(Bloomberg) -- Centerview Partners won a legal battle against former partner David A. Handler, who claimed he was entitled to an equity stake in the elite mergers and acquisition advisory boutique worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

A Delaware judge ruled Tuesday that Handler was not an actual equity partner in Centerview and that his title was only an honorific. Centerview founders Blair Effron and Robert Pruzan had argued that, because Handler wasn’t a true partner, he wasn’t entitled to the financial records that he sought in the suit. 

Delaware Chancery Court Judge Sam Glasscock III noted that many other Centerview employees had the title of partner. 

“Such partners were no more equity holders than Colonel Harlan Sanders was a field officer,” the judge wrote. Glasscock did rule that Handler was an “employee with certain vested rights in Centerview.” 

A spokesperson for Handler pointed to the part of the ruling, noting that the case would continue. “Mr Handler looks forward to establishing the financial scope of those vested rights,” the spokesperson said.

The suit had called attention to the often murky way that Wall Street uses the title of partner. It had also threatened to open the books on an elite firm that’s soared to the top of M&A league tables since its 2006 founding. Last year, Centerview ranked sixth among merger advisers, just behind much bigger firms like Citigroup Inc. and Morgan Stanley. 

Handler left Centerview in 2022 to found Tidal Partners. Before leaving, he sought access to Centerview’s books and records but was refused.

In his suit, Handler claimed Pruzan and Effron had made an oral promise to give him an equity stake during a 2012 meeting at New York’s University Club. He said they did so because the technology group he led had outperformed. 

But Glasscock said Handler failed to show that such an agreement was reached. The judge noted that the parties differed in their accounts of the 2012 meeting and said that there was insufficient documentary evidence to back up Handler’s claim.

In a statement, a Centerview spokesperson praised Glasscock’s ruling. “Today the court said what we’ve long known to be true: Mr. Handler’s partnership claims are baseless,” the spokesperson said.

Centerview has worked on some of the largest deals announced so far this year, including advising Capital One Financial Corp. on its $35 billion takeover of Discover Financial Services.

--With assistance from Todd Gillespie and Michael Leonard.

(Updates with statements by Handler, Centerview. A previous version of this story corrected the possible value of the equity stake in the first paragraph.)

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.