Individuals and companies have a choice of entities – some requiring more formalities than others – through which to pool their resources and efforts in pursuit of a common business goal. Joint ventures and general partnerships are on the less formal side of the spectrum and are often used in the early stages of a business project to keep costs down before the project’s viability is established, and before limited liability becomes an issue. Until the proliferation of limited liability partnerships and like statutory business forms, many professional firms including lawyers and doctors traditionally operated as general partnerships.
It is not uncommon for written joint venture or partnership agreements to include a buy-sell agreement. If the joint venture or partnership later converts to a corporation or limited liability company, and the owners do not make a superseding shareholder or operating agreement, is the prior agreement enforceable when a shareholder or LLC member wants out or seeks judicial dissolution?
The answer is complicated by a long line of New York case precedent, most notably Weisman v Awnair Corp., 3 NY2d 444 (1957), decided by New York’s highest court, holding that a partnership may not exist where the business is conducted in corporate form, and parties may not be partners between themselves while using the corporate shield to protect themselves against personal liability.
A couple of newer decisions by intermediate appellate courts, however, take a modified approach to the issue permitting enforcement of the pre-conversion agreement. In Matter of Hochberg (Manhattan Pediatric Dental Group, P.C.), 41 AD3d 202 (1st Dept 2007), two dentists formed a practice and entered into a partnership agreement containing an arbitration clause and also requiring that a partner seeking dissolution first offer his interest to the other. Years later they converted the practice to a professional corporation, but without making a new agreement. When one of them later sought dissolution, the other sought to compel arbitration under the old partnership agreement. The appellate court, reversing the trial court’s decision, ruled that such pre-conversion agreements are enforceable as long as the rights of creditors or other third parties are not involved and the parties’ rights under the partnership agreement are not in conflict with the corporation’s functioning. Judicial dissolution of the dental practice would be inappropriate, the court added, in that it would allow avoidance of the buyout provisions by seeking such dissolution.
The best practice, of course, is to make a new written agreement when converting to a new form of entity, or at least indicate in writing whether the old agreement survives the conversion.