LLCs and Apparent Authority

iStock_000007115543Small.jpgWhether a particular person has the authority to execute a contract on behalf of another person or entity is a standard question of agency law. If the principal has expressly or impliedly authorized an agent to execute contracts on behalf of the principal, the agent is said to have actual authority. However, a person who does not have actual authority can nonetheless bind the principal if that person has apparent authority.

Common Law Standard for Apparent Authority

The common law analysis of apparent authority is well established. An agent has apparent authority when a third person reasonably believes, based on the conduct of the principal, that the agent has authority. The reason for the belief need not be an actual statement by the prinicipal but can be (and usually is) found in the circumstances in which the prinicipal places the agent, but it is essential that the third party’s belief is based on the conduct of the principal; the statements or actions of the agent cannot create apparent authority. Moreover, if the third person knows that the agent has no actual authority, apparent authority does not exist.

Apparent Authority under the Indiana Business Flexibility Act

The Indiana Business Flexibility Act (Article 23-18 of the Indiana Code) contains different rules for the authority of members and managers of limited liability companies, and the rules are slightly different for LLCs formed on or before June 30, 1999 (Section 23-18-3-1), and LLCs formed after that date (Section 23-18-3-1.1).

If the LLC’s articles of organization do not provide for managers (i.e., a member-managed LLC), each member is an agent of the LLC for the purpose of the LLC’s business and affairs. Accordingly, the act of any member for those purposes, including the execution of a contract, binds the LLC, subject to the following exceptions:

  1. The member does not have actual authority and the person with whom the member is dealing knows that the member does not have actual authority.
  2. The act is not apparently for the purpose of carrying on the LLC’s business and affairs in the usual manner, unless the member has been granted actual authority by the operating agreement or by unanimous consent of the members.
  3. For LLCs formed after June 30, 1999, the articles of organization provide that the member does not have the authority to bind the company.

If the LLC’s articles of organizations provide for managers, a member acting solely in the capacity of a member is not an agent of the LLC and does not have authority to bind the LLC, except to the extent provided by the articles of organization. Instead, each manager is an agent of the company and has authority to bind the LLC, subject to the following exceptions:

  1. The manager does not have actual authority and the person with whom the manager is dealing knows that the manager does not have actual authority.
  2. The act is not apparently for the purpose of carrying on the LLC’s business and affairs in the usual manner, unless the manager has been granted actual authority by the operating agreement or by unanimous consent of the members..
  3. For LLCs formed after June 30, 1999, the articles of organization provide that the manager does not have the authority to bind the company.

Although Sections 3-1 and 3-1.1 of the Indiana Business Flexibility Act speak only of authority and agency, not of apparent authority and apparent agency, it seems clear that those sections deal with apparent authority and that actual authority of managers and members is addressed elsewhere, in Section 23-18-4-1. Indeed, the only Indiana decision to address Section 3-1.1, Cain Family Farm, L.P. vs. Schrader Real Estate & Auction Company, describes that section as a source of apparent authority and not actual authority.

Comparison of Common Law and Statutory Bases for Apparent Authority

The following table summarizes the main differences between the common law basis of apparent authority and the statutory basis.

Common law analysis of apparent authority

Apparent authority of members and managers under Indiana Business Flexibility Act

Applies to any agent of the company.

Applies only to members or managers.

Apparent authority created by conduct of the company.

Apparent authority created by the articles of organization; no other conduct necessary.

The person with whom the member or manager is dealing must have a reasonable belief that the member or manager has authority based on the company’s conduct.

As long as the person with whom the member or manager is dealing does not have actual knowledge that the member or manager lacks authority,
that person’s subjective belief is irrelevant.

No exception for acts outside the usual course of business

No authority for acts outside the apparent usual way the company does business, unless the authority is granted by the operating agreement or by unanimous consent of the members.

When we’re dealing with managers of an LLC or with members in a member-managed LLC, the statute confers authority more broadly than the common law because no other conduct on the part of the LLC is necessary. However, the statutory exceptions are also broader because the common law contains no exception for acts outside the usual way the LLC does business. In addition, the statute denies authority to members of a manager-managed LLC (except to the extent the articles of organization confer authority) but the common law analysis treats the members of a manager-managed LLC no differently than any other agent. In other words, it is possible for a manager or member to have apparent authority under the statute but not under the common law, and vice versa. What happens then?

One possibility is that the statute is now the exclusive source of apparent authority for members and managers of LLCs. That would not appear to cause any problems when the statute confers apparent authority more broadly than the common law standard, but what about situations that fall into one of the broader statutory exceptions, for example when the member of a manager-managed LLC takes an action that a third party would reasonably believe, based on the conduct of the LLC, the member was authorized to take? Does the statute abrogate the common law in that situation?

It appears that it does not. In the Cain Family Farms decision mentioned above, the Court of Appeals considered the apparent authority of a member to bind a member-managed LLC. In doing so, the Court of Appeals analyzed the member’s authority under both the common law and the Indiana Business Flexibility Act. Perhaps because the Court found that apparent authority existed under both analyses, it did not expressly decide which one would control in the event of a conflict. Nonetheless, the implication seems to be that both sources of apparent authority remain viable and that the LLC will be bound by the actions of a member or manager if either the common law or the Indiana Business Flexibilty Act impute that authority to the member or manager.

[For more discussion of this topic, see LLCs and Apparent Authority II.)

The business law office of Smith Rayl works extensively with limited liability companies. To read about that practice area, click here.