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LLC Membership Interests in Chapter 11 Can They be Sold Over Other Members’ Objections

LLC Membership Interests in Chapter 11: Can They be Sold Over Other Members’ Objections?

Interpretation Matters

When a chapter 11 debtor holds a membership interest in an LLC, it may be permissible for them to sell their membership interest in the LLC, or even force the sale of the entire LLC, over the objections of one or more other members.

Or not.

At the crux of the debate in various bankruptcy courts is whether an LLC membership is a property right or a contractual right. This distinction is essential in the context of bankruptcy. The two interpretations have divergent governing law with respect to their disposition and the rights of debtors or trustees to determine that disposition.

It is common for LLC membership agreements to contain so-called ipso facto provisions. These are clauses that could:

  • Dissolve an LLC
  • Divest the member from any management rights
  • Change the type of membership interest
  • Materially impact the members’ ability to function in the LLC in the manner it did before the bankruptcy filing

These provisions are a primary focus of the executory contract v. property right debate. Also critical to the debate is whether the debtor can wield the hammer of section 363 to force the sale of its property, and even the co-owners’ share of the LLC, against such co-owners’ wishes.

Executory Contract

The interpretation of an LLC agreement as an executory contract is the most favorable interpretation to the co-members. This determination depends on how the contract is worded, how the debtor and non-debtor members each regard the agreement (both in argument and by their actions), and what the applicable case law is in the given district. The executory contract distinction is a rabbit hole that can be very frustrating to go down. Vice Chancellor Strine, who sat on the Superior Court of Delaware, said “I do not have all year to peer through the muck” and study the different reasoning and fact circumstances behind the various court decisions on the matter.

Long story short, if an LLC membership agreement is executory, and the debtors assume the contract, then so-called ipso facto clauses may very well be upheld. If the debtors reject the contract, then rejection damage issue fights may get exciting. Either way, a thorough study of section 365, which governs the disposition of executory contracts in bankruptcy cases, is absolutely necessary. Co-member contract party beware—contracts not assumed are often deemed rejected, so you might never even receive a formal rejection notice.

Property Rights

In courts that view LLC memberships as property rights, it should be carefully noted that debtors can avail themselves of section 541(c)(1). The bankruptcy court could then trump pretty much any applicable state statute, even those that would take away any of the debtor’s rights and privileges in the LLC as a result of the bankruptcy filing or their general insolvency (i.e., the ipso facto clauses).

Where things can really get interesting, however, is with respect to section 363 sales. Here, the “property” interpretation of an LLC membership, can set up not just a sale of the debtor’s membership, but a sale of the entire LLC. Yes, the section 363 sale can force the sale of the co-owners’ portion as well. The general provisions in section 363(h) that govern the sale of all property in which debtors have a co-ownership stake. For most types of LLCs1, the trustee can sell the entire LLC so long as it can be shown to be in the best interest of the estate, based on the same tests that would control if we were talking about a co-owned automobile or Xerox machine:

a) If selling only the debtor’s portion of interest is impractical;

b) Such sale of the debtor’s portion alone would net significantly less to the estate than selling the entire asset and dividing the proceeds pro-rata among the co-owners and the estate; and

c) The benefit to the estate outweighs the detriment to the co-owners.

One should be careful not to assume, however, that this means authorization to sell the LLC is pretty much guaranteed so long as these tests are met. It is important to also look at the governing agreements to the LLC membership interests, since section 363(h) also requires that the debtor have an “undivided interest” in the LLC (or any other property) as a “tenant in common, joint tenant, or tenant by the entirety with the co-owners.” The chapter 7 trustee in the Schwab v. Stroup (In Re Stroup) case was apparently not counting on that issue to be raised and found out the hard way that, at least in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, section 363(h) should be interpreted in its entirety.2

The finer points of whether it is economic rights or governance rights that are at stake in the LLC membership debate could be discussed endlessly. Some courts have found that the two are distinct, and one might lose one and retain the other. Go figure.

So, if you happen to be in, or come in to, such a situation where you need to know how an LLC membership interest is going to be affected by a bankruptcy filing (or just planning ahead while forming an LLC), remember the time-honored television announcer’s warning: “Don’t try this at home, kids.” Make sure you talk to one of the experts’ experts. You’ll be glad you did.

We think you’ll also like:

  1. The Nuts & Bolts of Ipso Facto Clauses and Golden Share Arrangements That May Sidestep the Bankruptcy Code’s Prohibition
  2. Analyzing Executory Contracts: Can AI Save Us from The Contract Tsunami?
  3. A Non-Debtor’s Rights in Executory Contracts

[Editors’ Note: To learn more about this and related topics, you may want to attend the following on-demand webinars (which you can watch at your leisure, and each includes a comprehensive customer PowerPoint about the topic):

  1. The Nuts & Bolts of a 363 Motion
  2. Help, My Business is In Trouble!

This is an updated version of an article originally published on July 22, 2019.]

©2023. DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM. This article is subject to the disclaimers found here.

  1. As with any type of asset sale in bankruptcy, these provisions are not applicable to energy production and distribution for heat, light, and gas.
  2. Read the Court’s full opinion: https://www.dailydac.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/SchwabvStroupDoc2020141104.pdf

About The DailyDAC Editors

The editors and editorial board of DailyDAC include preeminent restructuring and insolvency professionals, journalists, and editors. They are devoted to providing reliable and plain English education and deal intelligence about assignments, corporate bankruptcy, receiverships, out-of-court workouts and similar topics.

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