Exclusivity provisions are staples of some commercial leases, particularly in the shopping mall setting.
The purpose of these so-called “exclusives” is to protect a tenant from a competing business renting in the same shopping center and potentially undercutting the tenant’s pricing. The larger the tenant (think “anchor” tenant) in terms of resources, the more leverage it has in insisting on an exclusivity term.
Delco, LLC v. Starbucks (see https://casetext.com/case/delco-llc-v-starbucks-corp) pits a New Jersey commercial landlord suing the coffee giant for a court declaration that the landlord’s renting to McDonald’s in the same shopping center did not violate an exclusive in Starbucks’ lease that prohibited plaintiff from leasing space to any tenant (other than Starbucks) who would sell “coffee, espresso and tea drinks.” The one qualification to the exclusive was that the landlord could rent to “any tenant [who occupies] twenty thousand contiguous square feet or more…and operating under a single trade name.”
The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s finding that the landlord could lease 40,000 square feet to McDonald’s (which sells coffee) without violating the Starbucks lease exclusive.
Applying the plain language of the exclusivity term under basic New Jersey contract interpretation rules, the court found that McDonald’s easily qualified as a tenant who is “operating under a single trade name.” And since the McDonald’s lease encompassed over 20,000 square feet, the McDonald’s lease qualified for the exclusivity exception.
It’s not clear from the short opinion why Starbucks put up such a fight on what seems like an obvious exception to the exclusivity term. So vigorous were Starbucks litigation efforts here, that the plaintiff was awarded over $113K in lawyer fees litigating whether the McDonald’s lease ran afoul of the exclusive term in the Starbucks’ lease.
The appeals court reversed the fee award though since the trial judge didn’t delineate its specific findings that support its fee award. The case will now go back to the NJ trial court for further litigation of the plaintiff-landlord’s attorneys’ fees.