The Washington legislature is currently considering a bill that would apparently require any contract that calls for the payment of money by an LLC or corporation, to include an extra signature by an authorized representative that would render the representative personally liable for any amounts due on the contract. HB 1535. In other words, under this bill any LLC or corporation making a contractual commitment that involves the payment of money would have to include a personal guarantee from a natural person.
This would be an extraordinary change to Washington law. No other state has anything comparable in its laws.
The Background. The bill would upend the familiar principle of the law that “when an agent makes a contract on behalf of a disclosed or partially disclosed principal whom he has power to bind, he does not thereby become liable for his principal’s nonperformance.” Griffiths & Sprague Stevedoring Co. v. Bayly, Martin & Fay, Inc., 71 Wn.2d 679 , 686, 430 P.2d 600 (1967). See Restatement (Second) of Agency § 320 (1958).
When an LLC manager (or a corporate officer) signs a contract on behalf of a company, the manager usually signs only as an agent of the company. The fact that the manager is signing as an agent is reflected in the typical signature block:
By: Wile E. Coyote
Vice President of Product Development
Under these well-accepted rules, LLC managers and corporate officers can sign contracts on behalf of their company without fear of becoming personally liable. If the rule were otherwise it would be exceedingly difficult to find a manager willing to sign for an LLC or corporation.
The Bill. The heart of the bill is a requirement that any “business payment contract” must contain an additional signature line, directly following and on the same page as any other signature line that the authorized business representative must sign. The additional signature line must be immediately preceded by the following legend in bold, 14-point or larger typeface:
By signing this contract you, the undersigned, agree to become PERSONALLY LIABLE for any sums due pursuant to this document, regardless of whether you are signing on behalf of a limited liability company, corporation, or nonprofit corporation.
This bill, if passed, will clearly make it difficult for LLCs to find managers willing to sign contracts for their LLC.
Drafting and Interpreting Statutes. The language of HB 1535 has some internal conflicts. I have described above the interpretation that I and other business lawyers that I have talked to have given to the bill. It is possible, however, that it was intended to simply require a warning legend on guarantee contracts, although that is a more difficult interpretation. In any event it needs to be clarified.
It is not an easy thing, to draft statutes so that they are clear, unambiguous and sufficiently detailed. This has repeatedly been driven home to me in my participation on a Bar committee that has reviewed proposed legislation.
HB 1535 is scheduled for public hearing in the Washington legislature’s House Committee on Business & Financial Services at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 1, 2011, in Olympia, Washington. At the hearing I expect we will learn what is behind this bill and what the intent of its sponsors is. More information is available about the bill’s scheduled hearings here.