How Can We Get Out Of Here In One Piece? (Part 1)

Print

Vacation time and the living is easy. Ruminations has a big backlist of material and sometimes we cheat by reaching into it and putting an edited, usually lightly edited, version of “stuff from the vault” in the form of a blog posting. That’s what’s happening this week and at least next week. Just like a resale store, “it’s new to you.” [That is, new to at least nearly all, but not all, of our readers.] Today, tour approach adds up to the first part of a primer, from the Ruminations perspective, on assignment and subletting.

Under common law, absent a lease restriction, tenants were free to assign their leasehold interest to others or to sublet all or part of their leased space. That rule of law is of little consequence today because virtually all leases restrict assignment and subletting rights, often in excruciating detail. In addition, a small number of jurisdictions have reversed the rule by statute and there are certain kinds of leases, generally tied into personal services that are not, as a default matter, freely assignable. [Read more…]

Print

Five Or More Take-Aways From A Single Mailbox (Rule)

Print

There must be a backstory to the case Ruminations will look at today. But, first, we’ll ramble a little, touching on this ‘n that.

There’s a common law rule called the “mailbox rule” or if you are on the eastern side of the Atlantic in another English-speaking county, the “posting rule.” [The United States and Great Britain – two nations separated by a common language. Credit: George Bernard Shaw.] The rule says that, absent some other bar, an offer is accepted when it is presented to the postal service, put in the hands of a postal worker or placed in a mail box). Basically, absent saying otherwise, an offeror is deemed to have “appointed” the postal service as its agent for receipt of an acceptance. The risk of receipt is thus placed on the offeror. This rule applies in other situations, one of which is relevant to today’s story.

This is a good place to remind all readers to carefully review the Ruminations disclaimer at the bottom of the blog page. Today, our disclaimer clearly means that no reader should try to learn the law from our description of the “mailbox rule.” Our description is just a starting point for understanding its extent and, more importantly, its limitations. That having been said, don’t ignore that the rule exists. [Read more…]

Print

Subject To What Exactly?

Print

Today’s blog posting deals with the always “fresh” question about whether making something “subject to winding up with a signed, written agreement” allows the parties to walk away without having to look back. The answer we give today, however, may not be very satisfying to many readers. And, to those who find the answer of interest, rarely will they be able to apply today’s answer to any problems that reach their way.

Have you ever wondered what is really meant when we write that a letter of intent or other form of agreement is “subject to” one or more conditions? Basically, what is the meaning or scope of those two words: “subject to”? If there is any lesson to come out today, it might be that we should be much clearer than “subject to” before the parties are bound to an agreement or to perform an obligation under an agreement. [Read more…]

Print

We Never Do That Until We Do, Now Let’s Negotiate

Print

Why do we do this to each other? Yes, at the end of the day, bargaining power is the dominant factor in determining a negotiated result. But, does that mean reaching a deal is an act pure gamesmanship? We hope not.

We recently attended a panel program, quite a good one, featuring four landlord representatives and four counterparts on the tenant side. For the most part, those working for landlords held singular views. It wasn’t much different on the tenant side but for one factor. The represented landlords were large multi-property companies; the represented tenants included a 10 store chain, a prominent supermarket, a well-known health club chain, and a very large publicly owned franchisor. So, on the tenant-side, there was a broader range of “power.”

The issue that triggered today’s blog posting had to do with a the issue of tenants requesting protection from the big real estate tax hit that could take place if a shopping center in California was sold. Trust us, that can happen, and it can happen big time. [Read more…]

Print

Additional Rent Is No Rent At All

Print

We are aware that in New Jersey, if a lease doesn’t denominate a particular tenant’s financial obligation as some version of “rent,” then the landlord can’t get the tenant evicted for non-payment of that item. The reason we are aware of this is because we’ve seen case law that denies a landlord such relief. While the landlord can sue to collect such charges, for example, common area charges, it can’t evict the tenant if the lease doesn’t say that such charges are “rent” or “additional rent.” It doesn’t matter that Ruminations thinks that’s just plain silly. That’s the way it works even if everyone other than the court knows that such items are part of a tenant’s rent.

Nonetheless, since courts, not Ruminations, get to issue eviction documents, almost all New Jersey leases recite something like: “All monies required by this Lease to be paid by Tenant to Landlord constitute ‘Additional Rent’ and the failure to pay Additional Rent will have the same consequences as failure to pay Basic Rent.” Still, some New Jersey leases don’t say anything like that but, fortunately, almost all tenants actually pay their rent (and additional rent). So, you don’t see a lot of court decisions about the issue. [Read more…]

Print

Frustrated? – Bail Out Of A Lease Before It Begins – Impossible? No.

Print

Today, we offer a potpourri of rants: the doctrine of impossibility; good faith and fair dealing; and why did you think you could get away with that?

We’ve written about “impossibility” and “impracticality.” [Take a look at one such posting by clicking: HERE.] Basically, if the conditions are “right” (“the stars are aligned”), a party can get out of a contract if the purpose for which the agreement was reached turns out to be impossible to achieve. In the context of a Florida commercial lease dispute, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently summarized a general principle of Florida law as follows:

Where the parties contract for the use of a property which use is not allowed by law, the consideration wholly fails, and the money paid for the contract should be returned and the parties mutually released.

That principle is not unique to Florida law.

The appellate court, in a decision that can be seen by clicking: HERE, tells the following, simple story. A shopping center lease was signed with a tenant wanting to open a tanning salon. The tenant then applied for an “Addition/Alteration Building Permit Application” in order to make needed changes to the space. It was denied. The reason given was that its zoning ordinance did not permit tanning salons at the tenant’s location. The sense one would get from the appellate court’s decision is that the city was probably on shaky ground when using such an excuse for the permit denial. [Read more…]

Print

Are You Tired Of Arguing About Percentage Rent For Internet Sales?

Print

We think too much time has been wasted over the issue of “internet sales” in the context of percentage rent. A long time ago, Ruminations shared some thoughts about the principles behind what should and what shouldn’t be treated as part of a tenant’s gross sales for percentage rent purposes. That blog posting can be seen by clicking: HERE. In that posting, we promised that the “whole subject of “internet” and similar sales will be tackled by Ruminations, but not today.” That was then; this is now.

Today, breaking with our tradition (as can be verified by reading our 329 previous blog postings), we’ll be “record” short and still suggest a practical approach to handling this over-argued, over-negotiated issue. It is based on our belief that if the “location” or the “symbiosis” of the landlord’s project (read that: shopping center) added value to a sale, and if the tenant agreed to pay percentage rent in the first place, then orders placed at the store or paid for at the store or fulfilled using the store’s inventory, should be credited as a sale from the store.

Now, if we wanted to write this posting using our usual 1500 to 2500 words, we would offer a definition for “gross sales.” After all, it seems to us that no two lease forms use the same definition. It also seems that most leases use a definition of gross sales drafted by a committee. For those unfamiliar with this disparaging characterization, it is derivative of this figure of speech: “A camel is a horse designed by committee.” [Read more…]

Print

What Did “Shopping Center” Mean? – An Expensive Question

Print

Last week, we rambled (no, make that Ruminated) about the consequences of failing to precisely and correctly identify or define the “Leased Space,” something usually called the premises or the demised premises. We got some “side” comments expanding on the examples we gave, but we’ll hold those for a (much) later blog posting. Today, we’ll write a little about the failure to precisely (or more precisely) define or identify the “Shopping Center.” But, in our inimitable style, we’ll digress before we even start.

We’ve seen a lot of approaches to defining “the” shopping center. Many, many lease provisions reference “the” shopping center, especially when it comes to defining the landlord’s responsibilities, the costs that will be passed along, and even the “locational” scope where competing tenants may not be located. Those are only a few examples of how important it is to know the boundaries of “the” shopping center.

So, in that context, we’ve always wondered about leases that refer to the “Shopping Center,” but never show us its boundaries. In simple cases, it probably isn’t necessary to define the referenced shopping center. The physical set-up may make it obvious as to what is meant. That is, unless what we see isn’t what we get (WWSIWWG). That is (to coin a phrase), unless what looks like a unified shopping center is actually two or more contiguous shopping centers that share entrances, exits, and parking areas. To the customer, the property looks like one center – one owner. To the tenant who hasn’t inquired or investigated, it looks just like the customers think it looks, but isn’t.

We’ve also seen leases that describe the shopping center by tax block and lot. That’s pretty definite, but have you checked to see if those are all the tax lots you see when looking at the property from the road?

The same goes for shopping centers described by attached metes and bounds descriptions. Do the attachments reflect the entire shopping complex?

Even where a drawing is attached, making it much easier to visualize the property, does the drawing show everything you see on the ground? Perhaps it shows more than everything, such as land that isn’t useful for the shopping center, but for which tenants will share the operating costs.

Do you understand what is a leased pad and what is a third-party-owned outparcel?

We’re not going to make a list of horribles. Our readers are savvy enough to expand on the following example. We’ve seen a lease that describes the shopping center as consisting of a particular tax lot and where the Leased Space is on that tax parcel. The overall project, however, is two tax lots owned by the same owner and operated without regard to its “split” nature. Costs are allocated as between the two tax lots as if they were separate properties. But, by nature of the lease’s description of “the” shopping center, unless a tenant is diligent in negotiating its lease, any fought-for exclusive use right only protects against competitors on the tenant’s “side” of the property. We won’t ascribe evil motive because there is absolutely no evidence of that being the case. It is just a historical anomaly “baked” into the form lease.

Now, in order to fulfill our promise of last week that we would do so, we’ll describe a court decision.

In today’s story (a much fuller tale being told in the court’s decision available to you by clicking: HERE), a tenant at a shopping center under construction was only required to pay full rent once 60% (not including the tenant’s space) of the ‘gross leasable area of the Shopping Center are [sic] open and operating at the Shopping Center.’” So, to know when the full rent obligation was triggered, one had to know what was meant by “gross leasable area of the Shopping Center.” Obviously, the landlord and tenant couldn’t agree on that, because had they agreed, we wouldn’t have a court’s decision to write about.

We’ll start with what the lease used as the definition for the “Shopping Center”:

The premises and improvements and appurtenances constructed and to be constructed thereto (the Premises) located at the SE corner of State Highway Route #120 and South Union, in Manteca, California (the Shopping Center). The legal description of the Shopping Center is attached hereto as Exhibit A and made a part hereof, and the Shopping Center is outlined in red on the site plan attached hereto as Exhibit B and made a part hereof … Nothing contained in this Lease will prohibit Landlord from constructing the Shopping Center at various times, and in various phases or sections … The buildings located within phases or sections constructed after the date of execution of this Lease will be deemed to be included within the defined Shopping Center for all purposes of this Lease as of the date that the buildings are fully constructed. . . .

The tenant’s position was that the “Shopping Center” was defined by Exhibit B, including all of the buildings shown on that exhibit. [Note, and don’t be shocked, there was no red outline on the Exhibit – it was, to quote the landlord’s attorney, an “oversight” that “happens all the time.”) The landlord’s position was that the last two sentences controlled and the gross leasable area of the Shopping Center was to be determined only with reference to whatever building actually existed at the time of measurement.

So, the court needed to decide whether, when measuring its gross leasable area, the Shopping Center comprised 743,908 square feet of space or only the 373,000 of completed buildings at the time the landlord demanded full rent. [Construction of the unbuilt buildings was being deferred until “better times.”]

Whatever readers personally believe the “right” answer might be, be advised that the court found the lease’s definition to be ambiguous. To refresh our readers’ memories, “ambiguous” comes from the root “ambiguus,” Latin for “uncertain.” In modern usage, that translates to: “open to more than one interpretation; having a double meaning.” Such a determination allows a clue to search for the original intent of the parties and to find clues outside of the document (in this case, the lease) itself. We’ve written about that so many times, that we’re loathe to include a link to any prior blog posting. So, use the search feature with the word “ambiguous” or “parol” or even “intent.” You’ll find a variety of very similar “checklists” employed by courts all over the country to aid in the search for the “intent of the parties.”

Here, briefly, we’ll tell you what you already know. The lease’s negotiation history showed that the tenant wanted to operate in an active, vibrant center and thus insisted that there be certain named tenants already open and operating as well as a healthy number of less-than-major tenants open for business. It wanted to be in a thriving community, not a ghost town. It’s a long story as to why the tenant opened before its lease’s “co-tenancy” trigger had been met, but the “less than full rent” relief was part of the lease as well. It was also clear that the landlord wanted to be covered in case there wasn’t solid tenant demand for all of the originally planned buildings. So, it negotiated for a provision protecting itself in case the seemingly promised full complement of buildings didn’t get built right away (or ever).

The court found no incompatibility between the two partially interrelated concerns. It ruled that the landlord was correct that “Shopping Center” meant only the buildings present at the time in question, but that definition applied only to situations where the context called for such an understanding. On the other hand, when it came to whether the 60% co-tenancy trigger had been reached, “Shopping Center” meant all of the buildings drawn on the site plan and the total, fully-constructed, gross leasable area shown on that site plan.

So, there you go, in the case at hand, “Shopping Center” meant two different things at the same time.

How much smarter would it have been had the co-tenancy provision required a minimum gross leasable area as one of its requirements? It didn’t have to be the entire 743,908 square feet of space; it could have been a lesser amount to account for a slow market. This omission doesn’t surprise us. In our experience, it is a common oversight. Ruminations urges that it no longer be any reader’s oversight. The letter of intent should cover this point.

Now, as a bonus, we’ll take a look at that part of the cited lease text that read: “Nothing contained in this Lease will prohibit Landlord from constructing the Shopping Center at various times, and in various phases or sections.”

Did that sentence shield the landlord from liability if it stopped at 373,000 square feet of buildings? The tenant didn’t think so when it claimed that its landlord breached a promise to deal fairly and act in good faith. We can’t reproduce that “covenant” from the lease because there are no such words (or similar words) to that effect in the lease. But, as all or almost all readers know, the law imposes those contractual obligations on contracting parties because the law implies the “covenant of good faith and fair dealing” in the performance and enforcement of every agreement, and a lease is an agreement.

There are many ways to explain this implied covenant, but they all come down to this basic principle. Without a good business reason of its own, a party cannot (rightfully) do anything (or fail to do anything) that “will injure the right of the other party to receive the benefits of the agreement.” Here are a few nuggets telling us a little more about the implied covenant:

To show that a party has not exercised its discretionary power in good faith, a party does not need to show dishonest conduct because “the covenant of good faith can be breached for objectively unreasonable conduct, regardless of the actor’s motive.”

A party need not show bad faith conduct to prove breach of implied covenant.

Good faith performance of a contract requires “faithfulness to an agreed common purpose and consistency with the justified expectations of the other party.”

Bad faith is sufficient to constitute a breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing includes conduct described as “inaction,” “subterfuge,” “lack of diligence,” “evasion of the spirit of the bargain,” and “abuse of power.”

A 2008 decision by a California court explains the effect of, and limit to, an agreement’s provision giving discretion to a party as to choosing to act or not to act. Here’s an edited version of the central holding of that decision:

There are two legal principles in some tension with each other that are at play with respect to [a] breach of covenant claim where, as here, a contract gives one party discretion and the second party accuses the first of abusing that discretion. The covenant of good faith finds particular application in situations where one party is invested with a discretionary power affecting the rights of another. Such power must be exercised in good faith. Second, however, the covenant cannot “be read to prohibit a party from doing that which is expressly permitted by an agreement” because, “as a general matter, implied terms should never be read to vary express terms.”

California courts have resolved the tension between these two propositions by “examining whether the contract gives the defendant merely the power to exercise discretion, or whether it gives the defendant the greater power to refrain from acting at all” and declining to apply the covenant in situations where the defendant has the power to refrain from acting altogether.

In the (co-tenancy) case we’ve described, there was no question that an economic turndown was the underlying reason why the landlord stopped development when the center reached half of the expected, hoped-for size. But, that fact alone did not protect the landlord from further legal proceedings. While its decisions “may have been motivated by legitimate business concerns, legitimate business concerns may coexist with bad faith.” Bad faith includes “actions motivated solely by a reassessment of the balance of advantages and disadvantages under the contract.” “A breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing arising out of an improper exercise of discretion turns on whether [the “accused” party”] exercised its discretion ‘for any purpose within the reasonable contemplation of the parties at the time of formation.’” So, even with a lease giving the landlord “discretion” to build a complete shopping center, the parties were ordered to trial for a factual finding as to whether the landlord acted in an objectively reasonable fashion “consistent with the parties’ contemplation at the time they signed the lease.”

The legal profession thanks the warring parties for their generous contribution.

Print