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.