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13.3 Cases

Tests of Partnership Existence

Chaiken v. Employment Security Commission

274 A.2d 707 (Del. 1971)

STOREY, J.

The Employment Security Commission, hereinafter referred to as the Commission, levied an involuntary assessment against Richard K. Chaiken, complainant, hereinafter referred to as Chaiken, for not filing his unemployment security assessment report. Pursuant to the same statutory section, a hearing was held and a determination made by the Commission that Chaiken was the employer of two barbers in his barber shop and that he should be assessed as an employer for his share of unemployment compensation contributions. Chaiken appealed the Commission’s decision.…

Both in the administrative hearing and in his appeal brief Chaiken argues that he had entered into partnership agreements with each of his barbers and, therefore, was and is not subject to unemployment compensation assessment. The burden is upon the individual assessed to show that he is outside the ambit of the statutory sections requiring assessment. If Chaiken’s partnership argument fails he has no secondary position and he fails to meet his burden.

Chaiken contends that he and his “partners”:

  1. properly registered the partnership name and names of partners in the prothonotary’s office, in accordance with [the relevant statute],The word prothonotary means first notary of the court. The prothonotary is the keeper of the civil records for the court system. The office is responsible for the creation, maintenance, and certification of matters pending or determined by the court. The office is also responsible for certain reporting and collection duties to state agencies.
  2. properly filed federal partnership information returns and paid federal taxes quarterly on an estimated basis, and
  3. duly executed partnership agreements.

Of the three factors, the last is most important. Agreements of “partnership” were executed between Chaiken and Mr. Strazella, a barber in the shop, and between Chaiken and Mr. Spitzer, similarly situated. The agreements were nearly identical. The first paragraph declared the creation of a partnership and the location of business. The second provided that Chaiken would provide barber chair, supplies, and licenses, while the other partner would provide tools of the trade. The paragraph also declared that upon dissolution of the partnership, ownership of items would revert to the party providing them. The third paragraph declared that the income of the partnership would be divided 30% for Chaiken, 70% for Strazella; 20% for Chaiken and 80% for Spitzer. The fourth paragraph declared that all partnership policy would be decided by Chaiken, whose decision was final. The fifth paragraph forbade assignment of the agreement without permission of Chaiken. The sixth paragraph required Chaiken to hold and distribute all receipts. The final paragraph stated hours of work for Strazella and Spitzer and holidays.

The mere existence of an agreement labeled “partnership” agreement and the characterization of signatories as “partners” docs not conclusively prove the existence of a partnership. Rather, the intention of the parties, as explained by the wording of the agreement, is paramount.

A partnership is defined as an association of two or more persons to carry on as co-owners a business for profit. As co-owners of a business, partners have an equal right in the decision making process. But this right may be abrogated by agreement of the parties without destroying the partnership concept, provided other partnership elements are present.

Thus, while paragraph four reserves for Chaiken all right to determine partnership policy, it is not standing alone, fatal to the partnership concept. Co-owners should also contribute valuable consideration for the creation of the business. Under paragraph two, however, Chaiken provides the barber chair (and implicitly the barber shop itself), mirror, licenses and linen, while the other partners merely provide their tools and labor—nothing more than any barber-employee would furnish. Standing alone, however, mere contribution of work and skill can be valuable consideration for a partnership agreement.

Partnership interests may be assignable, although it is not a violation of partnership law to prohibit assignment in a partnership agreement. Therefore, paragraph five on assignment of partnership interests does not violate the partnership concept. On the other hand, distribution of partnership assets to the partners upon dissolution is only allowed after all partnership liabilities are satisfied. But paragraph two of the agreement, in stating the ground rules for dissolution, makes no declaration that the partnership assets will be utilized to pay partnership expenses before reversion to their original owners. This deficiency militates against a finding in favor of partnership intent since it is assumed Chaiken would have inserted such provision had he thought his lesser partners would accept such liability. Partners do accept such liability, employees do not.

Most importantly, co-owners carry on “a business for profit.” The phrase has been interpreted to mean that partners share in the profits and the losses of the business. The intent to divide the profits is an indispensable requisite of partnership. Paragraph three of the agreement declares that each partner shall share in the income of the business. There is no sharing of the profits, and as the agreement is drafted, there are no profits. Merely sharing the gross returns does not establish a partnership. Nor is the sharing of profits prima facie evidence of a partnership where the profits received are in payment of wages.

The failure to share profits, therefore, is fatal to the partnership concept here.

Evaluating Chaiken’s agreement in light of the elements implicit in a partnership, no partnership intent can be found. The absence of the important right of decision making or the important duty to share liabilities upon dissolution individually may not be fatal to a partnership. But when both are absent, coupled with the absence of profit sharing, they become strong factors in discrediting the partnership argument. Such weighing of the elements against a partnership finding compares favorably with Fenwick v. Unemployment Compensation Commission, which decided against the partnership theory on similar facts, including the filing of partnership income tax forms.

In addition, the total circumstances of the case taken together indicate the employer-employee relationship between Chaiken and his barbers. The agreement set forth the hours of work and days off—unusual subjects for partnership agreements. The barbers brought into the relationship only the equipment required of all barber shop operators. And each barber had his own individual “partnership” with Chaiken. Furthermore, Chaiken conducted all transactions with suppliers, and purchased licenses, insurance, and the lease for the business property in his own name. Finally, the name “Richard’s Barber Shop” continued to be used after the execution of the so-called partnership agreements. [The Commission’s decision is affirmed.]

Case Questions

  1. Why did the unemployment board sue Chaiken?
  2. Why did Chaiken set up this “partnership”?
  3. What factors did the court examine to determine whether there was a partnership here? Which one was the most important?
  4. Why would it be unusual in a partnership agreement to set forth the hours of work and days off?

Creation of a Partnership: Registering the Name

Loomis v. Whitehead

183 P.3d 890 (Nev. 2008)

Per Curiam.

In this appeal, we address whether [Nevada Revised Statute] NRS 602.070 bars the partners of an unregistered fictitious name partnership from bringing an action arising out of a business agreement that was not made under the fictitious name. [The statute] prohibits persons who fail to file an assumed or fictitious name certificate from suing on any contract or agreement made under the assumed or fictitious name. We conclude that it does not bar the partners from bringing the action so long as the partners did not conduct the business or enter into an agreement under the fictitious name or otherwise mislead the other party into thinking that he was doing business with some entity other than the partners themselves.

Background Facts

Appellants Leroy Loomis and David R. Shanahan raised and sold cattle in Elko County, Nevada. Each of the appellants had certain responsibilities relating to the cattle business. Loomis supplied the livestock and paid expenses, while Shanahan managed the day-to-day care of the cattle. Once the cattle were readied for market and sold, Loomis and Shanahan would share the profits equally. While Loomis and Shanahan often called themselves the 52 Cattle Company, they had no formal partnership agreement and did not file an assumed or fictitious name certificate in that name. Loomis and Shanahan bring this appeal after an agreement entered into with respondent Jerry Carr Whitehead failed.

In the fall of 2003, Shanahan entered into a verbal agreement with Whitehead, a rancher, through Whitehead’s ranch foreman to have their cattle wintered at Whitehead’s ranch. Neither Loomis nor Whitehead was present when the ranch foreman made the deal with Shanahan, but the parties agree that there was no mention of the 52 Cattle Company at the time they entered into the agreement or anytime during the course of business thereafter. Shanahan and Loomis subsequently alleged that their cattle were malnourished and that a number of their cattle died from starvation that winter at Whitehead’s ranch. Whitehead denied these allegations.

Suit against Whitehead

The following summer, Shanahan and Loomis sued Whitehead, claiming negligence and breach of contract. Later, well into discovery, Whitehead was made aware of the existence of the 52 Cattle Company when Shanahan stated in his deposition that he did not actually own any of the cattle on Whitehead’s ranch. In his deposition, he described the partnership arrangement. At about the same time, Whitehead learned that the name “52 Cattle Company” was not registered with the Elko County Clerk.

Whitehead then filed a motion for partial summary judgment, asserting that, pursuant to NRS 602.070, Loomis and Shanahan’s failure to register their fictitiously named partnership with the county clerk barred them from bringing a legal action. The district court agreed with Whitehead, granted the motion, and dismissed Loomis and Shanahan’s claims. Loomis and Shanahan timely appealed.

Discussion

The district court found that Loomis and Shanahan conducted business under a fictitious name without filing a fictitious name certificate with the Elko County Clerk as required by NRS 602.010.NRS 602.010(1): “Every person doing business in this state under an assumed or fictitious name that is in any way different from the legal name of each person who owns an interest in the business must file with the county clerk of each county in which the business is being conducted a certificate containing the information required by NRS 602.020.” The district court therefore concluded that, pursuant to NRS 602.070, they were barred from bringing an action against Whitehead because they did not file a fictitious name certificate for the 52 Cattle Company.NRS 602.070: “No action may be commenced or maintained by any person…upon or on account of any contract made or transaction had under the assumed or fictitious name, or upon or on account of any cause of action arising or growing out of the business conducted under that name, unless before the commencement of the action the certificate required by NRS 602.010 has been filed.”

Loomis and Shanahan contend that the district court erred in granting partial summary judgment because they did not enter into a contract with Whitehead under the name of the 52 Cattle Company, and they did not conduct business with Whitehead under that name. Loomis and Shanahan argue that NRS 602.070 is not applicable to their action against Whitehead because they did not mislead Whitehead into thinking that he was doing business with anyone other than them. We agree.…

When looking at a statute’s language, this court is bound to follow the statute’s plain meaning, unless the plain meaning was clearly not intended. Here, in using the phrase “under the assumed or fictitious name,” the statute clearly bars bringing an action when the claims arise from a contract, transaction, or business conducted beneath the banner of an unregistered fictitious name. However, NRS 602.070 does not apply to individual partners whose transactions or business with another party were not performed under the fictitious name.

Here, Whitehead knew that Shanahan entered into the oral contract under his own name. He initially thought that Shanahan owned the cattle and Loomis had “some type of interest.” Shanahan did not enter into the contract under the fictitious “52 Cattle Company” name. Moreover, Whitehead does not allege that he was misled by either Loomis or Shanahan in any way that would cause him to think he was doing business with the 52 Cattle Company. In fact, Whitehead did not know of the 52 Cattle Company until Shanahan mentioned it in his deposition. Under these circumstances, when there simply was no indication that Loomis and Shanahan represented that they were conducting business as the 52 Cattle Company and no reliance by Whitehead that he was doing business with the 52 Cattle Company, NRS 602.070 does not bar the suit against Whitehead.

We therefore reverse the district court’s partial summary judgment in this instance and remand for trial because, while the lawsuit between Loomis and Whitehead involved partnership business, the transaction at issue was not conducted and the subsequent suit was not maintained under the aegis of the fictitiously named partnership.

Case Questions

  1. The purpose of the fictitious name statute might well be, as the court here describes it, “to prevent fraud and to give the public information about those entities with which they conduct business.” But that’s not what the statute says; it says nobody can sue on a cause of action arising out of business conducted under a fictitious name if the name is not registered. The legislature determined the consequence of failure to register. Should the court disregard the statute’s plain, unambiguous meaning?
  2. That was one of two arguments by the dissent in this case. The second one was based on this problem: Shanahan and Loomis agreed that the cattle at issue were partnership cattle bearing the “52” brand. That is, the cows were not Shanahan’s; they were the partnership’s. When Whitehead moved to dismiss Shanahan’s claim—again, because the cows weren’t Shanahan’s—Shanahan conceded that but for the existence of the partnership he would have no claim against Whitehead. If there is no claim against the defendant except insofar as he harmed the partnership business (the cattle), how could the majority assert that claims against Whitehead did not arise out of “the business” conducted under 52 Cattle Company? Who has the better argument, the majority or the dissent?
  3. Here is another problem along the same lines but with a different set of facts and a Uniform Partnership Act (UPA) jurisdiction (i.e., pre–Revised Uniform Partnership Act [RUPA]). Suppose the plaintiffs had a partnership (as they did here), but the claim by one was that the other partner had stolen several head of cattle, and UPA was in effect so that the partnership property was owned as “tenant in partnership”—the cattle would be owned by the partners as a whole. A person who steals his own property cannot be criminally liable; therefore, a partner cannot be guilty of stealing (or misappropriating) firm property. Thus under UPA there arise anomalous cases, for example, in People v. Zinke, 555 N.E.2d 263 (N.Y. 1990), which is a criminal case, Zinke embezzled over a million dollars from his own investment firm but the prosecutor’s case against him was dismissed because, the New York court said, “partners cannot be prosecuted for stealing firm property.” If the partnership is a legal entity, as under RUPA, how is this result changed?

Partnership by Estoppel

Chavers v. Epsco, Inc.

98 S.W.3d 421 (Ark. 2003)

Hannah, J.

Appellants Reggie Chavers and Mark Chavers appeal a judgment entered against them by the Craighead County Circuit Court. Reggie and Mark argue that the trial court erred in holding them liable for a company debt based upon partnership by estoppel because the proof was vague and insufficient and there was no detrimental reliance on the part of a creditor. We hold that the trial court was not clearly erroneous in finding liability based upon partnership by estoppel. Accordingly, we affirm.

Facts

Gary Chavers operated Chavers Welding and Construction (“CWC”), a construction and welding business, in Jonesboro. Gary’s sons Reggie Chavers and Mark Chavers joined their father in the business after graduating from high school. Gary, Mark, and Reggie maintain that CWC was a sole proprietorship owned by Gary, and that Reggie and Mark served only as CWC employees, not as CWC partners.

In February 1999, CWC entered into an agreement with Epsco, Inc. (“Epsco”), a staffing service, to provide payroll and employee services for CWC. Initially, Epsco collected payments for its services on a weekly basis, but later, Epsco extended credit to CWC. Melton Clegg, President of Epsco, stated that his decision to extend credit to CWC was based, in part, on his belief that CWC was a partnership.

CWC’s account with Epsco became delinquent, and Epsco filed a complaint against Gary, Reggie, and Mark, individually, and doing business as CWC, to recover payment for the past due account. Gary discharged a portion of his obligation to Epsco due to his filing for bankruptcy. Epsco sought to recover CWC’s remaining debt from Reggie and Mark. After a hearing on March 7, 2002, the trial court issued a letter opinion, finding that Reggie and Mark “represented themselves to [Epsco] as partners in an existing partnership and operated in such a fashion to give creditors in general, and Epsco in particular, the impression that such creditors/potential creditors were doing business with a partnership.…” On May 21, 2002, the trial court entered an order stating that Reggie and Mark were partners by estoppel as relates to Epsco. The trial court found that Reggie and Mark were jointly and severally liable for the debt of CWC in the amount of $80,360.92. In addition, the trial court awarded Epsco pre-judgment interest at the rate of six percent, post-judgment interest at the rate of ten percent, and attorney’s fees in the amount of $8,036.92.

[The relevant Arkansas statute provides]:

(1) When a person, by words spoken or written or by conduct, represents himself, or consents to another representing him to any one, as a partner in an existing partnership or with one (1) or more persons not actual partners, he is liable to any person to whom such representation has been made, who has, on the faith of such representation, given credit to the actual or apparent partnership, and if he has made such representation or consented to its being made in a public manner, he is liable to that person, whether the representation has or has not been made or communicated to that person so giving credit by or with the knowledge of the apparent partner making the representation or consenting to it being made.

(a) When a partnership liability results, he is liable as though he were an actual member of the partnership.

We have long recognized the doctrine of partnership by estoppel. [Citation, 1840], the court stated that

they who hold themselves out to the world as partners in business or trade, are to be so regarded as to creditors and third persons; and the partnership may be established by any evidence showing that they so hold themselves out to the public, and were so regarded by the trading community.

Further, we have stated that “[p]artnerships may be proved by circumstantial evidence; and evidence will sometimes fix a joint liability, where persons are charged as partners, in a suit by a third person, when they are not, in fact, partners as between themselves.” [Citation, 1843.]

In [Citation, 1906], the court noted that

[a] person who holds himself out as a partner of a firm is estopped to deny such representation, not only as to those as to whom the representation was directly made, but as to all others who had knowledge of such holding out and in reliance thereon sold goods to the firm.…

In addition, “if the party himself puts out the report that he is a partner, he will be liable to all those selling goods to the firm on the faith and credit of such report.” [Citation] When a person holds himself out as a member of partnership, any one dealing with the firm on the faith of such representation is entitled to assume the relation continues until notice of some kind is given of its discontinuance. [Citations]

In [Citation, 1944], the court wrote:

It is a thoroughly well-settled rule that persons who are not as between themselves partners, or as between whom there is in fact no legal partnership, may nevertheless become subject to the liabilities of partners, either by holding themselves out as partners to the public and the world generally or to particular individuals, or by knowingly or negligently permitting another person to do so. All persons who hold themselves out, or knowingly permit others to hold them out, to the public as partners, although they are not in partnership, become bound as partners to all who deal with them in their apparent relation.

The liability as a partner of a person who holds himself out as a partner, or permits others to do so, is predicated on the doctrine of estoppel and on the policy of the law seeking to prevent frauds on those who lend their money on the apparent credit of those who are held out as partners. One holding himself out as a partner or knowingly permitting himself to be so held out is estopped from denying liability as a partner to one who has extended credit in reliance thereon, although no partnership has in fact existed.

In the present case, the trial court cited specific examples of representations made by Reggie and Mark indicating that they were partners of CWC, including correspondence to Epsco, checks written to Epsco, business cards distributed to the public, and credit applications. We will discuss each in turn.

The Faxed Credit References

Epsco argues that Plaintiff’s Exhibit # 1, a faxed list of credit references, clearly indicates that Gary was the owner and that Reggie and Mark were partners in the business. The fax lists four credit references, and it includes CWC’s contact information. The contact information lists CWC’s telephone number, fax number, and federal tax number. The last two lines of the contact information state: “Gary Chavers Owner” and “Reggie Chavers and Mark Chavers Partners.”

Gary testified that he did not know that the list of credit references was faxed to Epsco. In addition, he testified that his signature was not at the bottom of the fax. He testified that his former secretary might have signed his name to the fax; however, he stated that he did not authorize his secretary to sign or fax a list of credit references to Epsco. Moreover, Gary testified that the first time he saw the list of credit references was at the bench trial.

This court gives deference to the superior position of the trial judge to determine the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be accorded their testimony. [Citations] Though there was a dispute concerning whether Gary faxed the list to Epsco, the trial court found that Epsco received the faxed credit references from CWC and relied on CWC’s statement that Reggie and Mark were partners. The trial court’s finding is not clearly erroneous.

The Fax Cover Sheet

At trial, Epsco introduced Plaintiff’s Exhibit # 2, a fax cover sheet from “Chavers Construction” to Epsco. The fax cover sheet was dated July 19, 2000. The fax cover sheet contained the address, telephone number, and fax number of the business. Listed under this information was “Gary, Reggie, or Mark Chavers.” Epsco argues that Gary, Reggie, and Mark are all listed on the fax cover sheet, and that this indicates that they were holding themselves out to the public as partners of the business. The trial court’s finding that the fax cover sheet indicated that Reggie and Mark were holding themselves out as partners of CWC is not clearly erroneous.

The Epsco Personnel Credit Application

Epsco introduced Plaintiff’s Exhibit # 9, a personnel credit application, which was received from CWC. Adams testified that the exhibit represented a completed credit application that she received from CWC. The type of business checked on the credit application is “partnership.” Adams testified that the application showed the company to be a partnership, and that this information was relied upon in extending credit. Clegg testified that he viewed the credit application which indicated that CWC was a partnership, and that his decision to extend credit to CWC was based, in part, on his belief that CWC was a partnership. Gary denied filling out the credit application form.

It was within the trial court’s discretion to find Adams’s and Clegg’s testimony more credible than Gary’s testimony and to determine that Epsco relied on the statement of partnership on the credit application before extending credit to CWC. The trial court’s finding concerning the credit application is not clearly erroneous.

The Checks to Epsco

Epsco argues that Plaintiff’s Exhibit # 3 and Plaintiff’s Exhibit # 11, checks written to Epsco showing the CWC account to be in the name of “Gary A. or Reggie J. Chavers,” indicates that Reggie was holding himself out to be a partner of CWC. Plaintiff’s Exhibit # 3 was signed by Gary, and Plaintiff’s Exhibit # 11 was signed by Reggie. The checks are evidence that Reggie was holding himself out to the public as a partner of CWC, and Epsco could have detrimentally relied on the checks before extending credit to CWC. The trial court was not clearly erroneous in finding that the checks supported a finding of partnership by estoppel.

The Business Card

Epsco introduced Plaintiff’s Exhibit # 4, a business card that states “Chavers Welding, Construction & Crane Service.” Listed on the card as “owners” are Gary Chavers and Reggie Chavers. Gary testified that the business cards were printed incorrectly, and that Reggie’s name should not have been included as an owner. He also testified that some of the cards might have been handed out, and that it was possible that he might have given one of the cards to a business listed as one of CWC’s credit references on Plaintiff’s Exhibit # 1.

The business card listing Reggie as an owner indicates that Reggie was holding himself out as a partner. As we stated in [Citation] when a person holds himself out as a member of partnership, any one dealing with the firm on the faith of such representation is entitled to assume the relation continues until notice of some kind is given of its discontinuance. There is no indication that Reggie ever informed any person who received a business card that the business relationship listed on the card was incorrect or had been discontinued. The trial court’s finding concerning the business card is not clearly erroneous.

The Dealership Application

Epsco introduced Plaintiff’s Exhibit # 5, an application form from “Chavers Welding,” signed by Reggie, seeking a dealership from Sukup Manufacturing. The application, dated January 23, 1997, lists “Gary & Reggie Chavers” as owners of “Chavers Welding.” The application is signed by Reggie. Reggie admits that he signed the dealership application and represented that he was an owner of “Chavers Welding,” but he dismisses his statement of ownership as mere “puffery” on his part. Epsco argues that instead, the application shows that Reggie was holding himself out to the public as being a partner. The trial court’s determination that Reggie’s dealership application supports a finding of partnership by estoppel is not clearly erroneous.

In sum, the trial court was not clearly erroneous in finding that Reggie and Mark held themselves out as partners of CWC and that Epsco detrimentally relied on the existence of the partnership before extending credit to CWC. The appellants argue that even if we find Reggie liable based upon partnership by estoppel, there was scant proof of Mark being liable based upon partnership by estoppel. We disagree. We are aware that some examples of holding out cited in the trial court’s order pertain only to Reggie. However, the representations attributed to both Reggie and Mark are sufficient proof to support the trial court’s finding that both Reggie and Mark are estopped from denying liability to Epsco.

Affirmed.

Case Questions

  1. What is the rationale for the doctrine of partnership by estoppel?
  2. Gary and Reggie claimed the evidence brought forth to show the existence of a partnership was unconvincing. How credible were their claims?