Delaware Chancery Court Enforces LLC Agreement's Forum Selection Clause in Fee Advancement Claim
In Merinoff v. Empire Merchants, C.A. No. 12920-VCS (Del. Ch. Feb. 2, 2017), the Court of Chancery held that a forum selection clause in the LLC agreement of Empire Merchants, LLC (“Empire”) precluded an action by the managers and officers of Empire to obtain advancement of legal fees from being brought in the Delaware Court of Chancery.
Plaintiff officers and managers of Empire were defendants in a separate action brought by Empire in New York alleging that they carried out a massive and long running bootlegging scheme to illegally divert wine and spirits from Maryland into New York. Plaintiffs filed a claim in the Delaware Court of Chancery asserting that Empire’s LLC Agreement entitled them to advancement of legal fees that they would incur in defending that action. Empire asserted that its LLC agreement required such claims to be brought in New York and moved to dismiss under Court of Chancery Rule 12(b)(3) for improper venue.
The Court first recited the plain language of Empire’s LLC agreement, which provided that “any suit, action, or other legal proceeding arising out of this Agreement shall be brought in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York or in any courts of the state of New York sitting in the Borough of Manhattan….” It further included a carve-out stating that “[n]otwithstanding the foregoing, any legal proceeding arising out of this Agreement which, under [Delaware’s Limited Liability Company] Act or, to the extent made applicable to the Company pursuant to this Agreement, the DGCL, is required to be brought in the Delaware Court of Chancery may only be brought in the Delaware Court of Chancery….”
The Court then explained that the Delaware Limited Liability Company Act does not contain any provisions regarding venue for claims relating to advancement of fees, but the DGCL, in § 145, states that the Delaware Court of Chancery shall have “exclusive jurisdiction” to hear such claims with respect to corporations. Plaintiffs argued that since the Empire LLC agreement incorporated certain terms from the DGCL, the carve-out in the Empire LLC agreement applied and they were required to bring this action in Delaware.
The Court rejected plaintiff’s arguments for two reasons. First, the portions of the DGCL incorporated into Empire’s LLC agreement related only to the standards for duties owed by managers and officers to Empire, not to advancement of fees. Second, even if the DGCL were applicable to plaintiff’s advancement claims, the statutory grant of “exclusive jurisdiction” to the Delaware Court of Chancery merely allocates jurisdiction among the Delaware courts, it does not constitute a “claim against the world that no court outside of Delaware can exercise jurisdiction….” Because this action therefore could have been brought elsewhere, it did not fall into the carve-out, which only captures actions “required” to be brought in Delaware. Thus the Court granted Empire’s motion to dismiss for improper venue.