Articles Posted in Commercial Leasing

There are a number of reasons why a business owner might be motivated to end a commercial lease early.  The most common reason is that a business is not doing well enough to keep up with the lease payments.  Other reasons include changes in the local market, the need for larger or smaller space, or the simple desire to move on to other endeavors. Whatever the circumstances, a tenant desirous of terminating its commercial lease early faces an uphill battle.  Commercial landlords count on tenants to maintain their lease obligations.  They enter into long term leases to avoid the costs associated with continually looking for new qualified tenants and more importantly to avoid the loss of revenue associated with empty space.  For this reason, landlords typically demand strong lease language discouraging tenants from early termination.  See “Assignment Clauses and Related Terms in Commercial Leasing”.

sky-reflection-1453027 (1)Once a tenant decides, for whatever reason, that it wants to terminate a lease early, it should proceed cautiously.  The best approach of course is to seek the assistance of an experienced San Diego commercial lease lawyer.  Whether or not you consult with an attorney, it’s important to review your lease terms carefully so that you have a clear understanding of the options available to you and/or the consequences of early termination. What are the necessary steps for assignment of the lease to a new tenant?  Does the lease give the landlord unfettered discretion in deciding whether to accept an assignee (a new tenant)?  How does the lease define damages for early termination?  Is there a recapture clause (a clause that allows the landlord to terminate the lease merely because the tenant asks the landlord to approve an assignment).  Of course, tenants may also seek other ways to avoid early termination such as proposing flexible payment options to catch up on rent, proposing temporary reduced rent, asking to be moved to a smaller space on the same property or seeking assignment approval.  It is of course best if you can successfully avoid early termination via one of these proposals.  However, they are easier talked about than accomplished.

In most cases, a tenant terminating a lease early is liable for any unpaid rent and the unpaid rent due for the balance of the lease term less mitigation.  Mitigation is the amount a tenant can prove could have been reasonably avoided had the landlord made an effort to re-lease the space.  From a practical standpoint, tenants without the resources necessary to hire an attorney and litigate the case most often find themselves facing default judgments for the full amount of the damages requested without any mitigation.  This is why ignoring the problem isn’t an option.  At the same time litigation is extremely expensive.  However, landlords are sometimes willing to informally discuss early termination terms that factor in mitigation so long as tenants are communicating an intent to find a fair resolution.  A fair resolution unfortunately does not mean that the tenant is going to like the outcome.  Objectively, fairness would require a tenant to be responsible for the actual costs associated with the landlords quest for a new tenant (past due rents owed including common area maintenance expenses (“CAMS”), all rents and CAMS to the date of a final agreement, all costs associated with finding a new tenant, the costs of rent and CAMS while the space is empty and if the new tenant pays less rent, the difference the landlord would have earned had it received the higher rent.  These costs can be considerable.  Moreover, landlords don’t always know how long it will take and they err on the side of benefiting themselves when negotiating early termination terms.

Assignment clauses are an important part of commercial leasing. They provide successful tenants an opportunity to sell their businesses and provide failing businesses the possibility of finding replacement tenants in order to avoid breaching their leases. Generally, landlords retain significant control over the process. This article focuses on lease terms that facilitate the assignment process and/or early lease termination for new and growing business owners interested in testing the waters. While landlords are resistant to the concept of “testing the waters”, they will sometimes work with new business owners in order to secure their tenancy.

time-flies-away-801503-mIdeally, commercial tenants, especially new and growing businesses, will seek more favorable assignment and early termination terms when negotiation the lease. Depending on the circumstances (some tenants will have more bargaining power than others), landlords may agree to be more flexible. While favorable assignment and early termination language is hard to come by for tenants generally, the following concessions are worth pursuing:

  • A cancellation clause that allows tenants to cancel their lease if specific income projections are not met within a certain time period such as on the six-month or one-year anniversary of the lease commencement date.

Percentage rent allows a retail landlord to benefit from a tenant’s success.  In addition to the base rent, tenants will pay an additional rent based on some percentage of the tenant’s gross sales typically triggered by what is termed a “breakpoint”.  New tenants asked to pay percentage rent are typically troubled by the idea mostly because they see it as a way of being penalized for success.  Clearly, landlords benefit significantly from percentage rent reaping additional profits in times of economic boom while losing nothing during downturns. However, there is a synergistic effect that can benefit tenants.  Most landlords aggressively seek to maximize profits and creating the right tenant mix and shopping center atmosphere aids in increasing the revenue stream for all tenants thereby increasing the landlords rent.  In such cases, the landlord at least arguably is creating something of value for tenants.  The value of a landlord’s labors in this scenario is of course difficult to measure, but with an earnest effort it can unquestionably have a dramatic impact on shopping center sales. 
 

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Percentage rent is typically set at five percent (5%) of gross revenue but usually doesn’t trigger until some “breakpoint”.  The breakpoint can be arbitrarily set by the parties as a stipulated breakpoint (for instance at $1,000,000).  In this case, a tenant would be obligated to pay 5% of all gross sales in excess of $1,000,000.  If gross sales were $1,500,000, the tenant would owe as additional rent of $25,000 (5% of $500,000).  Many retail leases set the breakpoint at what is termed the “natural breakpoint”.  For the natural breakpoint, you divide the base rent by the set percentage (the typical 5%).  The natural breakpoint results in a percentage rent applicable to sales over and above the point in which the base rent would equal 5% of gross revenue.  In other words, the tenant is paying 5% of gross sales or the base rent whichever is higher.  If the breakpoint is not reached, the base rent is higher than 5% of gross sales.  If the base rent in the above example was $120,000 ($10,000 a month), the breakpoint would be $2,400,000 resulting in no additional rent due.  The landlord is then guaranteed a minimum rent no matter how bad sales are, but benefits when sales are good. Tenants benefit if the stipulated breakpoint is above the natural breakpoint but not if it is below the natural breakpoint.  In the above example, if the stipulated breakpoint is $4,000,000, the additional rent would be zero.  If the stipulated breakpoint is $500,000, the tenant would pay the base rent ($120,000) plus a percentage rent of $50,000 (5% of $1,000,000).

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Landlords desire radius restrictions in commercial leases for two main reasons: where the landlord is entitled to percentage rent, a competing business within the restricted radius may dilute the landlord’s income; and more generally a competing business within the restricted radius can have a negative impact on the exclusive nature of the shopping center.  For example, a national fashion chain with a significant lure draws shoppers to the center – shoppers attracted to that particular chain.  Opening the same chain too close to the center threatens to dilute the landlord’s traffic.  Retail landlords take great care to manage the shopping center’s mix to maximize foot traffic.  For either reason, reasonable radius restrictions are legitimate in San Diego commercial leasing.  However, tenants should take care to ensure that these clauses are carefully worded to limit the restrictions.  Particularly, it’s important that the “radius” of the restriction, the term of the restriction and the scope of the restriction are all specifically defined.  

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Defining the Radius:  Most commercial leases tend to broadly define the distance covered by a radius restriction – usually to about a five mile radius.  In such cases, the parties may have different understandings as to how the radius is measured.  A five mile radius might mean five miles as the crow flies in any direction from the store’s precise location or it could mean five miles in any direction from the boundaries of the shopping center.  In addition, five miles as the crow flies in a specific direction could fall on the edge of a competing shopping mall.  In that case, opening up shop just feet away from the maximum distance would still have the negative impact the landlord was attempting to avoid in the first place.  Landlords and tenants can avoid this type of confusion by clearly defining how the radius is determined.  Stating where the radius is measured from is a good start.  Defining the area more specifically on a street-by-street basis or using particular landmarks is even better.  
The Term of the Restriction:  The term of a radius restriction typically coincides with the term of the lease.  However, problems can arise when a lease is terminated prematurely.  If the tenant has an early termination right, it’s important that the radius restriction terminate simultaneously.  It’s also common for tenants to start developing new opportunities in anticipation of the end of a lease term.  This would be a problem if the radius restriction broadly defines the restricted activity as “running, operating, investing in or developing” a competing business.

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Exclusive use clauses in commercial leasing are important to both landlords and tenants, especially in the retail context.  Landlords need to focus on the right tenant mixture, ensure that obligations to existing tenants are met and maintain the ability to attract new tenants. Prospective tenants need to know that a direct competitor won’t be setting up shop in the same shopping center or worse right next door.  In every new lease, exclusive use clauses come into play in two ways:  exclusive use clauses applicable to existing tenants and the new tenant’s desire to obtain its own exclusive use.  With respect to existing exclusive use clauses, new tenants are simply excluded from using the premises for such uses.  Language in the lease will typically refer to an exhibit itemizing the unpermitted uses based on exclusive uses already granted to existing tenants.  Whether an exclusive use is granted to a new tenant will depend on a host of factors including but not limited to the size of the new tenant in relation to the shopping center, the new tenant’s negotiating power, the current mixture of existing tenants in the shopping center and potential conflicts with existing leases (particularly with respect to anchor tenants (national chains) who maintain significant control over their operations).  

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All commercial tenants are subject to “use” restrictions. Before even entering into a lease, the parties generally have a firm understanding of just what is a tenant will be permitted to sell or serve on the premises (“Permitted Use”).  Whether this Permitted Use will be exclusive is a separate matter (but of no less importance to both landlords and tenants).  While it might seem intuitive that landlords would prefer not to be bound by exclusive use clauses, Landlords in fact benefit from a diverse tenant mixture.  First, the shopping center is generally more attractive to customers looking for the mall experience.  Second, it would be hard to attract new tenants if the landlord has a reputation of installing competitors right next door.  Finally, a significant number of prospective tenants will look elsewhere if they cannot be reasonably certain that the landlord will not lease space to competitors.   Moreover, in cases where the landlord receives a percentage of a tenant’s sales, exclusive use clauses become even more important. Because of these factors, most landlords will entertain the idea of granting an exclusive use to even the smallest tenant.  The real issue then becomes the scope of the exclusive use. 

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Commercial tenants are often perplexed when they realize that under the terms of their lease, they are responsible for damages that occur on the leased premises even if caused by the landlord’s own negligence. In most cases, the landlord’s liability for just about any scenario is limited to gross negligence and willful misconduct. Landlords typically insist that all liability shift to tenants because tenants have control over the leased premises. Tenants are then required to adequately insure against all liabilities whether or not it’s the landlord’s fault. The idea that tenants should be responsible for a landlord’s negligence seems counter intuitive. Landlord’s simply argue that they do not want to get caught up in battles over who may or may not be negligent. In their view, the simpler solution is for tenant’s to indemnify landlords for all liabilities while maintaining adequate insurance coverage (including insurance covering the landlord’s negligence). Whether or not one buys into the argument, the practical reality is that most landlords in California will insist on indemnification clauses requiring tenants to defend, indemnify and hold landlords harmless except in cases of the landlord’s gross negligence or willful misconduct. As a practical matter, excepting gross negligence and willful misconduct from indemnification clauses is not problematic for landlords because under California law they are already unable to contractually shift liability for their own gross negligence or willful misconduct. Willful misconduct is intentional misconduct. But what is “gross negligence”?

shopping-palace-by-night-3-273308-m.jpgIn layman’s terms, negligence is often referred to as carelessness. In legal terms it refers to the failure to meet an accepted standard of conduct. For example, a surgeon that accidentally leaves a sponge in a patient would clearly be careless thereby breaching the “standard of care” expected from surgeons generally. Gross negligence refers to a level of negligence that is greater than standard negligence but falls short of an intentional act to harm. Leaving the sponge in the patient on purpose because the surgeon didn’t like the patient’s constant complaining would be an intentional act. In California, gross negligence is defined as misconduct that demonstrates either a want of even scant care or an extreme departure from the ordinary standard of conduct. Gross negligence falls somewhere between a careless accident and an intentional act. Perhaps a nurse reminded the surgeon twice that the sponge was still in the patient but the surgeon decided to respond to a text message. Being warned about the sponge and texting while operating reflects a more careless act and in this case arguably rises to the level of gross negligence. Defining the contours of what is and what isn’t gross negligence however is easier said than done. Proving gross negligence then, at least in California, depends on making a factual determination as to what is scant care and/or an extreme departure. This is a highly subjective standard. The finder of fact (the jury in most cases) is tasked with determining what the standard of care is and then what level beyond this standard rises to gross negligence. In short, proving gross negligence is difficult in almost any circumstance.

To learn more about landlord liability and indemnification clauses, contact a San Diego commercial lease lawyer today.

The terms of commercial leases vary significantly depending on the type of commercial property being leased and the specific business goals of both landlords and tenants. “Option clauses,” also known as “renewal terms,” are provisions in a commercial lease agreement that allow a tenant to extend the term of the lease for an additional term after the initial term has expired. Tenants prefer option clauses because they reduce the risk of having to relocate an established business after the expiration of the initial term.

nightshopping-130418-m.jpgWhile option clauses are prevalent in commercial leasing, most landlords would probably prefer not to have to deal with them. This is especially so where the rental rate during the option period is fixed. Option clauses prevent landlords from leasing the premises on the open market and ultimately obtaining the highest possible rent. Options give tenants a choice which necessarily reduces a landlord’s flexibility. Once a tenant exercises its right to the option term, the terms of the option clause govern regardless of how good the market is at the time. That is why most landlords prefer that the rental rate during the option period be determined by the actual market rate for the premises at the time the option is exercised. This is generally a fair approach for both landlords and tenants because each side is equally exposed to the vagaries of the market.

A market rate would benefit tenants if the leasing market is especially soft when it comes time to exercise the tenant’s option. Moreover, in soft markets, tenants may be tempted to explore better options leaving landlords with empty space. To hedge against this uncertainty and in exchange for including an option clause, landlords will usually require that there be a floor to the new rental rate during the option period (usually no less than a 3% increase over the rental rate immediately preceding the option period). This provides landlords with the best of both worlds – a minimum increase in rent even if the leasing market is dismal or an increase in rent equal to the higher market rate should the market be strong. In such circumstances, tenants are better off with predetermined fixed increases in rent usually consistent with the annual increases in rent during the initial term of the lease. Either way, option clauses are inherently valuable to tenants and how the rental rate is determined during any option period under the terms of the lease will depend on the tenant’s bargaining power during commercial lease negotiations.

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Indemnity clauses in general are designed to shift liability for claims asserted by third parties from one party to another. In the commercial lease context, tenants typically agree to both indemnify landlords and to defend and hold them harmless for all claims arising out of tenant’s operation of business on the leased premises, tenant’s maintenance of the premises and the negligence and/or misconduct of the tenant or its representatives, employees, agents and contractors (and sometimes even the tenant’s customers). In essence, the tenant agrees to defend the landlord for specified damages or claims. While it may seem absurd to a prospective tenant, commercial leases sometimes contain language requiring tenants to indemnify landlords for claims for liabilities arising out of occurrences in the common areas controlled by landlords and even for those liabilities arising out of the landlord’s own negligence.

outlet-center1-52397-m.jpgMost importantly, under California law, these types or indemnification clauses are generally enforceable, at least in the commercial lease context. Of course, there are public policy considerations even where commercial leases are concerned. For instance, landlords cannot contract against future claims for their own intentional misconduct or gross negligence. It is advisable, given this limitation, for tenants to seek reciprocal indemnification language for any intentional conduct or gross negligence by landlords. Moreover, depending on the parties’ relative bargaining power, some landlords may be willing to indemnify tenants for their own negligence and even the negligence of those under their control where the damages arise from occurrences in the common areas.

From the landlord’s perspective, the idea is to shift liability to the tenants who conduct business on the premises daily. This reallocation of risk is guided by the parties respective insurance coverage. From a practical standpoint, the shift in responsibility is a shift in insurance obligations. If the lease shifts liability for “any and all” claims arising out of anything to tenant, it becomes incumbent upon the tenant to insure against “any and all” claims. In fact, most commercial leases specifically require suitable coverage. As such, allocation and the actual procurement of adequate insurance coverage is essential for both landlords and tenants.

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Landlords routinely request estoppel certificates from their tenants. Tenant estoppel certificates are signed statements requested by third parties (typically lenders or prospective purchasers of commercial real estate) in order to verify certain terms between the current tenant and landlord of the commercial real estate property, things that cannot be ascertained by simply reading the commercial lease agreement.. The estoppel certificate confirms that a valid lease exists, that the lease remains in full force and effect, that neither the landlord nor tenant are in default and that the rent is paid up. This allows for instance a prospective buyer of a shopping center to better evaluate the shopping center’s performance. Once a tenant verifies these details in the estoppel certificate, they cannot be later disputed. Potential purchasers of the commercial property rely on the certificates to evaluate the risks associated with purchasing the property and to determine an appropriate offering price.

golden-pen-469098-m.jpgWhat Information is Included in a Tenant Estoppel Certificate?

Typically, an estoppel certificate will ask a tenant to verify the following:

  • The date of the commencement of the lease;
  • That the lease has been unmodified and is in full force and effect or that it has been modified;
  • The most current date in which rent is paid through; and
  • That there are no defaults by the tenant or the landlord.

Other information that may be requested in an estoppel certificate includes the financial health of a tenant, the amount of any security deposit paid, the tenant’s ownership structure, or whether there is any ongoing litigation related to the tenant. Most of the time, but not always, landlords will attach a form of the estoppel certificate as an exhibit to the actual lease agreement to help avoid disputes that may arise in the future regarding what information should be provided by the tenant. It is in a tenant’s best interest to negotiate which information should be included in the estoppel certificate prior to entering into the lease. For example, information that can be determined by reading the lease or statements that modify the lease agreement in any way should be avoided.

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A Tenant Improvement Allowance (TIA) is a landlord incentive designed to assist new tenants with the build-out of their space. Build-outs are improvements to leased space to make the space usable for a particular tenant’s needs. Whether or not a landlord will offer a TIA and how much the landlord will offer depends on a variety of factors including the relative bargaining power of prospective tenants, the current market for commercial space, the current condition of the premises, the extent to which the current condition suits a prospective tenant’s needs, the tenant’s desirability, the base rent and other key terms being negotiated. Often, new business owners are surprised when a TIA is offered and may over estimate its significance. While TIAs are important landlord incentives, landlords are careful to minimize the true costs. In most cases, tenant improvements are capital improvements that provide a long term benefit to the property. Even where the improvements are specific to a tenant’s needs, landlords most often build the cost of TIAs into the base rent. However one looks at it, TIAs are an important factor in commercial lease negotiation. If a tenant improvement allowance is being offered, the associated lease language is critical for both landlords and tenants. When negotiating TIAs and associated lease terms, it is important that the parties have a clear understanding of the improvements needed and their likely cost.

old-bulilding-2-147832-m.jpgTwo Common Approaches – The Stated Dollar Amount Approach and the Turn-Key Approach:

With a stated dollar amount, the landlord offers a fixed sum to the tenant for the build-out. The tenant must absorb any additional costs that exceed the fixed sum. In some cases, landlords will require any excess monies be returned after completion of the job. Where landlords do not require the return of excess funds, they are more likely to allow soft costs such as architectural and engineering fees. Again, ensuring that these issues are clearly addressed in the lease avoids any potential future conflict. The stated dollar amount method is fairly straight forward. The landlord knows the precise amount it will be responsible for and tenants (who typically oversee the build-out) retain control of the process. It is also possible for landlords to offer a fixed sum while retaining control of the build-out process.

With the turn-key approach, the landlord allowance covers certain specified work which the landlord typically oversees (i.e. build out of a new kitchen or bathroom, erection of interior walls and partitions, installation of new doors and windows, new flooring and ceilings, etc.). Any additional work would be considered extra work to be absorbed by the tenant. Some new business owners may prefer the turn-key approach so that they may remain focused on other important aspects of forming their new business. Overseeing construction while simultaneously focusing on licensing, trademarks, dbas, incorporation, employees, inventory, insurance and other business responsibilities can be daunting. However, it’s important that new business owners understand the downside to landlord control of build-outs. When landlords control the process, they are motivated to limit expenses. They may not have the same quality goals and may take short cuts the tenant wouldn’t be willing to take. Tenants will want to ensure that they get the most work possible with the allowance provided, that the landlord warranty the work, that the work be completed by a specified date and that the tenant have a reasonable opportunity to inspect the work to be sure the work was done properly including retaining the ability to submit a punch-list of things that need to be completed after taking possession. In addition, it’s helpful to ask landlords to undergo a competitive bidding process where sealed bids are opened in the tenant’s presence.

In some cases, landlords will allow tenants to control the build-out process choosing their own architects and contractors (subject to landlord approval). However, the tenant’s expenses would be limited by the allowance. If the tenant goes over budget, the tenant would be responsible for the excess costs.

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