Chan v Zacharia

Australian Equity & Trusts

Chan v Zacharia
Image: ‘Doctor’s Office’ by Norman Rockwell

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.

Ream v. Frey

US Equity & Trusts

Ream v Frey
Image: ‘The Banker’s Table’ by William M Harnett

The essence of fiduciary duties run counter to the arms-length relationships navigated by contracting parties, and so on this occasion, the relinquishing of trustee duties by a regulated bank proved a reversal of fortune for an innocent employee.

While operating his construction company, the sole owner established a Profit Sharing 401(k) Plan for the benefit of his numerous employees. Almost six years later, the company filed for bankruptcy under Ch. 7 of the Bankruptcy Code, after which one of its employees requested payment for the money he had invested during the life of the plan.

With an estimated $14,000 owed, the employer agreed to settle the matter with a payment of $21,000 to cover court fees incurred while pursuing the debt on grounds of a fiduciary breach. Unfortunately, the employer paid only $18,500, after which he escaped jurisdiction and was never seen again. This left the employee with no option other than to claim the remaining $3,000 from the now appellant bank, who in accordance with the terms of the plan, was an acting trustee under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).

At the point of litigation, it became clear that while serving as a trustee, the bank was under duty to inform where possible, all plan beneficiaries of its decision to rescind its appointment, as expressed under art. 15.6 of the plan, which allowed the bank to resign by written notice, after which any outstanding funds would be transferred to a successor trustee; however should one not be available, the administrator of the plan would automatically occupy that position.

Unbeknown to the employee, the bank had been struggling to communicate with the employer for a number of months, and after resigning as trustees with the knowledge that the trustee-administrator relationship had broken down, and that the company was now also in financial trouble, the bank had handed $53,000 of plan funds to the employer without notifying the beneficiaries of their decision. It was at this point that the employer converted the assets for his own personal use, sometime before part-settling with the employee and disappearing.

When heard in the district court, the judge awarded in favour of the claimant employee, whereupon the bank appealed to the court of appeals, who investigated further, the nature of the plan and associated case precedents. Here it was agreed that under § 106 of the Restatement (Second) of Trusts, a trustee was able to resign in accordance with a trust with express permission of the beneficiaries or consent of the court, yet at no point had the bank alerted the employee(s) of either the decision to resign, or the uncertain future of the employer.

It was also noted that under s. 11.4 of the plan, that the bank could be could liable:

“[T]o the extent it is judicially determined that the Trustee/Custodian has failed to exercise the care, skill, prudence and diligence under the circumstances then prevailing that a prudent person acting in a like capacity and familiar with such matters would use in the conduct of an enterprise of a like character with like aims.”

While the bank argued that under such circumstances, legal remedy would be sustainable only as a class action involving all the beneficiaries, the court held that in Varity Corp. v. Howe, individual remedy was viable under ERISA § 502(a)(3), which provides that equitable relief is granted to individuals in order to “redress any act or practice which violates any provision of this title”. The court also noted that § 173 of the Restatement (Second) of Trusts provides that:

“[The Trustee] is under a duty to communicate to the beneficiary material facts affecting the interest of the beneficiary which he knows the beneficiary does not know and which the beneficiary needs to know for his protection in dealing with a third person.”

It was for these salient reasons that the appeal court supported the district court ruling and awarded in favour of the employee for the remaining balance of the plan monies, while adding that had the bank been in a position to hand over money of its own to the employer, things may have taken quite a different turn, especially when considering the vulnerability of the beneficiaries.