New Lessor’s Vie for Radio Station Tenant’s Past-Due Rent Squelched – IL First Dist.

The First District of Illinois recently considered whether a new landlord for commercial premises has standing to sue a tenant for unpaid rent accruing before the new landlord’s purchase of premises.

Soon after buying the commercial premises, the new landlord in 1002 E. 87th Street, LLC v. Midway Broadcasting Corporation, 2018 IL App (1st) 171691 started giving the radio station some static over past-due rent that was owed to the prior landlord.  The defendant’s silence in response spoke volumes and the dispute swelled to an irreconcilable impasse.  The plaintiff sued to recover about $70K in past-due rent. The tenant then turned the tables on the landlord, filing a wave of defenses and counterclaims and a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s suit. The trial court dismissed plaintiff’s suit for lack of standing and plaintiff appealed.

Affirming the trial court, the appeals court examined the doctrine of standing in the context of a Code Section 2-619 motion filed in a lease dispute. The Court amplified its lease law analysis with a recitation of the applicable rules governing attorneys’ fees provisions.

Lack of standing is an affirmative defense under Code Section 2-619(a)(9). Standing requires a plaintiff to have an interest in a given lawsuit and its potential outcome. The defendant claiming a lack of standing has the burden of proving the defense.

In the commercial lease milieu, a landlord has standing to sue for unpaid rent and where a landlord conveys property by warranty deeds without reserving any rights, he/she also conveys the leases for the property and the right to receive unaccrued rent. However, the new landlord does not have a right to recover rent that came due before it owned the property. The right to recover those rentals remains with the original landlord. [⁋ 17]

The Court wasn’t receptive to the plaintiff’s arguments that it was entitled to recover past-due rent owed to the prior landlord.  The court distinguished this case’s underlying facts from a recent case – A.M. Realty Western v. MSMC Realty, LLC, 2012 IL App (1st) 121183 – where a landlord sold a building and was still able to sue for rent that accrued during its tenure as building owner.  Midway Broadcasting’s facts plainly differ since the plaintiff was suing to recover rents that came due before plaintiff became the premises landlord.

Another factor weighing against the plaintiff landlord was Illinois’ venerable body of case law that holds that rent in arrears is not assignable. This is because past-due rent is viewed as a chose in action and not an incident of the real estate that passes from a seller to a buyer. And since there was no evidence in the record establishing that the prior landlord intended to assign its right to collect unpaid rents, plaintiff’s argument that the previous landlord assigned to it the right to collect defendant’s delinquent rent, missed the mark.

In a sort of reverse “you can’t transmit what you haven’t got” maxim, the plaintiff here had no legal basis to assert a past-due rent claim against the tenant since all unpaid rent came due during the prior landlord’s tenure.  Since that former landlord never assigned its right to collect rents, the plaintiff’s claim fell on deaf ears.

Next, the Court affirmed the tenant’s prevailing-party attorneys’ fees award and signaled that to “prevail” in a case, a party must win on a significant issue in the case. Like most leases, the operative one here provided that the winning party could recover its attorneys’ fees.  Illinois follows the American Rule – each side pays its own fees unless there is a contractual fee-shifting provision or an operative statute that gives the prevailing party the right to recover its fees.  Contractual attorneys’ fees provisions are strictly construed and appeals courts rarely overturn fee awards unless the trial court abuses its discretion.

In the context of attorneys’ fees disputes, a litigant is a prevailing party where it is successful on any significant issue in the action and receives a judgment in his/her favor or obtains affirmative recovery.  A litigant can still be a prevailing party even where it does not succeed on all claims in a given lawsuit. Courts can declare that neither side is a prevailing party where each side wins and loses on different claims. However, a “small victory” on a peripheral issue in a case normally won’t confer prevailing party status for purposes of a fee award.  [¶ 36]

The Court rejected the lessor’s claim that it was the prevailing party since the court entered an agreed use and occupancy award.  Use and occupancy awards are usually granted in lease disputes since “a lessee’s obligation to pay rent continues as a matter of law, even though the lessee may ultimately establish a right to *** obtain relief.”  [¶ 32].  Because of the somewhat routine nature of use and occupancy orders, the court declined to find the landlord a prevailing party on this issue.

Afterwords:

I found this case post-worthy since it deals with an issue I see with increasing frequency: what are a successor landlord’s rights to prior accruing rents from a tenant?  In hindsight, precision in lease drafting would be a great equalizer.  However, clear lease language is often absent and it’s left to the litigants and court to try to divine the parties’ intent.

The case and others like it make clear that rents accruing before a landlord purchases a building normally belong the predecessor owner.  Absent an agreement between the former and current lessors or a clear lease provision that expressly provides that a new owner can sue for accrued rents, the new landlord won’t have standing to sue for accrued unpaid rent.

The case also makes it clear that small victories (here, an inconsequential dismissal of one of many counterclaims) in the context of larger lawsuit, won’t translate to prevailing party status for that “winner” and won’t give a hook for attorneys’ fees.

Landlord’s Double-Rent Holdover Claim Barred by Res Judicata – A Deep Cut (IL 2012)

A commercial lease dispute sets the backdrop for an appeals court’s nuanced discussion of statutory holdover damages and when res judicata and claim-splitting defeat a second lawsuit involving similar facts to and subject matter of an earlier case.

For many years, the tenant in Degrazia v. Levato operated “Jimbo’s” – a sports bar set in the shadow of U.S. Cellular Field (nka Guaranteed Rate Field) and perennial favorite watering hole for Chicago White Sox fans.

Lawsuit 1 – the 2006 Eviction Case

In 2006, plaintiff filed an eviction lawsuit when the lease expired and defendants refused to leave.  In addition to possession of the premises, the plaintiffs also sought to recover use and occupancy damages equal to double the monthly rent due under the lease through the eviction date.

The trial court granted plaintiff’s summary judgment motion in the 2006 eviction suit and struck defendant’s affirmative defense that plaintiff went back on an oral promise to renew the lease.  Defendant appealed and the trial court’s eviction order was affirmed.

Lawsuit 2 – the 2007 Damages Case

Plaintiffs filed a second lawsuit in 2007; this time for breach of lease.  In this second action, plaintiffs sought to recover statutory holdover damages under Section 9-202 of the Forcible Entry and Detainer Act (the “FED Act”).  The court granted defendant’s summary judgment motion on the basis that plaintiff’s second lawsuit was barred by res judicata and the policy against claim-splitting.  The plaintiffs appealed.

Rules and Reasoning

For res judicata to foreclose a second lawsuit, three elements must be present:  (1) a final judgment on the merits rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction; (2) an identity of
causes of action; and (3) an identity of the parties or their privies.

Illinois courts also hew to the rule against splitting claims or causes of action. Under the claim-splitting rule, where a cause of action is entire and indivisible, a plaintiff cannot divide it by bringing separate lawsuits.  A plaintiff cannot sue for part of a claim in one action and then sue for the rest of the claim in a second suit.  Like res judicata, the claim-splitting rule aims to foster finality and protect litigants from multiple lawsuits.

The First District held that the trial court’s order in the 2006 lawsuit granting plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment was a final order only on the issue of possession but not on plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees since the court expressly granted plaintiffs leave to file a fee petition.  And since there was no final order entered on plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees in the 2006 case, plaintiffs could seek the same fees in the 2007 lawsuit.

The Court did, however, affirm summary judgment for the tenants on plaintiffs’ statutory holdover claim.  FED Act Section 9-202 provides that a tenant who willfully holds over after a lease expires is liable for double rent. 735 ILCS 5/9-202.

The Plaintiffs sought the same double rent in both the 2006 (eviction) and 2007 (damages) lawsuit and requested these damages in their summary judgment motion filed in the 2006 case.  The eviction judge in that 2006 case only allowed plaintiffs to recover statutory use and occupancy instead of statutory holdover rent.  The First District held that the use and occupancy order was final.  And since plaintiffs never appealed or challenged the use and occupancy order in the 2006 case, plaintiff’s 2007 Lawsuit was defeated by res judicata.

The Court also rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the forcible court (in the 2006 Lawsuit) was limited to ordering possession and unable to award statutory holdover damages.  It found that FED Act Section 9-106 expressly allows a landlord to join a rent claim and FED Sections 9-201 and 9-202 respectively allow a plaintiff to recover use and occupancy and holdover damages.  As a result, the First District found there was nothing that prevented the 2006 eviction case judge from awarding holdover rent if plaintiffs were able to show that defendants willfully held over after the lease expired.

Afterwords:

There is scant case law on Illinois’ holdover statute.  While an action for possession under the FED Act is, in theory, a limited, summary proceeding directed solely to the question of possession, the FED Act sections that allow a plaintiff to join a rent claim, to recover use and occupancy payments in addition to double holdover rent give shrewd lessee lawyer’s enough of an opening to argue issue or claim preclusion.

This case demonstrates that the best pleadings practice is for the landlord to join its double-rent claims in the eviction case and put the burden on the tenant to argue the holdover damages claim is beyond the scope of a FED action.  Otherwise, there is a real risk that the failure to join a holdover claim in the possession action will prevent holdover damages in a later lawsuit.

Commercial Tenant Fails to Give Proper Notice of Intent to Extend Lease – IL Case Note

Although it’s an unpublished opinion, Sher-Jo, Inc. v. Town and Country Center, Inc., 2017 IL App (5th) 160095-U still serves as a cautionary tale for tenants that fail to hew to lease notice requirements.  The tenant plaintiff under the commercial lease was obligated to serve the defendant landlord with written notice by registered mail of the tenant’s exercise of its option to extend the lease for an additional five-year term.

Instead of mailing notice of its plans to extend the lease, the tenant faxed its notice and verbally told the landlord it was exercising its option to extend.  But the faxed notice didn’t specify the tenant was extending the lease.  It just said that the tenant’s sublessee – a restaurant – was going to extend its sublease for another five years.

The landlord rejected tenant’s attempt to renew the lease on the basis that it didn’t comport with the lease notice rules.  It (landlord) then entered into a lease directly with the restaurant subtenant.  The tenant filed suit for specific performance and a declaratory judgment that it properly and timely exercised the lease extension option.  After the trial court found the tenant successfully notified the landlord of its intention to extend the lease, the landlord appealed.

Held: Reversed.  Tenant’s failure to adhere to Lease notice requirement defeats its attempt to renew the lease.

Rules/Reasons:

A commercial lessee who seeks to exercise an option to extend a lease must strictly comply – not “substantially comply” – with the terms of the option.  And even though a failure to follow an option provision to the letter can have draconian results, rigid adherence to option requirements promotes commercial certainty.

Here, the tenant’s faxed notice only mentioned that it wished to extend the sublease with the restaurant.  The notice was silent about extending the master lease.

The Court rejected the tenant’s argument that a lease amendment modified the option notice provision in the main lease.  This was because while the amendment did reference the tenant’s option to extend the lease for an additional five-year term, it left untouched the master lease’s requirement that the tenant notify the landlord by certified mail of its intent to exercise the option.

Afterwords:

1/ In the commercial lease milieu, strict compliance with notice provisions is essential.  Although this case works a harsh result on the tenant/sub-lessor, the Court viewed fostering certainty in business transactions as more important than relieving a tenant who substantially, but not strictly, adhered to a lease notice requirement;

2/ Parties to a commercial lease should take pains to comply with notice provisions of a lease.  Otherwise, they run the risk of a court finding they failed to satisfy a precondition to extending a lease.