LLCs and Apparent Authority II

iStock_000007115543Small.jpgLast week I posted an article about apparent authority of a member or manager of an Indiana limited liability companies to bind the LLC, usually by signing a contract on behalf of the company, including a discussion of a 2013 decision of the Indiana Court of Appeals, Cain Family Farms vs. Shrader Real Estate & Auction, addressing the common law doctrine of apparent authority and the provisions of the Indiana Business Flexibility Act that bestow apparent authority on members and managers. Under the facts presented by the record, the court held that apparent authority existed and, in particular, “Whether we consider the question of apparent authority under the common law or the
Indiana Business Flexibility Act, the outcome is the same.”

As discussed in last week’s Indiana Business Law Blog post, one can imagine situations in which the statute would establish apparent authority but the common law analysis would not, and vice versa. It seems clear that a member or manager has authority to bind a limited liability company if the Indiana Business Flexibility Act says so, even if the member or manager would not have apparent authority under the common law analysis. But what if it’s the other way around? Will an Indiana court enforce a contract signed by a member or manager on behalf of the LLC if the member or manager would have apparent authority under the common law but not under the Indiana Business Flexibility Act? Although the Cain Family Farm decision does directly address that question, the Court of Appeals appears to treat the two bases of apparent authority as independently viable, implying that Indiana courts will recognize the apparent authority of a member or manager under the common law even if apparent authority does not exist under the Indiana Business Flexibility Act.

Since I posted the article last week, I’ve corresponded with my friend John Cunningham, a New Hampshire attorney, a recognized expert on LLCs, a blogger, and co-author of Drafting Limited Liability Company Operating Agreements, my go-to reference for LLC law and operating agreements. I asked John about the question, and he pointed me to the official commentary of the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act, which discusses why the RULLCA leaves the issue of apparent authority of members to the common law. See RULLCA Section 301.

After reflecting on my correspondence with John and reading the commentary to the RULLCA, I’ve come to believe that the path on which the Court of Appeals appears to have placed Indiana law is a good one. Note that question of apparent authority is irrelevant if the member or manager has actual authority to bind the company, and it cannot be used by another party to avoid a contract with a limited liability company over the LLCs objection. (If nothing else, the LLC can always ratify the contract.) The question arises only when an LLC tries to avoid a contract signed by a member or manager in the absence of actual authority, and the question is, who suffers the consequences — the LLC or the other party? Although the Indiana Business Flexibility Act creates some areas of relative certainty (which I believe is superior to the intentional silence of the RULLCA), it also denies apparent authority under some circumstances in which the other party to the contract reasonably believes, based on the conduct of the LLC, that the member or manager is acting within his or her authority.

In my personal view, it is better public policy to err on the side of enforcing contracts in those situations by maintaining the common law doctrine as a viable basis for apparent authority, independent of the statutory basis. First, the LLC is in the best position to control the actions of its members or managers, and the operating agreement can provide a remedy when one of them misbehaves. Second, the LLC is also in the best position to control its own actions and to avoid conduct that cloaks its representatives with apparent authority when they lack actual authority. Third, to fail to enforce a contract that the other party entered into in good faith, based on a reasonable belief that the member or manager had authority to bind the company (or to require prospective counterparties to consult the public record before signing a contract with a limited liability company) could cause others to be overly cautious, even leery, of doing business with LLCs.

Whether Indiana courts agree with this analysis remains to be seen.

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