Corporations Cannot Represent Themselves in Court

On July 5, 2011, Division One of the Washington State Court of Appeals in Dutch Village Mall v. Raymond Pelletti affirmed the longstanding rule that a corporation must be represented by a lawyer in order to litigate its rights in court.  The facts of the case are familiar to many corporations: Dutch Village Mall (“DVM”) is a single member limited liability company (“LLC”) attempting to collect unpaid rent and other related damages from a former tenant.  DVM’s sole owner, member, and officer Mr. Lei attempted to represent the LLC himself in pursuit of the unpaid rent.  The court rejected Mr. Lei’s representation of DVM because he was not a lawyer.

 Individuals have the legal right of self-representation in Washington courts, but that right only applies if the individual is acting solely on his/her own behalf with respect to his/her  individual legal rights and obligations.  Individuals appearing before the court on behalf of another party must be licensed in the practice of law.  “Because a corporation is an artificial entity, necessarily its interests in a court proceeding must be represented by a person acting on its behalf. Representing another person or entity in court is the practice of law. To practice law, one must be an attorney. Thus Washington, like all federal courts, follows the common law rule that corporations appearing in court proceedings must be represented by an attorney.”   

 The Dutch Village Mall Court provided another reason for prohibiting lay representation of a corporation as the inequity of allowing an individual “to establish the protections of a corporation and then not require that he also face the burdens of incorporation,” finding that the consideration is not a mere technicality.  As Mr. Lei acknowledged, the purpose of forming an LLC is to limit liability.  “If DVM were the defendant in this lawsuit instead of the plaintiff, it is unlikely that Mr. Lei would accept the personal liability that would come with him and his company being one and the same person.”

 If you have a corporation that needs to enforce its legal rights—Beresford Booth can help.