COVID-19 Update: How we are serving and protecting our clients.

Articles Posted in Commercial Leasing

montauk-300x182A recent news story in the New York Post raises important issues regarding the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on evictions in New York State.  According to the report, an “Intragram influencer” named Marisa Hochberg owes at least $14,000.00 in past due rent on her summer rental in Montauk, and has refused to vacate the premises, even though her lease expired several months ago.

In ordinary times, an eviction action would be brought by the attorneys for the homeowners in the local landlord-tenant Court, seeking to evict the tenant.  In the Hochberg case, the tenant could be the subject of either a holdover action, or a non-payment action.  First, as her lease expired by its terms, this makes her a month-to-month tenant subject to termination on proper notice (holdover action).  Second, as she has failed to pay rent due, this also allows the possibility of a non-payment proceeding being brought against her.

However, as our readers are aware, these are not ordinary times.  Not all landlord-tenant courts, which are local in nature, are scheduling and hearing cases on a regular basis, due to COVID concerns.  Before attempting to file a case in a local landlord-tenant Court, experienced counsel should contact the Court directly to ensure that they are accepting and scheduling new cases.

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We  note that recent news concerning New York’s commercial real estate landscape has been rapid and stunning.  Iconic businesses such as Sears, JC Penney, Modell’s and Brooks Brothers have filed for bankruptcy protection or closed retail stores, office spaces remain underutilized and the restaurant business is experiencing significant challenges.  Tenants that remain are rethinking their need for expensive commercial space.  Landlords are considering converting properties to new uses in order to fully lease available space.  This post will examine some of the current trends in commercial leasing and provide suggestions as to how such challenges may be overcome.

Century 21, the iconic downtown Manhattan retail fixture, announced that it is closing all of its stores.  As we reflect on the 9/11 terrorist attacks today, we also recall that Century 21 was committed to operating near the World Trade Center, rebuilt and reopened.  Unfortunately, the effects of Coronavirus on its business could not be overcome due to the tenant’s inability to collect on its claim for business interruption insurance.  Such insurance may be required by a landlord in a commercial lease.  It provides that if a tenant’s business is interrupted, that lost revenues and the like will be paid and will cover the rent that the tenant could not pay due to lost revenues.  Business interruption insurance covers lost revenues due to physical damage from terrorist attack or casualty, but often contains exclusions for matters such as a pandemic.  Even though common sense dictates that coronavirus has interrupted business to the extent that insurers should cover the claims, many tenants have been unable to collect on such insurance and use those funds to become current on their rent obligations.  Without revenues, tenants have been otherwise unable to pay their rent and have decided to vacate space.

In the office market, Covid 19 has frightened corporate leaders and employees, leading to many expecting to work from home for months to come.  This is leading to high office vacancy rates and new leases (if any) for shorter terms.  Subleases may become more prevalent so that tenants do not have to commit to long-term financial obligations.

supcourt-300x141As we are all aware, the effects of the COVID-19 virus on commercial leases will be quite substantial.  Many businesses have been forced to limit their hours, or have been forbidden to open at all during this time.  Of course, a business whose income has been limited in this manner will have problems meeting its rent obligations under its lease.

When this occurs, there may be potential liability for the guarantors of such leases.  Under many commercial leases, the principals of the business may be required to personally guarantee payment of the business’ rent obligations.  This means that if the corporate leaseholder fails to pay the rent, the guarantors may be sued personally to remit the sums due under the lease.

There are different types of guarantees under commercial leases, as has been explained in a prior blog postExperienced counsel should carefully review the lease to determine its exact terms and the potential obligations of the guarantors.

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Rockland County, New York  is an area served by our firm.  Surprisingly, this area has become a hotbed of competition for the hot dog consuming customer.  Perhaps the contestants in the annual 4th of July hot dog eating contest sponsored by Nathan’s  could even practice for the big event in Rockland.

All kidding aside, there is a classic commercial leasing issue that has arisen in this area.  A fast food restaurant known as Dawg House  developed and was enjoying financial success selling its popular hot dogs.  Recent news outlets have reported  that the large national chain Shake Shack  is planning to lease space in the same center where Dawg House is located.  Dawg House engaged skilled counsel  when it negotiated  its lease.  This issue was foreseen and an exclusivity clause was included in the final lease.

In this case, the exclusivity clause provided that the landlord was forbidden from leasing another space in the same center to a tenant whose primary business is the sale of hot dogs and wieners.  Certainly, Shake Shack sells hot dogs.  However, it also sells burgers, chicken sandwiches, french fries, frozen desserts and particular alcoholic beverages, which menu items Dawg House also sells.  These overlapping menu items are not necessarily forbidden by the exclusivity clause, but common sense dictates that the businesses of Dawg House and Shake Shack overlap.  It may be a matter of litigation as to whether the overlapping menu items as opposed to the primary business in selling hot dogs and wieners triggers the exclusivity clause and its ramifications.

openworkWe hope that our readers have been fortunate enough to have stayed healthy during these trying times.  Finally, our home region has commenced the post-Covid re-opening process.  We are currently in Phase II.  Our attorneys hope that all business activities will return to “normal” as soon as possible, just as baseball fans want to hear the “crack of the bat” as their favorite player hits a home run.  Since it is time for us to catch up on routine medical care, it is also prudent to consider returning to meeting your legal needs.  This post will address the specific areas that can be covered by our lawyers at this time.

New real estate transactions have diminished in recent months.  This author anticipates a delayed Spring market, meaning that contracts that may have been signed in March and April will likely be signed in the upcoming weeks instead.  Covid shutdown regulations forbid in-person showings by real estate agents.  Property owners were scared to allow potential buyers into their homes for viewings.  Phase II allows real estate agents to show properties in person, rather than merely virtually.  Sellers have become aware that buyers concerned with diminished quality of city life may now crave serene suburban living.  It is potentially an optimal time to sell one’s house.

Restrictions on retail establishments have started to loosen, allowing for curbside pickup and potential additional shopping options.  Restaurants are permitted to serve with outside seating.  While these sound like positive developments, the income stream to the commercial tenant with such restrictions is severely limited.  As such, it may be time to request that your attorney  review your commercial lease and seek a modification.  Tenants are otherwise expected to pay full rent, without being able to fully occupy the space and generate the same amount of income per square foot.

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Commercial leases in New York are not immune to the effects of COVID.  Enforced shutdowns of “non-essential” businesses by governmental authority has led to mass closure of many retail stores and restaurants and record-high unemployment rates.  Even restaurants limited to the restriction of takeout and delivery service are suffering severely reduced revenue.  The current business climate has inherently altered the lease obligations that a tenant can maintain.  This post will address how the parties to a lease should be addressing the changes to New York’s commercial lease landscape.

It is not unusual for commercial leases to contain a requirement by the tenant to maintain business interruption insurance.  Tenants with such coverage should file a claim with their insurer.  Many insurers may initially deny the claim on the basis that pandemics are not included in their coverage.  This tactic is likely to be subject to future litigation.  Ultimately, the insurers may be required to cover such losses.

A tenant should have an experienced attorney review the particular lease that has been signed to determine whether a force majeure clause may excuse the tenant from its rent obligations.  This clause excuses a tenant from obligations for circumstances beyond its control such as terrorist attack, war, famine, strikes, catastrophic weather conditions and acts of God.  A particular lease needs to be evaluated to determine whether a pandemic is considered to be a force majeureForce majeure may also provide the tenant with a defense if conditions prevented it from obtaining a building permit, completing a build-out according to an established schedule, opening for business by a particular date and the like.

homeless-300x156News outlets have recently reported that Lady Gaga’s father is refusing to pay the rent due on the commercial restaurant space occupied by him in Grand Central Terminal.  gct  Essentially, he has claimed that physical conditions interfere with the successful operation of his business.  These conditions allegedly include a growing homeless population that monopolizes seating intended for customers consuming food, rodents and aging facilities such as bathrooms and seating.  This post will discuss whether the tenant in this instance has a valid defense for refusing to pay his rent and other options that may be available to him.

In this case, the particular restaurant is in the center of the food court and does not require a patron to enter an area exclusively used by those being served.  It inherently allows for non-customers to occupy the restaurant space along with paying customers and may legitimately adversely affect business conditions.  The landlord in this case, the MTA, owns and manages the rest of Grand Central Terminal, making it potentially able to control adverse business conditions.

Generally, commercial leases negotiated by this author anticipate a tenant’s potential request for a rent reduction when property conditions deteriorate and forbids such action.  Most commercial leases provide that the landlord does not warrant property conditions and that a tenant therefore cannot withhold rent for diminished property conditions and the like.  Also, since this restaurant space was readily viewable and accessible prior to its being rented, the tenant could have anticipated the issues that he has recently raised and was aware of property conditions.

sickMost of us have been recently inundated by reports of the Coronavirus pandemic.      virus Although many of our readers do not travel to some of the afflicted locations, fear has a way of becoming contagious in its own right and can have negative business consequences.  Fundamentally, the fear is based upon not only becoming sick but also on the effect that widespread contagious illness can have upon the economy.  This post will address how our attorneys  respond to unfavorable financial times and the strategies to be rendered.

Real estate transactions  tend to be voluntary business activities.  For instance, a proposed buyer may be renting an apartment and be in the market to potentially purchase a house.  Typically, a buyer needs liquid cash assets to post a downpayment and have the cash needed to close.  If the stock market continues its losses of the past few days, a buyer may decide not to move forward because he needs to sell additional assets than previously intended in order to raise the cash needed.  An experienced attorney  would advise such a person that real estate is an investment that can be sold at a future date, hopefully at a profit.  However, continuing to rent an apartment does not provide an asset to be sold at a future date or potential tax benefits such as deducting mortgage interest and real estate taxes paid.  Now that we are about the enter the Spring market , new inventory and opportunities for buyers are available.  Perhaps if a seller is concerned that her house will not sell as readily in this economy, the price may be reduced to attract additional buyer interest.

Certainly, commercially leased properties  may see reduced customer traffic if consumers are afraid to be in public places and prefer to order products online or not visit restaurants where ill persons may be present.  If such conditions persist, a tenant may need a seasoned lawyer to negotiate a lease modification or lease surrender , thus assisting the tenant in not being required to continue in a lease that is not consistent with current economic conditions.  If such a modification cannot be negotiated, the tenant may be advised to “go dark” .  Should the landlord not be willing to accept these options, he may seek to bring a landlord-tenant proceeding against the tenant.

exitThe region served by this law firm certainly has its share of vacant commercial spaces.  An unproductive business environment at times leads to the consideration of closure by other businesses.  When a commercial lease ends prior to its termination date, it is know in the industry as “going dark”.  It is not unusual for commercial lease terms to extend for anywhere from five to twenty years.  Of course, during such a lengthy timeframe, business conditions can change drastically, making the continued conduct of business to be impractical and not profitable.  There may have even been a lease modification between the landlord and tenant which has still not assisted the tenant in the successful conduct of its business at the premises.  Perhaps the business involves a particular food or fitness craze that is no longer desired by potential customers.  When this occurs, experienced legal counsel  should be consulted to develop the optimal strategy for the tenant’s early exit.

The tenant’s attorney  should first review the fully signed commercial lease to determine the exact date of lease termination.  If the date is far into the future, different advice may be rendered.  The lease may contain a provision as to whether the tenant has the option to terminate the lease prior to its stated termination date.  Potentially a payment will be required by the tenant in order to leave the premises early.  Such a payment may amount to a set number of months and the waiver of the refund of the security deposit.  For instance, if the early termination payment is three months rent and the waiver of the refund of one month’s security deposit, the tenant may be best served to end the lease early rather than continue with the lease that has another four years to run.  In addition, the tenant’s attorney  should make sure that any notice to the landlord regarding early termination is consistent with the notice requirements in the lease, or such notice may not be deemed to be valid.  The notice requirement may be of a certain number of days before it is effective, need to be sent by a certain method such as certified mail and may also need to be delivered to the landlord’s attorney.

Lease guarantors may also need to be considered when early termination is considered by the tenant.  Most tenants sign leases under an entity name such as a limited liability company or corporation.  In such cases, a landlord will typically seek an individual person to guaranty performance by the tenant.  Such an individual may be the principal of the entity or a third party backing the tenant’s business.  In the case of a guarantor who is the principal of the entity, such a guaranty may take the form of a “good guy” guaranty.  This type of guaranty provides that if the tenant leaves the premises in the condition as required at the end of the lease and pays all sums due to the landlord through the vacate date, then the guarantor is released from further obligation to the landlord.  When there is a good guy guaranty, terminating the lease early is low risk to the parties involved.  However, if the guarantor is a third party backing the tenant’s business, such a third party may challenge the tenant’s early vacate because it may have to fulfill the tenant’s obligations after it leaves the premises.  It is prudent to have a separate agreement between the tenant and third party guarantor to define obligations if the lease ends early.

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We  endeavor to inform our readers as to relevant news pertaining to our region.  One of the Fairway grocery stores located in Rockland County  closed yesterday.  This store is part of a chain comprising approximately fifteen stores.  As reported , the tenant was in year six of its commercial lease.  Most commercial leases  are likely to be for a term of at least ten years, with options to renew.  As such, the tenant likely is vacating before the end of its lease term.  Although this author  has not personally reviewed the lease at issue, this post will discuss the provisions customarily contained in such commercial leases and the issues raised when the tenant leaves before the end of the lease.

Fairway represented that it decided to close this particular location not because of the overall financial health of its company.  Other anchor tenants  at the shopping center had already closed, which caused decreased customer volume for the grocery store that adversely affected its revenues.

Landlords  typically negotiate the following provisions in leases.  The rent due escalates through the end of the lease and the tenant forfeits its security deposit if the tenant vacates early.  In order to avoid such costly penalties, the tenant may try to find a replacement tenant to whom the lease can be assigned.  When the lease is originally negotiated, an experienced attorney  will negotiate a liberal assignment clause so that the tenant can more readily exit the lease if the business is not successful at the location.  That way, the landlord will be required to accept another tenant located by the tenant that is leaving the shopping center.

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