Courts don’t often grant requests to “pierce the corporate veil” – in other words, to disregard the existence of a corporation and to hold a shareholder personally liable for the corporation’s debts – but in a recent Virginia case, a judge did just that, entering a personal judgment against a corporation’s sole shareholder for nearly $140,000. His mistake? Failing to observe corporate formalities, and arranging for the corporation to enter into a contract while grossly undercapitalized.
Advance Technologies, Inc., had been hired as a sub-subcontractor by subcontractor ACE Electric Company on a boiler maintenance project for the University of Richmond. ACE, however, soon terminated Advance from the project, and Advance went out of business. In December 2009, a default judgment was entered against Advance for more than $137,500. ACE was unable to recover any of this money from Advance, so it sued Erik Butler, the sole shareholder, officer, and director of Advance, in an attempt to pierce the corporate veil and recover funds from Butler’s personal assets to satisfy the judgment. ACE’s lawyers also invoked a “reverse piercing” theory by seeking to impose liability against Butler’s wife, DeAnne Butler, and from another corporation, ADVTEC, Inc., of which she was the sole officer, shareholder, and director. ACE claimed that ADVTEC was created by DeAnne Butler in a fraudulent attempt to avoid the debts incurred by Advance.
In an opinion handed down on April 29, 2011, Judge Gary A. Hicks of the Circuit Court of Henrico County wrote that piercing the veil and permitting a plaintiff to recover from the personal assets of a shareholder is “an extraordinary remedy that is infrequently granted.” The judge pointed out that there are generally sound legal and economic reasons for granting immunity to shareholders. However, the judge noted, exceptions do exist. In this case, the judge wrote, the evidence was “sufficient to pierce the corporate veil as to Erik Butler.” The court found that Butler failed to adhere to corporate formalities (such as conducting annual meetings and maintaining separate books for the corporation), and that when Advance entered into the contract with ACE, Advance was “grossly undercapitalized.” It had only between $10,000 and $15,000 in the bank, and owed back taxes both to the IRS and to Virginia authorities. Under these circumstances, Judge Hicks wrote, it would be a “profound injustice” not to permit ACE to go after Erik Butler’s personal assets to satisfy the default judgment.
Judge Hicks rejected, however, the attempt to reverse-pierce by holding the newly formed ADVTEC liable for the judgment against Advance. He wrote that although trial evidence “creates a suspicion that ADVTEC is nothing more than the alter ego of Advance,” ACE did not prove by clear and convincing evidence that this is the case. Both Erik and DeAnne Butler testified that DeAnne, not Erik, was the ultimate decision maker at ADVTEC and that there were legitimate business reasons for the creation of that company. Accordingly, the judge declined to pierce that particular corporate veil.