By Ryan C. Wood
In California the State Board of Equalization collects sales tax from businesses and partnerships. But what if you are a silent partner that invested funds to start a business but do not participate in the day to day operation of the business? Why should you be personally liable for unpaid sales tax when you had nothing to do with not paying the sales tax to the BOE if and when the business unfortunately fails? Under California law and the Revised Uniform Partnership Act all partners are liable jointly and severally for all obligations of the partnership unless otherwise agreed by the claimant or provided by law.” Cal. Corp. Code § 16306(a).
This issue was recently discussed and analyzed in a Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel opinion, In re: Earnest Leal and Maria Leal; BAP No. CC-06-1207-MoDK. The debtors, Earnest and Maria Leal were silent partners in a retail shoe store. The Leal’s did not participate in the actually running of the shoe store and had no responsibility for collecting and paying sales tax. Their business partners, the Stanleys, actual ran the store and were responsible for the day to day operation of the shoe store. The lease for the shoe store was signed by both the Stanleys and Leals. Maria Leal and Ms. Stanley signed a Business License Tax Application that was filed with the City of Rancho Mirage. Retail is a tough business and apparently the Stanleys had to close the shoe store.
So, how does this land in bankruptcy court and the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel? Mr. and Mrs. Leal filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code and did not list any debt owed to the Board of Equalization. Some of the creditors of the failed shoe store did see collection from Mr. and Mrs. Leal. There was at least one default judgment entered against Mrs. Leal and the Leals’ bankruptcy petition included debts resulting from the failed shoe store. Mr. and Mrs. Leal received their discharge and their Chapter 7 case was closed. Sometime after they received their discharge the Board of Equalization began collection activity against Mr. and Mrs. Leal for $20,000 in unpaid sales tax owed from the shoe store. The Leals’ bankruptcy attorney reopened their Chapter 7 case and filed a motion to determine the validity of the alleged sales tax debts and tax liens against the Leals. The bankruptcy court found that the Leals’ were not responsible for the sales taxes given they did not willfully fail to pay them and had no supervision over the business.
The resulting appeal provides the following analysis of the relevant California law regarding partnerships and liability for sales tax payments. Does California Revenue and Tax Code Section 6829 shield debtors from joint and several liability for unpaid sales tax? Section 6829 provides in relevant part: “upon termination, dissolution, or abandonment of a partnership . . . any officer, member, manager, partner, or other person having control or supervision of, or who is charged with the responsibility for the filing of returns or the payment of tax, or who is under a duty to act for the corporation, partnership, limited liability partnership, or limited liability company in complying with any requirement of this part, shall be personally liable for any unpaid taxes and interest and penalties on those taxes, if the officer, member, manager, or other person willfully fails to pay or to cause to be paid any taxes due from the corporation, partnership, limited liability partnership, or limited liability company pursuant to this part.
The Leals’ bankruptcy attorney argues that the Leals cannot be personally liable for any unpaid taxes and interest given they were not charged with the responsibility of filing returns or payment of the taxes. They are just silent partners in the failed shoe store business. The Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate panel disagreed with the original bankruptcy court and held that Cal. Rev. & Tax Code section 6829 does not protect Debtors from any liability they may have as general partners under Cal. Corp. Code section 16306(a). So silent partners in California beware. Just because you are not part of the day to day operations of a partnership you invested in you can be liable for unpaid sales taxes if they are not paid timely.