Business Owners Take Note as Enterprise Completes Its Mission: Supreme Court Holds No Common Law Partnership Was Formed with ETP
Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.
— Dr. Spock, Star Trek, Starfleet Officer
The long running legal saga between Enterprise Products Partners (“Enterprise”) and Energy Transfer Partners (“ETP”) finally concluded on January 31, 2020, when the Texas Supreme Court unanimously decided that no partnership had ever arisen between the parties. (Read) This dispute between two of the major players in the energy industry focused on the legal standard for determining when a partnership is formed. ETP argued that the test should be based on the parties’ conduct, while Enterprise maintained that the parties had agreed that specific conditions in their contracts had to be established before a partnership was created, and those conditions were never met.
As the Supreme Court’s opinion brings to a close eight years of hard-fought litigation between Enterprise and ETP, we will share our third, and hopefully last, blog post about the case and also review some important lessons for business owners gleaned from this legal conflict. ¹
Predictable Legal Result
The staggering $535 million jury verdict that ETP secured against Enterprise in 2014 had always rested on tenuous legal ground because it conflicted with the terms of the parties’ written agreements. At trial, ETP claimed that Enterprise had breached its fiduciary duty as a partner when it ditched ETP to enter into a new pipeline deal with a competitor, Enbridge. The result at trial rested on the jury’s finding that the parties’ conduct had created a partnership between them, which gave rise to a duty of loyalty that was owed by Enterprise. The jury’s verdict, however, disregarded the parties’ written agreements, which set forth specific conditions precedent to the formation of a partnership, including approval by both companies’ boards. Enterprise therefore argued that it had become subject to a “partnership by ambush.”
The Texas Supreme Court has long championed the sanctity of contract. In numerous previous cases, the Court expressed the view that sophisticated business parties who enter into contracts must honor their bargain. Therefore, the Court’s decision on behalf of Enterprise was not surprising to Court watchers. In addition, a decision in ETP’s favor upholding its common law partnership claim would have created significant uncertainty in the business community as to when a partnership, and related partnership duties, would arise between contracting parties.
In its decision, the Court cited common law strongly favoring the freedom of contract, and held that parties can adopt conditions precedent that must be met before a partnership will be formed. The Court also cited language from a case it had decided more than a decade ago, and noted that: the Legislature did not “intend to spring surprise or accidental partnerships” on parties. While the Court acknowledged that the conditions precedent the parties agreed to could have been waived or modified, it held that ETP was required to either obtain a jury finding that the conditions had been waived or prove waiver conclusively at trial, and ETP had done neither. ²
Business Lessons Learned
While Enterprise ultimately prevailed in defeating ETP’s partnership claims, the legal battle required an enormous amount of time, caused considerable distraction and required each of the parties to incur millions of dollars in legal expense. Thus, the Court’s holding in ETP v. Enterprise provides some key take-aways for business owners. If the practices reviewed below are followed when parties are considering entering into a new business relationship, they may help to avoid future litigation. At a minimum, these practices will make it more likely that a court or an arbitration panel would grant a summary judgment dismissing before trial claims alleging that the parties entered formed a new partnership based on their conduct.
Get it clearly in writing — This is the clear guidance from the Supreme Court. If a party does not want to be saddled with partnership duties, it should confirm in writing that: (i) no partnership has been formed, and (ii) no partnership will be formed unless specifically stated conditions are met, e.g., the requirement that a written partnership agreement must be signed and approved by the company’s board and/or managers.
Address waiver — All agreements can be waived or modified, but the parties can expressly agree there will be no waiver or amending of any conditions to forming a partnership unless the waiver or amendment is signed and in writing;
Disclaim all fiduciary duties — In addition to making it clear that no partnership exists without specific conditions being met, the parties can also state that they do not owe each other any fiduciary duties unless and until they sign off on a binding written agreement between them;
Consider use of arbitration — The parties may require that all disputes arising between them will be decided by sophisticated business lawyers in an arbitration proceeding, and they can require that the arbitration hearing be held promptly, within 60 or 90 days;
Impose damage caps — The parties can agree to limit recoverable damages in a variety of days in any future dispute that arise between them, which can include their agreement to eliminate all claims for consequential damages, for lost profits and for punitive damages; and
Award fees to prevailing party — The parties can also award reasonable legal fees to the prevailing party, which will require the losing party to pay all of the legal fees that are incurred in the litigation or arbitration.
One man cannot summon the future. But one man can change the present!
Alternate Mr. Spock, “Mirror, Mirror”
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Enterprise case confirms the critical importance of securing written agreements that document the parties’ business relationship. Business owners who sign letters of intent, or enter into other preliminary documents before formally starting a new business relationship need to take care to ensure they are not forming a partnership or joint venture unless specific conditions are met. The failure to incorporate these conditions in a signed agreement may result in adverse consequences for the business owner, including being saddled with claims that a partnership was formed and that, as a result, they are now burdened with burdensome fiduciary duties.
¹ This post has a Star Trek reference based on the USS Enterprise, the name of the flagship in the show. As Star Trek fans know, the series was written in 1964, and first debuted on television in 1966. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but the first United States nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, entered into service just a few years before, in 1962.
² In issuing its decision, the Supreme Court upheld the opinion of the Dallas Court of Appeals, which had overturned the trial court’s judgment. The appellate court had determined that ETP had not shown that it met the conditions precedent set forth in the parties’ agreements and, further, there was no jury finding these conditions had ever been waived or modified by the parties.