My Payment Systems students sometimes struggle with the notion that a check constitutes its own, separate contract and can be an independent means of liability, wholly apart from the contract pursuant to which the check was written. A recent Westchester County, New York Supreme Court case provides a good example.
The case arose from Serge Doré Selections, Ltd.’s sale of about 900 cases of wine to Universal Wine and Spirits LLC for $112,372.92. There is no dispute that Universal received the wine, has resold at least some of the wine, and never paid for the wine. The interesting portion of the case, for the purposes of this posting, concerns the personal liability of two individuals, Jesse Kessler and Carla Lewin, for Universal’s debt to Serge Doré. The court’s opinion does not indicate who Kessler and Lewin are, but a public-records search reveals that Jesse Kessler is one of two manager-members of the LLC and Carla Lewin is apparently his wife.
Universal’s contract with Serge Doré was memorialized by an invoice and a purchase order, neither of which Kessler and Lewin signed. Instead, Leah B. Dedmon, whose name does not appear in any of the public records for Universal that I found, signed on behalf of Universal.
After the wine was delivered, Universal issued a check in the amount of the invoice, then instructed Serge Doré not to deposit the check. Serge Doré complied, and then a lengthy correspondence ensued between Kessler and Mr. Doré, the President of Serge Doré Selections Ltd. In the course of this correspondence, Kessler provided – and then withdrew – a personal check drawn on his joint account with Lewin for the full price of the wine. Universal also later supplied a second corporate check, which bounced twice and was never paid, precipitating the lawsuit.
Ultimately, the court found that Kessler’s correspondence with Serge Doré, coupled with his issuance of a personal check, showed that he had undertaken personal responsibility for Universal’s debt. (The court found that Lewin, however, had no liability to Serge Doré, since she had not signed the check and apparently knew nothing of its issuance.)
Universal was organized under the laws of Florida, which, like most states, has adopted its own version of the Uniform Limited Liability Company Act. Kessler would normally have been shielded from liability for Universal’s debt pursuant to Florida’s version of Uniform Limited Liability Company Act §303 (a) (1995), which states that generally “the debts, obligations, and liabilities of a limited liability company . . . arising in contract . . . are solely the debts, obligations, and liabilities of the company, [and] [a] member or manager is not personally responsible for a debt, obligation, or liability of the company solely by reason of being . . . a member or manager.” Thus, he was not personally liable to Serge Doré under the contract. The personal check he wrote, however, constituted a separate contract under which he undertook personal responsibility as a drawer.
The court’s analysis does contain an error with regard to UCC §3-402 (b) (1), in that it tends to suggest that Kessler could have avoided personal responsibility if the check had expressly indicated (1) the identity of the principal (Universal) and (2) the fact that Kessler was signing only in a representative capacity. While this would have been true in the case of a promissory note, for example, this would not have shielded Kessler from liability in this instance, since he wrote a personal check drawn on his own account and would therefore necessarily face liability as the drawer of that check under UCC §3-414.
The lesson of this case is an important one for businesspeople as well as lawyers and law students, in that it tends to suggest that limited liability can be quite literally wiped out with the stroke of a pen, at least if that pen is used to write a personal check.