Andrew J. DeFalco, Spector Gadon & Rosen

It’s official. The remaining major members of the renowned rock and roll band Fleetwood Mac, Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie and John McVie, have gone their own way from bandmate Lindsey Buckingham. According to Buckingham, after planning a world tour for 2018 and 2019, he was unceremoniously kicked out of the band, which will prevent him from earning an anticipated $12 million cut of the proceeds from the tour.

Not surprisingly, Buckingham was peeved and saw things in a different way. Buckingham, 69, has long been the driving force behind Fleetwood Mac. He was the primary composer of its most well-known hits, and the co-lead singer (Nicks, his on-again/off-again love interest a few generations ago, is the female co-lead singer), known for powerful lyrics that are often about (ironically) breaking up. Forcing him to say goodbye was, to him, an act of major disloyalty.

Feeling like secondhand news, Buckingham filed a lawsuit against the band and its individual members. Although, being a rock band, there was never any formal partnership agreement or other operating agreement detailing the members’ rights and obligations, Buckingham’s complaint asserts that Fleetwood Mac is, and has been for over 30 years, a de facto partnership under California law.

During the entire time Buckingham has been a member of Fleetwood Mac, the band has conducted itself as a partnership with each of the participating members having veto rights over band decision-making and an equal share of the proceeds earned by Fleetwood Mac.

Buckingham continued “for decades, the band members have associated together as Fleetwood Mac to engage in the business of, among other things, recording and selling sound recordings, and performing their music for audiences around the world, making them partners in the Fleetwood Mac partnership.”

According to Buckingham, because Fleetwood Mac is a partnership, there are two significant consequences. First, “as partners … each of the partners are obligated as fiduciaries to act with the highest duty of good faith toward the other partners and owes the other partners the duty of loyalty and care.” Second, Buckingham contends that under the California Corporate Code, “absent a written partnership agreement, no partner in Fleetwood Mac may be terminated from the partnership without cause.”

Now, can this be true?  Expulsion of members (usually drummers) from rock bands is so common that it is almost an art form. Axl Rose alone expelled the original lineup of Guns ‘n Roses, and several subsequent ones, in their entirety.  Even Buckethead got the axe. While Axl’s now back with the original band, we’ll see how long that lasts.

But at least under Pennsylvania law (not applicable to Buckingham’s case), Buckingham may have a point, because there is a fairly low burden to establish a partnership and the resulting fiduciary duties of, among other things, loyalty and good faith. For example, under 15 Pa.C.S.A. Section 8311 (a), a partnership in Pennsylvania is merely “an association of two or more persons to carry on as co-owners a business for profit.” In this determination: “The existence of a partnership depends upon the intentions of the parties as to being partners and … no formal or written agreement need be executed in order for a valid partnership to exist … There is no requirement that partnership agreements be in writing. They may be made orally or may be found to exist by implication from all attending circumstances (i.e., the manner in which the alleged partners actually conducted their business, etc.),” see DeMarchis v. D’Amico, 637 A.2d 1029, 1033 (Pa.Super. 1994).

Generally, a “person [such as Buckingham] who receives a share of the profits of a business is presumed to be a partner in the business.”

Where a partnership is found to exist, all partners are obligated to act with the utmost good faith in furtherance and advancement of the interests of the partnership, McDermott v. Party City, 11 F.Supp.2d 612, 627 (E.D.Pa. 1998), self-dealing and diversion of partnership funds constitutes a breach of fiduciary duty, and all property of the partnership is owned jointly by all partners. Moreover, “every partner must account to the partnership for any benefit and hold as trustee for it any profits derived by [a partner] without the consent of the other partners from any transaction connected with the formation [or] conduct … of the partnership or from any use … of its property.”

Further, like California, in Pennsylvania it is generally true that without a written partnership agreement, a partner cannot be removed from the partnership without cause. Even where cause exists, a judicial order is required.

What this means for Buckingham is if Pennsylvania law applied to his case, and the facts alleged by him are true, he would have a very good argument that Fleetwood Mac was indeed, by definition, a partnership, giving rise to fiduciary duties of loyalty and good faith, precluding Fleetwood Mac from excluding him from the tour, and requiring it to hold his share of all profits in trust for him. This could be true even if the band’s members never thought of themselves as a partnership. In fact, in Pennsylvania it may well be the case that most rock bands like Fleetwood Mac or Guns ‘n Roses are partnerships by definition and, once formed, none of band members can be removed from the band absent cause and a court order.  Someone should tell this to Slash the next time he’s fired by Axl.

What this means for Pennsylvania business owners and entrepreneurs is different. In engaging in business venture alongside another person or entity, the burden to establish a partnership or joint venture, giving rise to fiduciary duties, is low. Therefore, before engaging in a transaction that could be construed as a partnership or joint venture, if the parties do not wish to bind themselves to formal obligations, the absence of a partnership and fiduciary duties should be memorialized in writing and specifically disclaimed by agreement.

Andrew J. DeFalco is a trial and appellate lawyer and a member of Spector Gadon & Rosen. He represents and advises companies and individuals in complex business disputes. His email is adefalco@lawsgr.com, and you can connect with and follow him on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/andrew-defalco-6b63275/.