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.

ReMax Franchisor Defeats Tortious Interference Claim With Privilege Defense – IL 4th Dist.

The plaintiffs in Byram v. Danner, 2018 IL App (4th) 170058-U, sued after their planned purchase of a Remax real estate franchise imploded.  The plaintiffs missed an installment payment and the defendants responded by cancelling the agreement. Plaintiffs then filed a flurry of tort claims including fraud and tortious interference with contract.

Plaintiffs’ fraud count alleged the defendants lacked Remax authority to sell the franchise and hid this fact from the plaintiffs. The tortious interference claim asserted defendants bad-mouthed plaintiffs to certain agents, causing them to disassociate from plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs sought to recover their franchise fee, their first installment payment and unpaid commissions earned over a 16-month period. The trial court dismissed all of plaintiffs’ claims under Code Sections 2-615 and 2-619.  Plaintiffs appealed.

In finding the trial court properly jettisoned the fraud claim, the court noted that a valid cause of action for fraud requires (1) a false representation of material fact, (2) by a party who knows or believes it to be false, (3) with the intent to induce the plaintiff to act, (4) action by the plaintiff in reliance on the statement, and (5) injury to the plaintiff as a consequence of the reliance.

However, where a contractual provision negates one of the fraud elements, the fraud claim fails. Here, the underlying contract expressly conditioned defendants’ sale of the franchise on Remax accepting plaintiffs as a franchisee. This qualified language precluded plaintiffs from alleging that defendants misrepresented that they had authority from Remax to sell their franchise. (⁋ 43)

The appeals court also affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ tortious interference with prospective economic advantage claim.  To prevail on this theory, a plaintiff must plead and prove (1) his reasonable expectation of entering into a valid business relationship, (2) the defendant’s knowledge of the plaintiff’s expectancy, (3) purposeful interference by defendant that prevents plaintiff’s legitimate expectation from coming to fruition, and (4) damages to the plaintiff.

The ‘purposeful interference’ prong of the tort requires a showing of more than interference.  The plaintiff must also prove a defendant’s improper conduct done primarily to injure the plaintiff.  Where a defendant acts to protect or enhance his own business interests, he is privileged to act in a way that may collaterally harm another’s business expectancy.  Where a defendant invokes a privilege to interfere with a plaintiff’s business expectancy, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that the defendant’s conduct was unjustified or malicious.  (¶ 46)

The Court found defendants’ actions were done to protect the future success of their real estate franchise and listings.  Since plaintiffs failed to plead any specific facts showing defendants’ intent to financially harm the plaintiffs, dismissal of the tortious interference count was proper.

The Court reversed the dismissal of plaintiff’s breach of contract claims, however. This was because the affidavit filed in support of defendant’s Section 2-619 motion didn’t qualify as affirmative matter.  An affirmative matter is any defense other than a negation of the essential allegations of the plaintiff’s cause of action.  Affirmative matter is not evidence a defendant expects to contest an ultimate fact alleged in a complaint.

Here, defendants’ Section 2-619 affidavit effectively plaintiffs’ allegations were “not true:” that defendants didn’t owe plaintiffs any commissions.  The Court found that a motion affidavit that simply denies a complaint’s material facts does not constitute affirmative matter. (¶¶ 56-59)

Afterwords:

Byram provides a useful summary of the relevant guideposts and distinctions between section 2-615 and 2-619 motions to dismiss. Where a supporting affidavit merely disputes plaintiff’s factual allegations, it will equate to a denial of the plaintiff’s allegations. Such an affidavit will not constitute proper affirmative matter than wholly defeats a claim.

The case also provides value for its discussion of the Darwinian privilege defense to tortious interference. When a defendant acts to protect herself or her business, she can likely withstand a tortious interference claim by a competitor – even where that competitor is deprived of a remedy.