Landlord’s Termination of Lease Precludes Future Damages

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A landlord left without an adequate remedy following breach of the lease by a tenant has only itself to blame for entering into a lease that fails to provide such a remedy.”  275 West Washington Street Corp. v. Hudson River Intern., LLC, 987 N.E.2d 194 (2013).

 

The case: 275 Washington Street Corp. v. Hudson River International, 987 N.E.2d 194 (Mass. 2013). 

Issues: lessor’s attempt to recover accelerated damages after a tenant default and after termination of the lease pursuant to a lease indemnity clause.

Facts:

– 12 year lease for operation for a Boston dental office (term 2006-2018);

– tenant abandons premises in 2007 and stops paying rent in 2008 – less than 2 years into term;

– lease contains indemnification provision which allows landlord to recover all damages resulting from tenant’s lease breach;

2008: landlord terminates the lease and files breach of contract suit seeking money damages for lost rents through 2018;

– 2010: landlord relets to new tenant for term that goes beyond 2018 (the original lease expiration year);

– current tenant is paying much less than defendant was under the breached lease;

Trial court and Appeals Court rulings: Trial court grants landlord’s summary judgment motion and enters judgment in landlord’s favor for over $1,000,000 (damage elements: (i) pretermination rent, (ii) lost rents through 2010 reletting, (iii) rent differential through lease conclusion)).  Appeals court reverses and requests further appellate review from the Mass. Superior Court.

Supreme Judicial Court holding: Trial court reversed. Landlord can’t recover post-termination damages pursuant to indemnity clause until end of lease term (2018).

Why?:  Landlord made the mistake of terminating the lease (as opposed to terminating possession).  This foreclosed landlord’s ability to recover any post-termination damages.  Where a landlord terminates a lease following a tenant default, the tenant has no further rental obligations after termination unless the lease says otherwise.  Hudson River, 987 N.E.2d at 198 citing Restatement (Second) of Property, Landlord and Tenant, s. 12.1, comment g, at 389 (1977).  The Court also held that under common law principles, the lease’s indemnification clause only allowed the landlord to recover damages at the lease’s conclusion “because the precise amount of those losses cannot be ascertained until the end of the [term].”  Hudson River, at 199-200.

The Court further held that commercial lease parties are free to specify what damages are due and when in the event of a premature lease breach.  However, since the Hudson River lease was silent on damage specifics, the Court followed the common law rule that indemnification damages don’t “come due” until the end of the lease term.  Id. at 200.

Take-aways: The landlord’s nearly $1.1M judgment is now reduced to less than $40K (the pre-termination amount owed by the tenant).  Ouch.  The termination of lease vs. termination of possession dichotomy is a bit cryptic but clearly important as almost all commercial leases reference both options.  

Hudson River illustrates in stark relief that if a landlord terminates a lease (as opposed to terminating the tenant’s right to possession), it runs the risk of having its future damages barred.  The lesson for landlords is clear: the lease should contain clear acceleration or liquidated damages language permitting the landlord to recover future rents if the tenant prematurely breaches the lease.  Otherwise, the landlord could have its damages cut off at the date of lease termination, or, like the Hudson River plaintiff, have to wait several years to recover damages. 

My guess is that in 2018 when the lease is set to expire, the corporate tenant/defendant will be dissolved, non-existent and judgment-proof.

 

Square Footage Discrepancy Not Material Term in Chicago Office Lease Dispute

smart-office-furniture-image-2(photo credit: www.smartofficefurniture.ca)

 123 Madison Street Corp. v. Power & Dixon, 2013 IL App (1st) 122795-U examines a commercial lease dispute involving a law firm tenant.

The facts: in 2002, plaintiff’s predecessor (the former office building owner) entered into lease with defendant law firm. Over the next few years, the Lease was amended three times to cover three different office suites – each bigger than the last and each requiring increased rent payments. Tenant defaulted and the building’s management company filed suit. Tenant vacated and the parties went to trial on money damages. Over the course of several hearings, and after the court substituted in the current building owner as the plaintiff, the trial court entered judgment for landlord, awarding nearly $70,000 in back rent plus attorneys’ fees over over $12,000. The Tenant law firm appealed.

Held: Judgment for landlord affirmed.

Reasoning: The appeals court rejected the law firms three key arguments: (1) that there was no privity of contract between plaintiff and tenant; (2) plaintiff materially breached the lease by renting less space than called for in the lease and over-charging the tenant; and (3) the trial court erroneously found that tenant was leasing the office suite for a “flat-rate” instead of leasing for a specific square footage amount. (¶¶ 45-56).

On the privity issue (privity doctrine basically requires that a party have some contractual relationship with the party being sued), the Court noted that the plaintiff wasn’t the lessor.  

The original plaintiff was the former owner’s management company and the substituted plaintiff was the building’s current owner.

The Court held that privity was a question of standing (only a party to a contract has standing to sue on it) and an affirmative defense that had to be pled and proved by the tenant.  Since the tenant failed to raise the privity/lack of standing defense by affirmative defense or motion to dismiss, the tenant didn’t meet his burden of proving the plaintiff’s lack of standing to sue. (¶¶ 50-51).

Tenant also argued that the landlord’s material breach precluded it from suing to enforce the lease.  The tenant claimed that while the lease provided for nearly 4,000 square feet of rentable space, the landlord was only leasing under 3,000 square feet.  The tenant claimed it overpaid the landlord nearly $100,000 for the shortened space.

The court rejected this argument stating that there was no evidence that the precise number of square feet of rentable space was a material term.  One of the law firm’s principals even testified that the square footage wasn’t a make-or-break issue:  the firm simply wanted “more space” than the prior suite.

 The Court also affirmed the trial court’s finding that the tenant was agreeing to pay a “flat rate” rather than a specific price per square foot.  (¶¶ 52-55).

 Take-aways: I’ve represented commercial landlords where the lease will have changed hands multiple times from lease signing to the date of trial.  When representing a property manager whose name differs from the one on the lease, I move to admit in evidence any management agreement between the owner/lessor and the property manager.

Another case lesson is that a lease square footage discrepancy will only be considered a material term if the lease says so.

Defendant Bank Not Liable for Permitting Judgment Debtor to Transfer Over $700,000 from Accounts

The Citation to Discover Assets to a Third Party or “third-party citation”  allows a judgment creditor to serve a citation on a third-party –  a bank, for instance – who holds property of the judgment debtor and attach that property until the court orders the property released.  See 735 ILCS 5/2-1402(f)(1). 

The third-party citation prohibits the citation respondent from allowing any transfer or other disposition of debtor’s property pending further order of court or termination of the citation. 

When a bank is the third-party citation respondent, the creditor serves the citation upon the bank (either by personal service or certified mail) and upon receipt of the citation, the bank must freeze the debtor’s account until the court enters an order dismissing the citation or releasing the account. 

What’s simultaneously enticing (to a creditor) and sinister (to a debtor) about third-party citation practice is that the creditor doesn’t have to notify the debtor of the third-party citation until 3 business days have passed. 735 ILCS 5/2-1402(b).  This makes it next to impossible for a debtor to deplete his bank account(s) and hide funds – something which could easily happen if he caught wind of a creditor’s attempts to seize his accounts. 

Mendez v. Republic Bank, 2013 WL 3821532 (7th Cir. 2013), examines whether a bank that unfreezes the wrong bank accounts (and allows a judgment debtor to transfer hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process) can be liable to the judgment creditor for violating a citation’s restraining provisions. 

The Court affirmed the trial court’s finding that the bank was not liable to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff won a judgment and froze some 22 separate accounts of the corporate judgment debtor.  After several of the banks moved to quash various citations, the district court judge entered an order requiring that all bank accounts except for three (3) specified accounts be unfrozen. 

The defendant bank released from the citation two of the debtors’ accounts which totalled over $700,000 – all of  which of course was dissipated by the debtors within a few months. 

Plaintiff then moved to refreeze the accounts and to hold the bank liable for violating the citation restraining provision.

The District Judge, while originally siding with plaintiff, reversed herself and found the bank not liable.  The reason: the prior judge’s order requiring the bank to unfreeze accounts was ambiguous “at best” and the bank’s actions were a reasonable response to and interpretation of that order.  *4.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed, noting that the prior judge’s order unfreezing certain accounts was poorly drafted and the defendant bank followed the most reasonable interpretation of the order. 

Acknowledging that under Illinois law, a citation respondent can be liable for any transfer that violates a citation’s restraining provisions (regardless of whether there is intent or contempt), the bank’s actions were reasonable in light of the order’s text.* 11. 

Take-away: In my experience, from a creditor’s standpoint, attaching a corporate debtor’s bank account via a third-party citation is often my only real chance of collecting anything on a judgment.  Any real estate is usually mortgaged to the hilt, and the corporate debtor often lacks sufficient accounts receivable, inventory or personal property to meaningfully make a dent in the judgment amount.  

This case shows why hyper-precision in drafting citation orders is critical in post-judgment enforcement proceedings.  If the order is not drafted by the parties (i.e. it’s prepared by the court) and it’s text is unclear, it is incumbent on a party to file a motion seeking clarification of the order.