual fraud committed primarily for the "direct personal benefit" of the shareholder or member is required for piercing in Texas, at least for contract-type claims. This is Texas’s actual fraud rule: "To determine if the [members of an LLC] are liable under the asserted veil-piercing theories, the Court must analyze both the question of whether the facts satisfy any of the asserted veil-piercing strands and the question of whether any of the [members] caused [the LLC] to be used for the purpose of perpetrating and did perpetrate an actual fraud on [the plaintiff] primarily for the direct personal benefit of the considered defendant." In re JNC Aviation, LLC
, 376 B.R. 500, 527 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 2007), aff’d
, 418 B.R. 898 (Bankr. N.D. Tex.2009).
Accordingly, merely alleging "alter ego" (commonly and carelessly done by plaintiffs’ attorneys) is by itself insufficient as a matter of law. Texas courts recognize the "strict restrictions on a contract claimant’s ability to pierce the corporate veil." Ocram, Inc. v. Bartosh, No. 01-11-00793-CV2012, WL 4740859, at *2-3 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 2012, no pet.).
Corporate Rules Applied to Limited liability Companies
The reader may note that the foregoing statute refers specifically to corporations. What about LLCs? Business Organizations section 101.002 provides the answer by importing the piercing provisions of section 21.223 into the realm of LLCs. In other words, the same standards apply to both corporations and LLCs even though provisions of the statute may refer to a corporation rather than an LLC and to shareholders rather than members. Accordingly, LLC members can expect to receive the same treatment as shareholders of a corporation, no more, no less. See Penhollow Custom Homes, LLC v. Kim, 320 S.W.3d 366 (Tex. App.–El Paso 2010, no pet.).
In SSP Partners v. Gladstrong Investment (USA) Corp., 275 S.W.3d 444, 451-52 (Tex. 2008), the Texas Supreme Court stated that the limitation on entity liability may be ignored only when the corporate form has been used as part of an unfair device to achieve an inequitable result. Continuing this line of thought, also in 2008, the Houston Court of Appeals (1st District), in Tryco Enterprises, Inc. v. Robinson, 390 S.W.3d 497 (Tex. App.–Houston [1st Dist.] 2012, no pet.), stated that in order "[t]o pierce the corporate veil and impose liability under an alter ego theory of liability pursuant to SSP Partners, a plaintiff must show: (1) that the persons or entities on whom he seeks to impose liability are alter egos of the debtor, and (2) that the corporate fiction was used for an illegitimate purpose, in satisfaction of . . . BOC section 21.223(a) and (b)." Id. at 508. What factors are important? The Court of Appeals in Tryco listed the following:
- whether the entities shared a common business name, common offices, common employees, or centralized accounting;
- whether one entity paid the wages of the other entity’s employees;
- whether one entity’s employees rendered services on behalf of the other entity;
- whether one entity made undocumented transfers of funds to the other entity; and
- whether the allocation of profits and losses between the entities is unclear.
Any and all of the above should be considered red flags in a piercing case. From an asset protection perspective, all can be avoided by sound planning and documentation.
Liability of Company Officers and Managers
The signature by a corporate officer or LLC manager does not, by itself, make that individual personally liable for company obligations, even if the signature line fails to specify that the signer is acting solely in his or her capacity as an officer or authorized representative. Neel v. Tenet HealthSys. Hosps. Dallas, Inc., 378 S.W.3d 597, 604-04 (Tex. App.–Dallas 2012, pet. filed). This rule tracks a central tenet of agency law: An agent is not liable on contracts made on behalf of a principal whose identity has been disclosed. Nonetheless, it is always the better practice to make sure that the signer on a contract fully discloses the capacity and authority to act on behalf of the entity for which he or she signs.
Directors and officers face full personal exposure, however, if the entity fails to pay its taxes. Tex. Tax Code § 171.255. If a registered entity’s status is forfeited for nonpayment of taxes, then each director, officer, or manager may be held liable for debts of the entity from the date on which the tax was due up to the time the entity is reinstated. In re Trammel, 246 S.W.3d 821 (Tex. App.–Dallas 2008, no pet.).
Litigation and Discovery
During the discovery phase of a lawsuit involving a corporation or LLC, a plaintiff’s attorney will likely request production of the company book and all relevant company documentation. Purpose? If the company has no company book or documentation other than a Certificate of Filing, the plaintiff’s attorney may then amend his pleadings to include an allegation that the LLC is merely the alter ego of the individuals behind it, and therefore the liability shield should be pierced to hold members personally responsible for company wrongdoing. But what does "alter ego" mean? "Under the alter ego theory, courts disregard the corporate entity when there exists such unity between the corporation and individual that the corporation ceases to be separate and when holding only the corporation liable would promote injustice." Mancorp, Inc. v. Culpepper, 802 S.W.2d 226, 228 (Tex. 1990). In other words, the company failed in its mission to become and maintain itself as a legal entity independent of its owner. While Business Organizations Code section 21.223(a)(2) eliminates the alter-ego theory as a basis for veil piercing, it cannot be eliminated as a factor in a case where actual fraud is present, particularly since piercing in Texas has always been linked to values of fairness and justice.
Clients often worry whether or not the LLC liability shield will hold up if there is only one member. This is not a concern in Texas. Since Business Organizations Code section 101.002 makes it clear that rules in this area relating to corporations also apply to LLCs, then (subject to the piercing rules outlined above) an LLC's liability shield remains intact even though there is only one member.
Many business persons utilize online services or otherwise engage in no-frill LLC filings involving a one-page COF and the payment of a filing fee–and then believe they are safe from lawsuits. This may not be so if the company fails to follow up with a company agreement, issuance of membership certificates, minutes of meetings, and the like. While section 21.223(a)(3) expressly eliminates the failure to observe corporate formalities as a basis for piercing, such failure may well be subtly considered by a real-world court in determining whether or not an actual fraud was perpetrated. Add an inflamed jury, one that is outraged at a perceived injustice, and the risk that a court will pierce the veil grows more likely. The law is not a machine. One cannot underestimate the human factor. It is more prudent to be safe than sorry when it comes to company documentation and other formalities.
What if documentation for an LLC or other entity has not been attended to for years? Fortunately, it is legal to go back in time and document a company’s activities, so long as this is not linked to actual fraud. Such documents are signed by the members as of a retroactive effective date, regardless of the date of actual signature. For more detail on the content of principal LLC documents, read our article LLC Governing Documents.
Paying Franchise Taxe
Failing to pay Texas franchise tax and subsequent loss of the company’s charter can be disastrous for asset protection. Note the following from the Tax Code:
§ 171.255. Liability of Directors and Officers
Trusts and Piercing Rules
(a) If the corporate privileges of a corporation are forfeited for the failure to file a report or pay a tax or penalty, each director or officer of the corporation is liable for each debt of the corporation that is created or incurred in this state after the date on which the report, tax, or penalty is due and before the corporate privileges are revived. The liability includes liability for any tax or penalty imposed by this chapter on the corporation that becomes due and payable after the date of the forfeiture.
(b) The liability of a director or officer is in the same manner and to the same extent as if the director or officer were a partner and the corporation were a partnership.
(c) A director or officer is not liable for a debt of the corporation if the director or officer shows that the debt was created or incurred:
(1) over the director’s objection; or
(d) If a corporation’s charter or certificate of authority and its corporate privileges are forfeited and revived under this chapter, the liability under this section of a director or officer of the corporation is not affected by the revival of the charter or certificate and the corporate privileges.
(2) without the director’s knowledge and that the exercise of reasonable diligence to become acquainted with the affairs of the corporation would not have revealed the intention to create the debt.
Trusts–whether created for the purpose of anonymity, facilitating land transactions, or for probate avoidance–can be an important element in an overall asset protection structure. However, a trust is not a legal entity in the same sense as a corporation or LLC. Trust agreements are not filed anywhere and have no state registration or approval. Accordingly, there is no liability barrier and piercing rules do not apply. The participants in a trust–the trustor/grantor, the trustee, and the beneficiaries–are automatically exposed to lawsuits in their personal and individual capacities. For this reason, investment trusts are most effectively used in conjunction with an LLC. The exception is a stand-alone living trust for the homestead since the homestead and related assets are already protected by Texas Constitution article XVI, section 50 and Property Code chapters 41 and 42.
The law applicable to LLCs in this area continues to evolve at the level of the courts. In particular, the Tryco case, on appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, may be influential. The safest practice is to establish and maintain an LLC with thorough and ongoing documentation. It is also sound business practice to periodically document the activities and events affecting one’s company.
Information in this article is proved for general informational and educational purposes only and is not offered as legal advice upon which anyone may rely. The law changes. Legal counsel relating to your individual needs and circumstances is advisable before taking any action that has legal consequences. Consult your tax advisor as well. This firm does not represent you unless and until it is expressly retained in writing to do so.
Copyright ©2013 by David J. Willis. All rights reserved worldwide. David J. Willis is board certified in both residential and commercial real estate law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. More information is available at his website, http://www.LoneStarLandLaw.com.