Many registered investment companies and real estate investment trusts are organized as business trusts. Certain states, such as Maryland, Delaware, and Massachusetts have been hospitable to such entities, and therefore are home to many of these entities. In some states, such as Massachusetts, the entities are formed as common-law trusts, while in others there is a statutory authorization for the formation of a business trust. However, unlike corporations which exist as “persons” for the purpose of legal actions, there have been questions raised as to whether business trusts have a separate legal existence.
The issue of whether a trust is a separate legal entity can impact how trusts access courts. In a decision that could significantly impact the way in which business trusts determine the forum in which they sue or are sued, on March 7, 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case involving Americold Realty Trust. In that decision, the Court held that, unlike a corporation, a trust does not have a separate legal existence for the purpose of determining the citizenship of the entity.
The decision reaffirmed that a corporation is a citizen of the state in which it is organized (and the state in which it maintains its principal office, if different). However, in an 8-0 decision, the Court held that trusts are not separate legal entities with a defined state of citizenship. Rather, the citizenship of a business trust will be determined by where the beneficiaries of the trust are located. For a large, publicly-owned business trust, such as a registered investment company or a REIT which have shareholders scattered in many or all of the states, that may effectively destroy any basis for such a trust to use diversity of citizenship to affect federal court jurisdiction. If sued, this could force such entities to litigate in jurisdictions where the trust is not organized and does not maintain an office because an isolated shareholder resides in that jurisdiction.
While there may be little that investment companies or REITs can do to alter the impact of this decision, it will be interesting to see if the state laws authorizing such trusts can be revised in a way that may impact the consequences of this decision.