Matters of contract and the fiduciary elements of a working partnership, become at odds in a case involving opportunism with little regard to the details of the agreement signed when two former business partners acrimoniously part ways.
In 1979, two doctors agreed to set up a joint practice in an enviable part of Adelaide, and upon doing so, drafted a partnership agreement that established express terms around honourable working practices, and an ethical approach to the future of the enterprise. Sadly, as often happens in commercial relationships, the two men found working together intolerable, and so agreed to dissolve the practice.
One of the attractive features of the property was that of its location and the option to renew the lease for another two years, on the proviso that both partners were complicit in its execution. However, at the point of litigation, the appellant had shown clear reluctance to renew the lease, thus leaving the respondent no choice but to circumnavigate the matter as best as possible.
While the two parties had terminated the business, there was still a portion of the existing lease remaining, of which an equal share was held by both men, and yet in a strange turn of events, the landlord agreed to extend the lease to the appellant, and accordingly wrote to confirm this to the respondent. This prompted action by the respondent on grounds that the appellant had breached his fiduciary duty in accepting the new lease while inheriting the value of the interest of the existing lease, and that by doing so, he held the new lease as a constructive trustee on the equitable principle that the lease was an asset of the former partnership and therefore under a right of claim.
This contention was duly supported by the Supreme Court, at which point the appellant sought the wisdom of the High Court. Here, s.38 of the Partnership Act 1891 (SA) noted that:
“After the dissolution of a partnership the authority of each partner to bind the firm, and the other rights and obligations of the partners, continue, notwithstanding the dissolution, so far as may be necessary to wind up the affairs of the partnership, and to complete transactions begun but unfinished at the time of the dissolution, but not otherwise.”
While s.39 also stated how:
“On the dissolution of a partnership every partner is entitled, as against the other partners in the firm, and all persons claiming through them in respect of their interests as partners, to have the property of the partnership applied in payment of the debts and liabilities of the firm, and to have the surplus assets after such payment applied in payment of what may be due to the partners respectively after deducting what may be due from them as partners to the firm; and for that purpose any partner or his or her representatives may on the termination of the partnership apply to the Court to wind up the business and affairs of the firm.”
However, clause 26 of the partnership agreement clearly expressed that any surplus assets remaining after payment of debts, liabilities, expenses and amounts due to the partners, was to be divided equally through the execution of observation of all legal instruments and Acts, and the provisions contained therein.
This was the position adopted in Hugh Stevenson & Sons Ltd v Aktiengesellschaft Fur Cartonnagen-Industrie, where Romer LJ remarked:
“[W]herever the legal estate may be, whether it is in the partners jointly or in one partner or in a stranger it does not matter, the beneficial interest…belongs to the partnership, with an implied trust for sale for the purpose of realising the assets and for the purpose of giving to the two partners their interests when the partnership is wound up and an account taken…”
A fact that was equally present in clause 19 of the partnership agreement, which required each partner to:
“[D]evote his whole time (subject to annual leave) to the medical practice, to act in all things according to the highest standards of professional conduct and be just and faithful to the other partner in all transactions relating to the partnership…”
And so it was for these undeniable reasons, that the Court held (by majority) that when agreeing to and pursuing the opportunity to secure an extension of the lease after refusing to cooperate with his former partner, the appellant did, by virtue of his selfishness, breach what remained of his fiduciary capacity, and in doing so, became a constructive trustee for the value of the lease, and thus owed account to the respondent in kind.
“[A]fter the dissolution of a partnership which has not been fully wound up, a partner is under the same restrictions with regard to the renewal of a lease which remains a partnership asset as if he were still a partner.”
“The equitable principle governing the liability to account is concerned not so much with the mere existence of a conflict between personal interest and fiduciary duty as with the pursuit of personal interest by, for example, actually entering into a transaction or engagement…or the actual receipt of personal benefit or gain in circumstances where such conflict exists or has existed.”
“[T]he principle of equity is that a person who is under a fiduciary obligation must account to the person to whom the obligation is owed for any benefit or gain (i) which has been obtained or received in circumstances where a conflict or significant possibility of conflict existed between his fiduciary duty and his personal interest in the pursuit or possible receipt of such a benefit or gain or (ii) which was obtained or received by use or by reason of his fiduciary position or of opportunity or knowledge resulting from it. Any such benefit or gain is held by the fiduciary as constructive trustee…”