Partnership Dissolved, but Partner Still Liable

Last year the Indiana Court of Appeals decided a case that illustrates some of the hazards of operating a business as a general partnership. The case is Curves for Women of Angola vs. Flying Cat, LLC.

In 2001, a married couple, Dan and Lori, purchased a fitness and health franchise known as Curves for Women that they intended to operate in Angola, Indiana. The franchise agreement, which Dan and Lori both signed, contained the following affirmation:

We the undersigned principals of the corporate or partnership franchisee, do as individuals jointly and severally, with the corporation or partnership and amongst ourselves, accept and agree to all of the provisions, covenants and conditions of this agreement[.]

At no time did Dan and Lori form a corporation or limited liability company to own the franchise – not before signing the franchise agreement and not after.

At about the same time, Dan and Lori leased space in which to operate the business, known as Curves for Women of Angola. The landlord was Flying Cat, LLC. Both Dan and Lori signed the lease, each in the capacity of “Owner.” The lease was for a term of three years, with options to renew for additional three-year terms.

After the lease was signed, the business began operation. Lori managed the day-to-day operations, and Dan handled the responsibilities for accounting and equipment maintenance. The profits from the business were treated as joint marital property, available to both Dan and Lori.

In 2004, Dan and Lori exercised the option to renew the lease. As with the original lease, they both signed the renewal agreement.

In 2005, Dan and Lori separated. Over the next two years, they made several attempts to reconcile, but in 2007 Lori filed for divorce.

After she filed for divorce, Lori signed a second lease extension with Flying Cat, LLC. Dan did not sign the renewal agreement. At the time the second lease extension was signed, the business was already behind in its rent, and over the next two to three years, it fell even further behind. In 2010, Flying Cat, LLC sued Curves for Women of Angola, Lori, and Dan, claiming that, as partners, Lori and Dan were both personally liable for the back rent owed by the partnership.

First, the Court of Appeals held that a partnership existed between Dan and Lori. In doing so, the court cited Ind. Code § 23 4 1 7, which provides that, with certain inapplicable exceptions, the receipt by a person of a share of the profits of a business is evidence that a partnership exists. Once a partnership exists, each partner is personally liable for all the obligations and debts of the partnership. In addition, it requires the signature of only one partner to form a contract that binds the partnership and, by extension, binds all the partners.

However, Dan argued that he was not bound by the second lease extension that Lori signed after she filed for divorce, pointing to the fact that her petition clearly indicated her intent to terminate the business relationship with Dan. The Court of Appeals agreed with Dan that the partnership was dissolved when Lori filed her petition, but nonetheless held that Dan was liable for the second lease extension.

The basis for the holding lies in Ind. Code § 23 4 1 35(1)(b), which provides that a partner can bind the partnership after dissolution if the other party to the transaction knew that the partnership existed prior to dissolution and had no knowledge or notice that the partnership had been dissolved. Notice can be provided by publishing a notice of the dissolution in a newspaper of general circulation in the place where the partnership regularly conducted business. The Court of Appeals noted that the landlord knew of the partnership prior to dissolution, that the landlord had no knowledge or notice of the dissolution, and that no notice had been published in the local newspaper. Accordingly, Lori’s signature on the second lease extension bound the partnership and, by extension, Dan, even though the partnership was already dissolved.

Because each partner to a general partnership is liable for all the obligations and debts of the business, including obligations and debts incurred by one partner even without the knowledge of the others, it is hard for us to imagine a situation in which we would advise a client to organize a business as a general partnership. Even so, general partnerships exist, and, as this case illustrates, a partner leaving the partnership must take appropriate measures – including publication of a notice of dissolution – to protect himself or herself from incurring further liability.