Sunday, October 26, 2003

The 21st Century Trumped by the 19th

Last week a New York appellate court sustained a ridiculous statute, but was arguably correct in reaching its conclusion. The decision was handed down by the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court in the case of Blaklee Realty Co. v. Pataki. The case had been closely watched by LLC practitioners around the country.

The facts are simple. In New York, in order to form an LLC, one must publish the LLC's articles of organization or substantially identical information for six successive weeks in two local newspapers in the county in which the principal office of the LLC is located. Thereafter, one must file an affidavit with the Secretary of State of New York attesting to the completion of the publication requirement. Failure to fulfill the publication requirement or the filing of the affidavit within 120 after formation of an LLC precludes an LLC from prosecuting or defending an action in a New York state court. An LLC that fails to comply with the publication requirement can still bring or defend a lawsuit providing that before it does so it complies with the requirement.

The cost of compliance runs about $1,600. As a consequence, it is considerably more expensive to form an LLC in New York than in any other state.

The ostensible purpose of the law is to "inform[] members of the public of specific important information regarding the newly organized company." No one actually believes that, nor was there any attempt to marshal facts in support of that proposition. New York and its economy are simply too large to allow the publication of a legal notice in a local newspayer to provide any real notice. And, in the age of the Internet, there are any number of cheap and more effective ways of providing such information (e.g., a public database available via the web, a listserve that distributes, for free, the requisite information concerning new LLCs, etc.).

But the ostensible purpose of informing the public is a mere pretense. There is a dirty secret behind the statute, a dirty secret that LLC practitioners around the country are all aware of--the purpose of the filing requirement is purely and simply to provide a subsidy to the newspapers around the state that rely on fees from legal notices for their support. Those newspapers form a powerful lobby in Albany. Their support of or opposition to a state legislator can spell the difference between success or failure in a close election. (And, the fact that, at the time the notice requirement found its way into the state, the son of the publisher of the largest of these newspapers was the leader of one of houses of the New York legislature probably did not impede the passage of the provision.) Furthermore, the provision itself provides little or no effective notice about "specific important information regarding the newly organized company." It would have worked, if at all, in an era when economies were essentially local and the various local papers provided most of the essential information needed for what we today refer to as "economic transparency." In fact, the history of the publication requirement was traced by the court to the 19th century when limited partnerships first appeared.

The plaintiffs brought a declaratory judgment action, seeking to have the publication requirement declared unconstitutional. The lower court agreed, holding that the requirement violated due process because it places a restriction on an LLC's access to the state's courts that is not reasonably related to the state's claimed purpose of informing citizens about the formation of LLCs with which they may have dealings; that, even if the required publication can be done after a lawsuit has been commenced, prejudice is still manifest since litigation commenced before publication will be delayed at least six weeks; and section 206 violates an LLC's right to equal protection by conditioning its access to the courts on a publication requirement that is not imposed on New York corporations.

The appellate court reversed the lower court and upheld the constitutionality of the statute, finding that the statute had a rational basis because there was a "reasonably conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis for the classification." Moreover, the court noted that the state did not have an "obligation to produce evidence to sustain the rationality of a statutory classification. '[A] legislative choice is not subject to courtroom factfinding and may be based on rational speculation unsupported by evidence or empirical data.'" In other words, a statutory purpose need only have the most tenuous relationship to reality to have a rational basis.

As I said at the outset, the result here is ridiculous. It is, after all, widely known that the publication requirement is nothing more than a corrupt practice willingly engaged in by the state legislature and the various local newspapers. However, the actual holding is probably correct. After all, there was no evidence introduced concerning the fact that the publication fees are nothing more than a form of bakshish mandated by the legislature to ingratiate its members with the local newspapers. In order to overturn the statute on the record before it, the court would have had to have made an essentially legislative determination that newspaper publication was essentially expensive and ineffective, especially when compared to 21st century alternatives. In other words, a clearly "false" result is upheld, because to do otherwise would blur the division of labor between courts and legislatures.

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