By Mark Ellinghouse of Weintraub Tobin
While the effects of the COVID-19 health crisis have impacted daily life for months, the legal implications of this pandemic are just starting to develop. Unforeseen conditions often wreak havoc on existing contractual relationships, which are typically based on factual assumptions that, due to unexpected conditions like COVID-19, may no longer be appropriate. Many parties work through these circumstances through negotiation, reconciling their previous expectations and current conditions with their desired outcome, but these negotiations are not always successful. When these discussions fail, the parties are typically left to battle out their interests in a legal setting, often relying on inapplicable contractual provisions and outdated legal precedent. Few participants leave these litigated disputes happy.
A recent case shows how disputes resulting from the COVID-19 health crisis may play out in the near future. In In re Hitz Restaurant Group, the court considered whether a force majeure provision in a lease excused a restaurant operator’s obligation to pay rent. In re Hitz Rest. Grp., 616 B.R. 374 (Bankr. N.D. Ill. 2020). The case arose in the context of the tenant’s bankruptcy, with the court deciding whether the tenant was required to pay rent under the lease pending resolution of the bankruptcy proceeding. The lease in dispute included a force majeure clause which excused performance by a party of “any of its obligations [that] are prevented or delayed, retarded or hindered by . . . laws, governmental action or inaction, orders of government.” The tenant, relying on its governor’s order requiring “all businesses . . . that offer food or beverages for on-premises consumption to suspend service,” argued that this order qualified as an order of the government which triggered application of the force majeure clause in the lease and therefore excused the tenant’s obligation to pay rent.
The court agreed, finding that the governor’s order fell squarely within the force majeure provision’s scope. The court was unpersuaded by the landlord’s argument that the tenant’s payment obligation should remain enforceable because the government order did not technically prevent the tenant from paying rent (such as by paying rent electronically). In addition, the availability of public resources, such as forgivable SBA loan assistance, did not change the conclusion that force majeure applied. Finally, even though the force majeure provision expressly carved out the excuse of “lack of money,” the court determined that the executive order was the proximate cause of its inability to generate revenue and pay rent and prevailed over the “lack of money” exception.
Interestingly, after the tenant admitted that it could still operate through take-away service during the shutdown, the court engaged in an analysis of the percentage of rent that should be excused. Apparently, neither party provided the court with much information to determine the appropriate amount of rent reduction. The landlord did not address the issue and the tenant only stated that approximately 25% of the restaurant’s square footage could have been used for permitted services. Accordingly, the court interpreted the tenant’s estimation as an admission that it owed at least 25% of the rent and ordered that amount to be paid within two weeks of its ruling.
Though we have not interviewed the litigants, this outcome appears unsatisfactory for both landlord and tenant. For the tenant, the fact that its statement regarding use of the square footage of its leased premises was used as the basis for determining rent could be perceived as unfair, as usable square footage doesn’t necessarily indicate whether tenant has full use of such space (such as for in-house dining) or correlate to the impact of the force majeure event. For the landlord, the court’s conclusion supporting application of the force majeure provision despite the tenant’s ability to operate and an express provision carving out lack of money as a justifiable excuse was undoubtedly a bad conclusion. In addition, though, the landlord did not anticipate that the court would consider a percentage reduction in rent and therefore did not introduce evidence supporting a greater percentage of rent to be paid by the tenant, missing the opportunity to argue for a higher monthly rent requirement.
Perhaps the most meaningful conclusion from this case does not arise from its outcome, but rather from the fact that it confirms the unpredictability of court interpretations of lease disputes. Both commercial landlords and tenants enter into lease agreements for the purpose of providing certainty and predictability in their relationship, setting forth the likely (and sometimes unlikely) situations that may occur during the term and pre-negotiating their outcomes. In circumstances like the current pandemic, the unpredictability of judicial interpretations reinforces the need for provisions that comprehensively address unpredictable outcomes like outbreaks, epidemics, and other “acts of god” with reasonable, comprehensive solutions. It also reaffirms the danger of refusing to negotiate a resolution when unforeseen events transpire, as each party risks a negative outcome when relying on a judicial forum to reach a conclusion. In any event, both landlords and tenants risk such unpredictable results when they fail to address acts of force majeure in all of their future agreements given the current circumstances.