Frigidaire Sales Corp. v. Union Properties, Inc.
562 P.2d 244 (Wash. 1977)
Plaintiff [Frigidaire] entered into a contract with Commercial Investors (Commercial), a limited partnership. Defendants, Leonard Mannon and Raleigh Baxter, were limited partners of Commercial. Defendants were also officers, directors, and shareholders of Union Properties, Inc., the only general partner of Commercial. Defendants controlled Union Properties, and through their control of Union Properties they exercised the day-to-day control and management of Commercial. Commercial breached the contract, and Plaintiff brought suit against Union Properties and Defendants. The trial court concluded that Defendants did not incur general liability for Commercial’s obligations by reason of their control of Commercial, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
[Plaintiff] does not contend that Defendants acted improperly by setting up the limited partnership with a corporation as the sole general partner. Limited partnerships are a statutory form of business organization, and parties creating a limited partnership must follow the statutory requirements. In Washington, parties may form a limited partnership with a corporation as the sole general partner. [Citations]
Plaintiff’s sole contention is that Defendants should incur general liability for the limited partnership’s obligations under RCW 25.08.070, because they exercised the day-to-day control and management of Commercial. Defendants, on the other hand, argue that Commercial was controlled by Union Properties, a separate legal entity, and not by Defendants in their individual capacities. [RCW 25.08.070 then read: “A limited partner shall not become liable as a general partner unless, in addition to the exercise of his rights and powers as limited partner, he takes part in the control of the business.”]
…The pattern of operation of Union Properties was to investigate and conceive of real estate investment opportunities and, when it found such opportunities, to cause the creation of limited partnerships with Union Properties acting as the general partner. Commercial was only one of several limited partnerships so conceived and created. Defendants did not form Union Properties for the sole purpose of operating Commercial. Hence, their acts on behalf of Union Properties were not performed merely for the benefit of Commercial.…
[P]etitioner was never led to believe that Defendants were acting in any capacity other than in their corporate capacities. The parties stipulated at the trial that Defendants never acted in any direct, personal capacity. When the shareholders of a corporation, who are also the corporation’s officers and directors, conscientiously keep the affairs of the corporation separate from their personal affairs, and no fraud or manifest injustice is perpetrated upon third persons who deal with the corporation, the corporation’s separate entity should be respected. [Citations]
For us to find that Defendants incurred general liability for the limited partnership’s obligations under RCW 25.08.070 would require us to apply a literal interpretation of the statute and totally ignore the corporate entity of Union Properties, when Plaintiff knew it was dealing with that corporate entity. There can be no doubt that Defendants, in fact, controlled the corporation. However, they did so only in their capacities as agents for their principal, the corporate general partner. Although the corporation was a separate entity, it could act only through its board of directors, officers, and agents. [Citations] Plaintiff entered into the contract with Commercial. Defendants signed the contract in their capacities as president and secretary-treasurer of Union Properties, the general partner of Commercial. In the eyes of the law it was Union Properties, as a separate corporate entity, which entered into the contract with Plaintiff and controlled the limited partnership.
Further, because Defendants scrupulously separated their actions on behalf of the corporation from their personal actions, Plaintiff never mistakenly assumed that Defendants were general partners with general liability. [Citations] Plaintiff knew Union Properties was the sole general partner and did not rely on Defendants’ control by assuming that they were also general partners. If Plaintiff had not wished to rely on the solvency of Union Properties as the only general partner, it could have insisted that Defendants personally guarantee contractual performance. Because Plaintiff entered into the contract knowing that Union Properties was the only party with general liability, and because in the eyes of the law it was Union Properties, a separate entity, which controlled the limited partnership, there is no reason for us to find that Defendants incurred general liability for their acts done as officers of the corporate general partner.
The decision of the Court of Appeals is affirmed.
- Frigidaire entered into a contract with Commercial Investors, a limited partnership. The general partner in the limited partnership was Union Properties, Inc., a corporation. Who were the limited partners in the limited partnership? Who were the controlling principals of the corporate general partner?
- Why is it common for the general partner in a limited partnership to be a corporation?
- Why does the court reiterate that the plaintiff knew it was dealing with a limited partnership that had a corporate general partner?
- What could the plaintiff have done in this case to protect itself?
- The court ruled in favor of the defendants, but is this setup kind of a scam? What is the “moral hazard” problem lurking in this case?