Many business owners believe that they can simply incorporate their businesses into an Limited Liability Company (aka LLC) and protect their personal assets. However, that is an extreme oversimplification of the law and at the core of misleading consumers by the “LLC farms” out there. Lawyers should know that if a corporation or LLC owes a client money, they are allowed to sue the owners, asking the judge to pierce the corporate veil. Studies have shown that American courts disregard the corporate entity to hold shareholders liable for corporate debts in nearly 50% of cases. As one Illinois Court noted, piercing the corporate veil is both the number one issue that arises in business litigation lawsuits and one frequently misunderstood. If business owners are not meticulous in following corporate formalities, they could find himself forfeiting corporate protection.
Piercing the corporate veil means that a judge may reach beyond the protection provided by the corporate form to hold a business owner personally liable for the company’s debts. There are two common reasons that this happens: undercapitalization and commingling of corporate assets.
If a person starts a business that is likely to incur a significant debts, such as a real estate company, but does not secure adequate insurance or provide funding to pay possible claims against the company, a judge may find that the corporate shareholders are personally liable on the debt. Undercapitalization will most likely lead to veil piercing when it is combined with the failure to observe corporate formalities. To receive protection, a company must hold shareholder meetings and keep minutes. It must have business bank accounts used for business purposes only. Shareholders must not use personal accounts to make business purchases or vice versa.
One of the reasons that piercing the corporate veil is so dangerous for owners is that it does not attach percentages of liability based on a person’s individual wrongdoing. If corporate formalities are not observed and the veil is pierced, the law treats the corporation or LLC like a partnership. That means all shareholders will be jointly and severally liable on the total debt, even a person who owns merely a single share. The plaintiff can choose to sue whichever shareholder has assets.
A cause of action to pierce the corporate veil is not a new lawsuit. The defendants do not have the ability to attack the underlying allegations in the case against the business, even if the business would have had a viable defense. Piercing the corporate veil is a way of imposing liability for an existing judgment against the business on the owners. Thus, an owner who chooses not to defend a case brought against the company because it is incorporated may come to regret that decision later.
The best way for an individual to ensure that his or her assets are protected is to maintain control rather than ownership. Assets that are owned may be seized by creditors, even a person believes they are protected through the formation of an LLC or corporation. Even funds in a revocable trust do not have protection: If the trust may be revoked by the individual who created it, the assets within may be taken by creditors. Only a properly drafted, executed, and funded irrevocable trust provides 100% asset protection.
When a Grantor establishes an irrevocable trust, he transfers ownership of the assets into the trust. A trustee will invest and distribute the assets in accordance with instructions provided by the trust documents. Income generated by irrevocable trusts may provide income to the Grantor, but the Grantor doesn’t own the assets. Subject to Medicare’s five year “look back” period, property held in an irrevocable trust may not be used to satisfy a judgment against the grantor or against the trust beneficiaries.
Below are actual court cases from all over the country highlighting these facts:
1) Peetoom v. Swanson, 630 N.E.2d 1054 (Ill. Ct. App. 2000):
The Illinois Court of Appeals applied the concept of piercing the corporate veil to a personal injury case where the plaintiff, Peetom, fell and injured himself while walking on The Swanson Group’s parking lot. She filed a lawsuit for her hospital bills and pain and suffering, and her husband filed a loss of consortium claim arising out of the accident. The trial court judge entered a default judgment against The Swanson Group in 1997. Approximately one year later, the company was dissolved by the Secretary of State for failure to comply with taxation and annual report requirements. The plaintiffs later filed an action against The Swanson Group’s owners as individuals.
The defendants argued that the two year statute of limitations for bringing a personal injury action had expired and therefore, they could not be liable. The original injury occurred on January 20, 1993. The lawsuit against The Swanson Group was filed on January 11, 1995, shortly before the statute of limitations expired. However, the suit against the owners was not filed until September 2000. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, but the plaintiffs appealed.
The Court of Appeals explained that piercing the corporate veil is not a cause of action like negligence, and therefore is not subject to the same statute of limitations. Piercing the corporate veil is an equitable remedy, a way of imposing liability on corporate shareholders for fraud or injustice that the corporation allowed or caused. As such, the action could be brought within five years after the corporation was dissolved, as provided by Illinois law on shareholder liability for defunct corporations. Neither the corporate form nor the fact that the defendants were not named in the original lawsuit protected them.
2) Las Palmas Assocs. v. Las Palmas Ctr. Assocs.
Las Palmas Assocs. v. Las Palmas Ctr. Assocs., 1 Cal. Rptr. 2d 301(1991): A California Court of Appeals extended the concept of piercing the corporate veil to sister corporations owned by the same parent company. The case arose out of the sale of a large commercial shopping complex.
The contract stated that 84 percent of the complex would belong to Villa Pacific Business Company and the remaining 16 percent belonged to Gribble, president of Hahn Devcorp. Devcorp was a wholly owned subsidiary of Earnest W. Hahn, Inc. Several years later, both companies merged into subsidiaries of the same parent company. The same two individuals sat on the board of directors of both Hahn and Devcorp. By 1983, Hahn’s staff conducted business for Devcorp, leaving Devcorp a shell of a corporation. All of Devcorp’s assets had been liquidated, and all employees and directors fired. At trial, Hahn’s value was more than one hundred times that of Devcorp. The jury found that Devcorp was an alterego of Hahn and, as a result, Hahn should be liable for Devcorp’s debts.
The public policy behind allowing courts to pierce the corporate veil is that, in a situation where there is so much unity in ownership and interest between the company and the owner that the two are not really separate legal entities, it is not fair for the owner to avoid liability. These same principles apply when the owner of a corporation is another corporation. The court noted that there are many situations where a corporate entity is disregarded, and a corporation is treated as merely part of the parent corporation. In these cases, it is only equitable that veil piercing be allowed. The same line of thinking applies to two subsidiaries controlled by the same parent, if that parent company does not observe corporate formalities.
3) Agai v Diontech Consulting
Agai v Diontech Consulting, Inc., 2013 NY Slip Op 51345(U): In this NY Supreme Court case, the defendants were not shareholders of the company in question, Diontech Consulting, Inc. However, they ran the company for their own gain, so it would not be fair to allow them to benefit from hiding behind the corporate form. The judge pierced the corporate veil and imposed liability.
The undisputed evidence showed that the defendants did not observe any corporate formalities in running Diontech. Two of the three, the Antoniou brothers, admitted being unaware of any records or books showing corporate operations. They could not produce any board meeting minutes, pay stubs, bank account statements, or other documentation showing the company’s existence as a separate entity. The brothers commingled business assets with personal funds and used the corporate bank accounts for personal expenses. Both brothers were paid for assisting in settling corporate affairs when Diontech was dissolved, yet both claimed no knowledge of what happened to the corporate assets, including vehicles, furniture, and computers. An accountant for the firm testified that all three defendants routinely took money from the corporate bank account and did not pay it back. No tax return was filed for Diontech because the defendants never provided the required documentation. The evidence suggested that Diontech was a sham corporation, created for the sole purpose of avoiding legal liability.
The standard in New York for piercing the corporate veil whether an individual hid behind a corporation to perpetuate an unjust or wrongful act against the plaintiff. The judge found that the defendants used Diontech to avoid paying creditors. The principals here used the plaintiff’s payments to Diontech and materials purchased for the plaintiff’s job to work on other projects. As a result, it would be unjust not to hold them liable.
4) Ted Harrison Oil Company v. Dokka
Ted Harrison Oil Company v. Dokka, 617 N.E.2d 898 (1993): An Illinois Court of Appeals found that incorporation did not protect the assets of a company owner who followed no corporate formalities and treated the company as an extension of himself. Ted Harrison Oil Company (“Harrison”) filed a lawsuit asking the judge to hold Dokka personally liable for a debt owed to him by Dokka’s company, Hess Tire. Dokka purchased all shares of Hess Tire in 1972. He later sold shares to two investors, but never created or printed stock certificates. The company was initially profitable but lost a significant amount of money between 1972 and 1981.
A review of the corporate books showed no shareholder meeting minutes, although Dokka claimed the shareholders met and were involved in the business. Hess Tire operated in a building personally owned by Dokka and paid no rent. A corporate account paid property taxes for the building. Dokka even admitted that he did not follow corporate formalities. The company’s bookkeeper testified that another shareholder, Walden, had her write checks to herself on the business accounts, which Walden cashed, keeping the money. Dokka testified that there was no business purpose for these checks or other loans and bonuses paid to Walden. Walden moved tires from Hess Tire’s inventory into storage to avoid paying creditors. Although Dokka claimed no knowledge of Walden’s activities, the Appeals Court pointed out that the deception would have been uncovered sooner if corporate formalities had been followed. Since Dokka did not treat Hess Tire as a separate business entity, he was not entitled to the protection of incorporation laws. The court held Dokka responsible for Hess Tire’s debt to the plaintiff.
5) Buckley v. Abuzir
Buckley v. Abuzir, 2014 IL App (1st) 130469: Plaintiffs John Buckley and Mama Gramm’s Bakery, Inc. won a case against Silver Fox Pastries, Inc. for violation of The Illinois Trade Secrets Act. After they realized that they were not able to collect the judgment from Silver Fox, which had no assets, the plaintiffs asked a judge to pierce the corporate veil and enter a judgment against the owner, Haitham Abuzir. Although the trial court dismissed the Complaint, on appeal, the Illinois Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the plaintiffs had alleged sufficient facts to allow the trial court to pierce the corporate veil.
After incorporated, Silver Fox never filed an annual report with the Secretary of State. It had no directors, no officers, no corporate records, and no corporate books. The company never held a shareholder or director meeting. No stock was issued, and no dividends paid. Silver Fox never made any payments on loans granted to it, and at no time had assets exceeding its debts. No corporate formalities were ever observed. On the other hand, Abuzir ran Silver Fox, maintaining 100% control over the company. Abuzir did not dispute the plaintiffs’ allegation that he and Silver Fox were, in effect, the same entity. Instead, he claimed that the corporate veil could not be pierced because he was not an officer, director, employee, or shareholder of the corporation.
After reviewing the law in other states, the Court concluded that stock ownership was not required to pierce the corporate veil. A person who exercises considerable authority over a company may be legally considered the equitable owner and, therefore, a judge can pierce the corporate veil to hold that person liable for corporate debts. Abuzir could not avoid liability by refusing to appoint himself as director or officer and failing to issue himself stock.
6) Associated Vendors, Inc. v. Oakland Meat Co.
Associated Vendors, Inc. v. Oakland Meat Co., 210 Cal.App.2d 825 (1962): A California appellate court found that a person could be held personally liable for corporate debts when the corporation was merely the “alter ego” of the individual. The case arose out of a commercial lease between Associated Vendors, Inc. (“Associated”) and Oakland Meat Company (“Meat”). and Oakland Packing Company (“Packing”). After Meat leased the premises in question from Associated, the company turned around and leased it to Packing for only a portion of the rent they had agreed to pay Associated. Associated asked the judge to hold the owner of the companies responsible for the debt owed, based on the fact that the corporations were alter egos of the owner and not treated as separate legal entities.
The company’s owner, Zaharis, loaned personal funds to Packing without a first holding a corporate meeting or requesting a shareholder vote. When it was time for the loan to be repaid, Meat issued a loan to Packing, and the funds were transferred to Zaharis. Meat applied for and received business permits used by Packing. Zaharis and Meat’s two other officers worked for Packing without receiving compensation; however, Meat continued to pay their salaries. The lawyer who negotiated the commercial lease testified that he was unaware that Meat and Packing were separate companies. A butcher who delivered products to Packing was told to bill Meat instead. Invoices sent to Meat were paid by Packing and vice versa. Several other vendors that did business with both corporations testified they were unaware that Meat and Packing were two separate legal entities. Because the directors commingled assets, did not observe corporate formalities such as holding meetings and keeping minutes, and they treated the companies as one, the court held that the owners were personally liable for the corporations’ debts.
7) Kinney Shoe Corp. v. Polan
Kinney Shoe Corp. v. Polan, 939 F.2d 209 (4th Cir. 1991): The United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the business owner, Polan, was responsible for paying a corporate lease entered into on behalf of his company.
In November 1984, Polan filed paperwork with the Secretary of State to create Polan Industries, Inc. He incorporated Industrial one month later. Neither corporation elected any officers, held organizational meetings, or issued a single share of stock. Both corporations were created for the same purpose.
Shortly after the first business was established, Polan began negotiations with Kinney Shoe Corp. to sublease a building owned by a third party. Although the parties signed the sublease in April 1985, their actual agreement started in December 1984. Ten days after the sublease with Kinney was signed, Industrial subleased half of the property to Polan Industries. Polan signed the sublease on behalf of both corporations.
Industrial owned no assets other than the sublease, not even a bank account. The corporation had no income, other than the payments Polan Industries owed under the sublease. When the first lease payment to Kinney became due, Polan issued a check on his personal bank account. This first payment was the only one Kinney received from either company. In 1987, after receiving no further payments, Kinney sued Industrial and obtained a judgment of more than $166,000. Kinney then sued Polan personally to collect its judgment. Despite the long-established rule that the stockholders are not responsible for corporate debts, the Court held that it was appropriate to reach beyond the corporate veil and hold Polan personally liable for the judgment against Industrial because Polan did not follow corporate formalities. Thus, the corporate veil did not protect Polan’s personal assets and the Court upheld the judgment against Polan.
8) Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co. v. Superior Court
Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co. v. Superior Court, 206 Cal. App. 3d 1027 (1988): The California Court of Appeals held a shareholder responsible for paying a corporate debt after they pierced the corporate veil, even though the company had other shareholders. The case also clarified that, when the corporate veil is pierced, a shareholder may be held liable for one hundred percent of the debt, not a percentage equal to his proportionate share in the company, even if he owns only one share of stock.
Maximum Technology (“MaxiTech”) sued several defendants, including Minnesota Mining and Robert Schwartz for more than $2 million. Schwartz and MaxiTech settled their claims for only $20,000, and Minnesota Mining filed a suit after the judge appealed the settlement. The settlement was based on the erroneous conclusion that Schwartz, as a 40 percent owner of one of the companies being sued, was only responsible for paying 40 percent of that company’s liability if the corporate veil was pierced. However, that is not how the law works. If a company forfeits the protection of the corporate veil by not observing corporate formalities, all owners become jointly and severally liable for corporate debts, as if the business had never incorporated. It is not relevant whether a shareholder owns one share of a company in that scenario or all but one. In this particular scenario where only two of the company’s three shareholders were sued, the two of them would have to bear the burden of the entire corporate debt. As a result, the settlement agreement was based on a faulty assumption of law and could not have been found to have been negotiated in good faith, and Schwartz not only lost the benefit of the corporate veil, but also the advantageous settlement he negotiated.
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Rocco Beatrice, CPA, MST, MBA, CWPP, CAPP, MMB – Managing Director, Estate Street Partners, LLC. Mr. Beatrice is an “AA” asset protection, Trust, and estate planning expert.