Friday, January 12, 2018

Willow Grove Citizens Assoc. v. County Council of Prince George's County, Maryland (Ct. of Special Appeals)

FiledDecember 20, 2017

Opinion byStuart R. Berger

Holding:  A Maryland LLC’s participation in an administrative proceeding by filing for a zoning special exception was valid even though the LLC had forfeited its right to do business in Maryland.  A foreign unregistered corporation's participation in the proceedings as agent or co-applicant did not invalidate the application because the isolated action did not constitute doing business in Maryland.

Facts:  Appellee (“LLC”) in 2001 purchased a parcel in Bowie, Maryland with the intent to construct an assisted living facility.  The parcel being zoned "Rural Residential," prior owner had obtained a special exception for this same purpose but had never developed the land.

In 2012, LLC neglected its State Department of Assessments and Taxation ("SDAT") obligations and forfeited its right to use its name and do business in Maryland.  LLC's sole member was a corporation organized in the District of Columbia not registered to do business in Maryland.  LLC's rights remained forfeited in February 2014 when it applied for a special exception to operate an assisted living facility on the parcel.

The application was accepted, heard, and granted in October 2014 by the local planning commission ("Examiner").  People's Zoning Counsel, appointed by the County Council to protect the public interest and create a full and complete record, was the same attorney who had conducted the settlement and subsequent contract work around the sale of the parcel to LLC.  The record showed no objections made after his disclosure of prior involvement and no objection to his participation in the proceedings.  Examiner's decision was appealed to the County Council who remanded the matter for a determination of LLC's standing with SDAT.

In May 2015, LLC's rights were reinstated, and a month later the sole member became a qualified corporation in Maryland.  LLC provided certificates of good standing at the subsequent rehearing where the Examiner recommended approval.   Appellant, a civic association ("Citizens"), appealed to the County Council, who found LLC legally authorized to file an application for a special exception concerning real or personal property, that forfeiture had not impaired the validity of such a filing, and that the act of applying for a special exception did not constitute doing business.  The Circuit Court for Prince George's County affirmed.

Analysis:  Because Citizens accepted the factual record and objected only to the decision of the County Council on legal grounds, the only question before the court was whether the approval for special exception had been premised on legally erroneous conclusions of law.

Evaluating Citizens' claim that LLC's actions in pursuit of a special exception were a legal nullity, the court pointed to § 4A-911 of the Corporations & Associations Article (emphasis added):
The forfeiture of the right to do business in Maryland and the right to the use of the name of the limited liability company under this title does not impair the validity of a contract or act of the limited liability company entered into or done either before or after the forfeiture, or prevent the limited liability company from defending any action, suit or proceeding in a court of this State.
Irrespective of its forfeiture, LLC remained a legal entity with the power to enter binding contracts at any time.  What of the statute's proscription against bringing lawsuits?  Continuing on, the court found that because LLC had not filed its application "in a court of this State," the implicit prohibition against initiating suits was irrelevant.

"What about the sole member's initial status as an unregistered corporation?," pressed Citizens.  Applying a similar analysis, the court cited § 7-103 of the Corporations & Associations Article to find unregistered corporations to be entitled to engage in many in-state activities such as maintaining, defending, or settling actions, suits, claims, disputes, administrative or arbitration proceedings.  Citizens failed to meet their burden to prove the sufficiency of sole member's contacts or actions within the state to constitute "doing business,"  therefore, the sole member's status as co-applicant or agent in pursuing the special exception was also irrelevant. 

Finally, the court found that Citizens had not preserved for judicial review the question of People's Zoning Counsel's alleged conflict of interest because it failed to raise the issue at any stage of the administrative proceedings.

Accordingly, the court found the County Council's decision to approve the application for special exception to be correct as a matter of law.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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