Limited Liability Partnerships

shorts

It’s late August, when the lure of the seashore and vacation plans push aside all but the most serious work-related endeavors, and when I share with my readers a few short summaries of recent decisions of interest in business divorce cases.

First, we’ll look at a decision in a dispute among former law firm partners in which the court upheld a partnership agreement amendment by the defendant majority partners, reducing the plaintiff’s percentage interest after he announced his intention to withdraw but before the actual withdrawal became effective. Next up is a relatively rare decision in an LLC dissolution case granting a motion to disqualify defense counsel under the advocate-witness rule of professional conduct. In the third case highlighted below, the Delaware Chancery Court dismissed a books-and-records action for lack of standing where the shares issued to the plaintiff never existed.

Court Enforces Eve-of-Withdrawal Reduction of Partnership Interest

Zohar v LaRock, Short Form Order, Index No. 14826/10 [Sup Ct Nassau County July 25, 2016]Article 8-B of New York’s Partnership Law authorizes regulated professional practices to organize as registered limited liability partnerships. The LLP form is highly popular with law firms because it offers the same limited liability protection afforded corporation shareholders and LLC members, except for their own professional negligence or malpractice. The LLP otherwise is subject to the same statutes and common-law rules governing general partnerships, which give partners great leeway in ordering their own affairs in their partnership agreement. Continue Reading Summer Shorts: Partnership Interest Reduction and Other Recent Decisions of Interest

Goodwill

This is a story about a recent case involving a fight over the inclusion or exclusion of goodwill in valuing the interest of a retired partner in a medical practice organized as a limited liability partnership, and how it easily could have been avoided. But first, it helps to understand the legal framework for valuing such an interest and the type of goodwill at issue.

The limited liability partnership or LLP is a highly popular form of business association for professional practices including law firms and medical groups. As its name suggests, the LLP combines the attributes of a partnership with the limited liability traditionally associated with corporations, except that professionals in LLPs generally remain personally liable for their own misconduct or negligence.

In New York, the formation and registration of LLPs is governed by Article 8-B of the Partnership Law. In all other respects, as to both their internal and external affairs, the New York LLP is governed by the same provisions governing general partnerships codified in Sections 1 through 82 of the Partnership Law based on the ancient Uniform Partnership Act promulgated in 1914. Continue Reading How to Avoid Bad Blood Over Goodwill in Professional Partnership Valuations

A disproportionate number of court decisions applying New York’s Partnership Law involve law firm partnerships. That’s because, while use of general partnerships in the business world at large has been eclipsed almost entirely by other closely-held business forms offering both limited liability and partnership taxation, those same features are available to law firms and certain other professional practices by organizing as limited liability partnerships under New York’s LLP statute enacted in 1994.

Other than its organizational and limited liability attributes, New York LLPs are governed by the same, arcane Partnership Law provisions applicable to all general partnerships. One of the most existentially critical of these provisions is found in Partnership Law § 62 [4] stating that dissolution of the partnership is caused “[b]y the death of any partner.” Courts in New York and elsewhere construe this provision, modeled on § 31 [4] of the 1914 Uniform Partnership Act, as a default rule, that is, subject to override in the partnership agreement.

The tragic, accidental death in 2008 of one of two partners in a Manhattan law firm called Donovan & Yee, LLP, triggered a lawsuit in which the estate of the deceased partner is contesting the surviving partner’s continuation of the firm. Earlier this month, in Le Bel v Donovan, 2014 NY Slip Op 03608 [App. Div. 1st Dept, May 20, 2014], a panel of appellate judges unanimously construed contested provisions in the partnership agreement as overriding Partnership Law § 62 [4]’s dissolution default rule, by authorizing continuation of the partnership if a new partner is admitted within 90 days after the death. At the same time, however, the panel remanded the case for trial to determine whether the newly admitted partner was actually an equity partner or, as the estate contended, was part of an alleged “sham transaction” making her a partner in name only to avoid paying the estate one-half of the law firm’s assets upon dissolution.

You have to admit, as dissolution lawsuits go, it doesn’t get much more interesting than that.

Continue Reading Court in Law Firm Dissolution Suit Must Decide, Was Partnership a “Sham”?

A decision last week by New York’s highest court may have registered an uptick on the public’s schadenfreude meter, at least among the portion of the public who hold the legal profession in low esteem and who therefore might enjoy the sight of internecine warfare among splitting partners of a law firm.

In Ederer v. Gursky, 9 NY3d 514 (2007), Lawyer A joined and became a 30% shareholder along with Lawyer B (who then held 70%) of a small law firm organized as a professional corporation (PC). Several years later they re-organized the firm as a registered limited liability partnership (LLP) and took in three new partners who collectively held a 15% partnership interest, leaving Lawyer A with 30% and Lawyer B with 55%. Two years later, Lawyer A decided to leave the firm – according to him, because of a falling out with Lawyer B over a firm client; according to Lawyer B, because the firm was in financial dire straits for which Lawyer A was partially responsible – following which he entered into a written withdrawal agreement with the LLP setting forth various financial and case-sharing arrangements. Six months later, Lawyer A sued the LLP and each of its four remaining partners claiming breach of the withdrawal agreement and seeking an accounting and certain profit shares.

Garden variety financial disputes among former business or law partners do not usually garner the attention of New York’s Court of Appeals. This one did, however, because of the defendant partners’ reliance on a provision in the statute governing LLPs that, in general terms, shields partners of LLPs from vicarious liability for obligations of the LLP or for the negligence of their law partners. The case thus raised a novel question of statutory construction whether Section 26(b) of the Partnership Law was meant to protect only against partner liability asserted by third parties or whether, as the defendants argued, it also encompasses liabilities among the partners.

The Court’s decision traces the highly interesting history of partnership liability laws, including the nationwide surge of LLP formations in the aftermath of the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s when regulators went after deep-pocketed law firms to recover massive bank losses. In a 5-2 majority decision, the Court handed victory to Lawyer A by concluding that Section 26(b) only addresses a partner’s vicarious liability for partnership obligations to third parties and does not extend to claims among the partners of the LLP.

The dissenting judges note that Lawyer A’s withdrawal caused the firm’s finances to deteriorate and thereby rendered the firm unable to satisfy its obligations under the withdrawal agreement. They raise two provocative questions: Under these circumstances why should a former law partner be able to collect the firm’s debt from the “innocent” individual partners where a third-party creditor could not, and why should partners of an LLP be saddled with an obligation from which they would be shielded had the firm remained organized as a PC? The majority’s decision, laying emphasis on statutory construction rather than policy, means it will be up to the legislature to amend the law if it sees the same anomaly as do the dissenters.

Update (May 2, 2008)In Kuslansky v. Kuslansky, Robbins, Stechel & Cunningham, LLP, 50 AD3d 1100 (2d Dept 2008), the Appellate Division, Second Department, under the authority of the Court of Appeals’ Ederer decision, reversed a lower court’s decision dismissing an action brought by a former law firm partner for breach of contract based on the alleged failure of the defendants to pay him the value of his interest in the subject partnership as provided for in the parties’ partnership agreement upon a partner’s withdrawal from the partnership.