Commercial Landlord-Tenant Issues
In March 2015, the Illinois Institute for Continuing Legal Education (“IICLE”) published its 2015 Edition practice handbook entitled: Commercial Landlord-Tenant Practice. To provide best-practice guidance to all Illinois attorneys, IICLE recruits experienced attorneys with relevant knowledge to write each handbook chapter. For the current edition, IICLE asked R. Kymn Harp and Catherine Cooke of Robbins, Salomon & Patt, Ltd., Chicago, Illinois, to write the chapter entitled Tenant’s Duties, Rights and Remedies. We were, of course, pleased to oblige. Although each of us represent commercial landlords at least as often as we represent commercial tenants, a clear understanding of the duties, rights and remedies of commercial real estate tenants is critical when representing either side of the commercial lease transaction.
The following is an excerpt (slightly edited) from our chapter, Tenant’s Duties, Rights and Remedies appearing in the 2015 Edition of IICLE Commercial Landlord-Tenant Practice. We hope you find this excerpt, and the excerpts that will follow, informative and useful. Feel free to contact IICLE directly to purchase the entire volume.
How Commercial Lease Issues Commonly Arise – Getting it Right
Commercial real estate leases, like virtually all documents and agreements relating to commercial real estate transactions and interests, are, to a very large extent, consistent only in their variety. In commercial real estate practice, there are few, if any, “standard form” documents or agreements. To be sure, there are provisions in commercial real estate leases that any experienced practitioner would expect to see, and there are some generally applicable legal concepts that apply, but the variety of issues that may arise — and the language used in each commercial lease — will directly and materially impact the “duties, rights, and remedies” of a tenant under any commercial lease.
The best answer to most questions about what are the rights, duties, and remedies of a tenant under a commercial real estate lease is “It depends.” What does it depend on? It depends primarily on what the parties to the lease — the landlord and tenant — intended, as (presumably) reflected by the express terms and conditions of the lease. However, two common challenges frequently exist, and they apply equally to commercial tenants and commercial landlords. They are (a) poorly written lease provisions that do not clearly and definitively set forth the intention of the landlord and tenant in a way that cannot reasonably be misunderstood and (b) inclusion of perceived “standard boilerplate” provisions in a lease without fully understanding their legal or practical affect on the leased premises, the parties, and the greater project of which the leased premises may be a part. When the intent of the parties is not abundantly clear, a court may find the answer implied by the facts and circumstances.
GENERAL LEASE PRINCIPLES AND RULES OF CONSTRUCTION
A “lease” is generally described as a contract for exclusive possession of land and improvements for a term of years or other duration, usually for a specified rent or other compensation. Urban Investment & Development Co. v. Maurice L. Rothschild & Co., 25 Ill.App.3d 546, 323 N.E.2d 588, 592 (1st Dist. 1975); Feeley v. Michigan Avenue National Bank, 141 Ill.App.3d 187, 490 N.E.2d 15, 18, 141 Ill.Dec. 187 (1st Dist. 1986).
In determining the duties, rights, and remedies of a tenant under a commercial lease in Illinois, the general rules of contract construction will apply. Walgreen Co. v. American National Bank & Trust Company of Chicago, 4 Ill.App.3d 549, 281 N.E.2d 462, 465 (1st Dist. 1972); Feeley, supra, 490 N.E.2d at 18; Chicago Title & Trust Co. v. Southland Corp., 111 Ill.App.3d 67, 443 N.E.2d 294, 297, 66 Ill.Dec. 611 (1st Dist. 1982). Interpretation of a lease is a question of law when the terms are plain and unambiguous. Madigan Bros. v. Melrose Shopping Center Co., 123 Ill.App.3d 851, 463 N.E.2d 824, 828, 79 Ill.Dec. 270 (1st Dist. 1984).
“An ambiguous contract is one capable of being understood in more senses than one; an agreement obscure in meaning, through indefiniteness of expression, or having a double meaning.” Advertising Checking Bureau, Inc. v. Canal-Randolph Associates, 101 Ill.App.3d 140, 427 N.E.2d 1039, 1042, 56 Ill.Dec. 634 (1st Dist. 1991), quoting First National Bank of Chicago v. Victor Comptometer Corp., 123 Ill.App.2d 335, 260 N.E.2d 99, 102 (1st Dist. 1970). However, the mere fact that the parties to a lease “dispute” the meaning of a lease provision and assign conflicting interpretations does not render the provision “ambiguous.” McGann v. Murry, 75 Ill.App.3d 697, 393 N.E.2d 1339, 1342 – 1343, 31 Ill.Dec. 32 (3d Dist. 1979); St. George Chicago, Inc. v. George J. Murges & Associates, Ltd., 296 Ill.App.3d 285, 695 N.E.2d 503, 506 – 507, 230 Ill.Dec. 1013 (1st Dist. 1998); Ford v. Dovenmuehle Mortgage, Inc., 273 Ill.App.3d 240, 651 N.E.2d 751, 745 – 755, 209 Ill.Dec. 573 (1st Dist. 1995). Whether ambiguity exists is a question of law for the court. Advertising Checking Bureau, supra, 427 N.E.2d at 1042; Pioneer Trust & Savings Bank v. Lucky Stores, Inc., 91 Ill.App.3d 573, 414 N.E.2d 1152, 1154, 47 Ill.Dec. 36 (1st Dist. 1980).
It is well-settled in Illinois that, when construing a written lease, the court must give words their commonly accepted meaning and must construe every part with reference to all other portions of the lease “so that every part may stand, if possible, and no part of it, either in words or sentences, shall be regarded as superfluous or void if it can be prevented.” Kokenes v. Cities Service Oil Co., 24 Ill.App.3d 483, 321 N.E.2d 338, 340 (1st Dist. 1974), quoting Szulerecki v. Oppenheimer, 283 Ill. 525, 119 N.E. 643, 646 (1918). See also Southland, supra, 443 N.E.2d at 297.
In construing a lease, the instrument is to be considered as a whole and the primary object is to derive the intent of the parties. However, a contract must be enforced as written, and when the terms of a lease are clear and unambiguous, they will be given their natural and ordinary meaning. Gerardi v. Vaal, 169 Ill.App.3d 818, 523 N.E.2d 1327, 1331, 120 Ill.Dec. 416 (3d Dist. 1988).
The foregoing sounds pretty straightforward, but unless attorneys and their clients draft leases with a comprehensive understanding of the interplay between particularly drafted provisions and every other part of the lease — including so-called “standard boilerplate” provisions — they may find themselves surprised by what they have “agreed to.”
Drafting a commercial real estate lease is similar to drafting any other commercial document, except that the meaning and intent of contractual lease provisions are colored by an extensive body of underlying real property law that has developed over the centuries.
A commercial real estate lease should say what the parties mean and mean what it says. Words have meaning; phrases have meaning; each provision has meaning. The interplay of words, phrases, and all provisions in a lease will help determine the meaning of each other word, phrase, or provision. See Kokenes, supra, 321 N.E.2d at 340; Szulerecki, supra, 119 N.E. at 646.
Be sure the words and phrases you use mean what your client believes they mean before proceeding.
If there are provisions of a commercial real estate lease you do not fully understand — including provisions you believe are “standard boilerplate” provisions — you need to learn what they mean and how they affect other parts of the lease, and your client’s rights, duties and remedies, before advising your client to proceed.
The following discussion highlights some areas in which the rights, duties, and remedies of the commercial real estate tenant (and, by mirror image, the landlord) appear not to have been what one or the other party thought they were.
An easement creates an interest in land and must, therefore, be founded on a deed or other writing, or on prescription, which presumes a previous grant. Brunotte v. De Witt, 360 Ill. 518, 196 N.E. 489, 495 (1935); The Fair v. Evergreen Park Shopping Center of Delaware, 4 Ill.App.2d 454, 124 N.E.2d 649, 654 (1st Dist. 1954). It may be created by covenant or agreement as well as by grant, for such agreements are in legal effect grants. Chicago Title & Trust Co. v. Wabash-Randolph Corp., 384 Ill. 78, 51 N.E.2d 132, 136 (1943); D.M. Goodwillie Co. v. Commonwealth Electric Co., 241 Ill. 42, 89 N.E. 272, 283 (1909); The Fair, supra, 124 N.E.2d at 654.
“No particular words are necessary to constitute a grant, and any words which clearly show the intention to give an easement, which is by law grantable, are sufficient to effect that purpose.” Wabash-Randolph, supra, 51 N.E.2d at 136. See also The Fair, supra, 124 N.E.2d at 654. The agreement must be construed so as to carry out the plain intent of the parties. Barber v. Allen, 212 Ill. 125, 72 N.E. 33, 36 (1904).
Parking rights are fertile ground for disputes between commercial tenants and landlords. A significant source of litigation is imprecise drafting, which can result in the creation of implied easements having a scope larger than the developer intended.
As illustrated in the cases discussed below, the law in Illinois is that when the landlord makes no reservation of the right to alter the common areas in the lease, and when the site plan attached to the lease accurately and clearly delineates the common areas, the tenant has an easement in the particular configuration of common space delineated by the lease and plats.
1. Shopping Center Parking
– In Madigan Bros. v. Melrose Shopping Center Co., 123 Ill.App.3d 851, 463 N.E.2d 824, 79 Ill.Dec. 270 (1st Dist. 1984), a shopping center tenant sought a permanent injunction to prevent a landlord from constructing a restaurant or other building in the shopping center’s parking area, without consent of the tenant.
The lease included a provision that stated:
this lease includes the non-exclusive right to Tenant and its agents, servants, successors, assigns, licensees, invitees, customers, suppliers and patrons to use and enjoy throughout the term of this lease the “common areas” of the Shopping Center, to-wit, the driveways, entrances, exits, roadways, parking areas, sidewalks, malls and other features and facilities provided for the general uses and purposes of the Shopping Center. 463 N.E.2d at 826.
The lease further provided: “The location and arrangement of said parking areas, sidewalks, pedestrian malls, entrances and exits and roadways will substantially conform with the plat attached hereto and shall be kept open at all times.” Id.
Additionally, the lease provided that the landlord would provide, operate, manage, and maintain all parking areas “together with any enlargement or rearrangement thereof required by enlarging the Shopping Center” and provided that the tenant shall “have, hold and enjoy the demised premises and the entire . . . building together with all other improvements and all easements, rights and appurtenances which are a part of the demised premises during the full term the lease and any extensions thereof, without hindrance or ejection by any persons lawfully claiming under Landlord.” Id.
Attached to the lease as exhibits were (a) a plot plan of the shopping center showing the leased space; (b) a legal description of the shopping center; and (c) an exhibit showing “the number and area of existing and proposed automobile parking spaces in the Shopping Center together with existing and proposed driveways, entrances, exits and roadways.” Id. The third exhibit was subsequently amended to show the exact location of the parking area and indicate the specific number of parking spaces being provided in the shopping center. The lease was also amended to permit the landlord to construct a bank in the parking area in return for the landlord waiving a restriction against the tenant opening a new store within four miles of the shopping center.
The tenant sought to enjoin the landlord’s construction of the restaurant or other buildings in the shopping center’s parking area, claiming the lease created for the benefit of the tenant a nonexclusive easement in and to the shopping center parking areas. The landlord denied that the tenant had any easement rights under the lease and otherwise denied interfering with any of tenant’s rights under its lease. The landlord claimed that the landlord had reserved the right to make changes to the location or configuration of the parking areas and that the lease required only that the landlord maintain the specified ratio of parking spaces to leasable area, which would be done under the landlord’s construction plan.
The court held that the lease was clear and unambiguous in granting the tenant the use and enjoyment of the shopping center’s parking facilities. The court stated that “
After considering the documents presented, the court concluded that the intent of the parties was to grant the shopping center tenants an easement in the parking areas for ingress, egress, and parking, as set out in the site plan, noting, “[i]t is the law in Illinois that where no reservation by the landlord of the right to alter the common areas is made in the lease and where the site plan attached to the lease accurately and precisely delineates the common areas, the tenant has an easement to the particular configuration of common space delineated by the lease and attached plats.” Id.
– In Walgreen Co. v. America National Bank & Trust Company of Chicago, 4 Ill.App.3d 549, 281 N.E.2d 462 (1st Dist. 1972), Walgreens was a tenant in the Village Green Shopping Center in Park Ridge. Walgreens filed an action to enjoin the landlord and Fotomat from permitting or causing construction of a structure of any kind in the parking area. In particular, Walgreens sought to enjoin the erection of an approximately 40-square-foot kiosk within an area comprising roughly three parking spaces that was to be operated by Fotomat for the sale of photographic equipment and supplies and for film processing. The trial court granted the injunction requested by Walgreens, and the landlord appealed. The principal issue on appeal was whether the landlord breached its lease with Walgreens by leasing an area in the parking lot of the shopping center to Fotomat for construction of a kiosk.
Article 7(a) of the lease to Walgreens provided in part as follows:
It is an express condition of this lease that at all times during the continuance of this lease, Landlord shall provide, maintain, repair, adequately light when necessary during Tenant’s business hours, clean, supervise and keep available the Parking Areas as shown on the attached plan (which Parking Areas shall contain at least 150,000 square feet and shall provide for the parking of at least 400 automobiles), and also adequate service areas, pedestrian malls, sidewalks, curbs, roadways and other facilities appurtenant thereto. Said Parking Areas shall be for the free and exclusive use of customers, invitees and employees of Tenant and of other occupants of said Shopping Center, shall have suitable automobile entrances and exits from and to adjacent streets and roads, shall be level and shall be suitably paved and pitched to streets for surface water run off. 281 N.E.2d at 465.
The lease provided that Walgreens would pay its proportionate share of costs for operating and maintaining the parking facilities in proportion to the relative square footage of the Walgreens to the total area of all retail facilities in the shopping center. Also, Walgreens was not obligated to open its store or pay rent until “[a]ll the parking and other facilities described in Article 7 have been completed, paved and lighted and are available for use.” Id.
The Fotomat kiosk was to be placed in a part of the shopping center designated on the plan attached to the Walgreens lease as a parking lot. It was designed to serve customers who drove up on either side of it in a motor vehicle. The kiosk was to have dimensions of 9 feet × 4½ feet, eliminating three parking spaces. Even with the elimination of the three parking spaces, the parking lot would still have in excess of 150,000 square feet and sufficient space for more than 400 parking spaces.
The landlord claimed that the plot plan attached to the Walgreens lease was only descriptive and illustrative, since Article 7(a), by stating “which Parking Areas shall contain at least 150,000 square feet and shall [provide for the parking of] at least 400 automobiles,” set forth the landlord’s contractual obligation. 281 N.E.2d at 466. The landlord argued that there was no other way to give meaning and effect to this language in Article 7(a) that specified the minimum square footage of the parking area and minimum number of parking spaces.
The court held that the rules of contract construction apply to written leases and that
(t)he principal function of a court in construing a written agreement is to discern and to give effect to the intention of the parties as expressed in the language of the document when read as a whole. . . . A court cannot remake a contract and give a litigant a better bargain than he himself was satisfied to make; and when the terms of a contract are clear and unambiguous, they must be enforced. (Citations omitted.) Id.
The court noted that “the lessor foresaw the possibility of a need to expand the retail facilities and as a part of the plot plan reserved the right to rearrange interior walls of one of the buildings in the shopping center, and in addition it reserved the right to expand the retail establishments into two specified areas. No provision, however, was made for diminishing the designated number of parking lots.” 281 N.E.2d at 467.
The court found from the language in the lease and the attached plot plan that the lease was clear and unambiguous. “The plot plan set forth with exactitude the location of the retail facilities, the pedestrian mall, the sidewalks, the roadways, the service drives, the parking areas, and 463 parking places.” Id.
The lease provided under Article 7(b) that Walgreens was to pay its proportionate share of costs to operate and maintain the parking lots and under Article 7(a) that the customers, invitees, and employees of Walgreens and other shopping center tenants were to be given free and exclusive use of the parking areas. After considering the evidence presented, the court concluded that the lease granted Walgreens and other tenants in the shopping center “an easement in the parking areas for ingress, egress, and parking as set out in the plan” and upheld the injunction against constructing the Fotomat kiosk. Id.
2. Office Building Parking
In Mutual of Omaha Life Insurance Co. v. Executive Plaza, Inc., 99 Ill.App.3d 190, 425 N.E.2d 503, 54 Ill.Dec. 638 (2d Dist. 1981), the tenants in a multistory commercial office building sued the manager and owner for breach of parking rights provisions in a lease. At the time of execution of the lease, a parking lot was provided adjacent to the office building, consisting of approximately 148 spaces for use by all tenants in the building and their clients. The parking lot had five points of ingress and egress: two on North Court Street (a two-way street) and one each on Park Street and Locust Street (two-way streets) and North Church Street (a one-way street). Parking was available to the general public on three of the five streets.
Subsequently, the landlord entered into a lease with Coopers and Lybrand (C & L) for 27 percent of the total rentable area. As part of the C & L lease, the landlord granted C & L employees exclusive access and use of 32 parking spaces in the previously existing common parking lot and an additional 18 spaces in a newly constructed parking lot on Locust Street across from the premises. The restricted parking areas were cordoned off by chains, and access to the restricted parking areas was controlled by plastic pass cards inserted into a gate mechanism to raise a gate. The access gate to the 32 restricted parking spaces in the former common lot was one of the two access points on North Court Street previously providing common access to the common parking lot.
The trial court ruled that the lease had been breached by partially restricting access to parking that was required under the lease to be available to all tenants, but concluded that removal of the parking restriction would not solve the claimed harm of inconvenience, that no direct economic or money loss to tenants had been proved, and that injunctive relief was not appropriate under these circumstances. The tenants appealed.
The appellate court reversed the ruling of the trial court and held: “The rule in Illinois is now clearly that language such as we have in the lease in question creates an easement appurtenant over a parking area in a shopping center, and this is the law elsewhere as well.” 425 N.E.2d at 507. Although the parties did not cite any authorities that specifically applied the rules that have developed in the shopping center cases (see §9.5 above) to parking appurtenant to an office building, the court determined that there was “no logical basis for having one set of rules for shopping centers and a different set of rules for other contractual relationships.” Id., quoting Crest Commercial, Inc. v. Union-Hall, Inc., 104 Ill.App.2d 110, 118, 243 N.E.2d 652, 657 (2d Dist. 1968).
The court noted:
It might, of course, be argued that the furnishing of customer parking is absolutely essential to the tenants’ business in a shopping center whereas parking in connection with the less competitive setting of an office building a mere convenience. . . However, here the tenants have been found to have an easement appurtenant by express contract and from that contractual relationship it follows, in our opinion, that the use of the appurtenant parking areas may not be reduced or substantially altered during the term of the lease. (Citation omitted.) Id.
The court went on to state that “the grant of an easement appurtenant as found by the trial court is a proper subject of mandatory injunction even if only minor interference is shown.” 425 N.E.2d at 507 – 508, citing Ogilby v. Donaldson’s Floors, Inc., 13 Ill.2d 305, 148 N.E.2d 758, 760 – 761 (1958). The court noted that to show irreparable injury, a party is not required to show that the injury is beyond the possibility of compensation, nor must the injury be very great, and “the fact that no actual damages could be proved and the jury could award only nominal damages ‘often furnishes the very best reason why a court of equity should interfere.’ ” 425 N.E.2d at 508, quoting Newell v. Sass, 142 Ill. 104, 31 N.E. 176, 180 (1892).
If a commercial lease describes available parking — and especially if it makes reference to a plot plan/site plan that delineates the location of buildings, roads, parking, curb cuts, etc. — and the landlord thereafter attempts to alter the parking or access rights without a clear and unequivocal right to do so, the tenant will have a legal right to assert a breach of lease and obtain a mandatory injunction to prevent the change, or require that the status quo ante be restored. For the landlord to avoid this outcome, it is important to provide in the lease an express reservation of the right to alter existing or planned parking at the landlord’s discretion, if that is the landlord’s intent.
B. Obstruction and Reduction of Passageways
Construction of a glass bay entrance to a tenant’s store in a shopping center that extended five feet beyond the building lines depicted on a site plan attached to other tenant leases, and which disrupted sightlines to adjacent stores, was found to constitute an unpermitted obstruction or reduction of a private passageway created by the site plan. The Fair v. Evergreen Park Shopping Plaza of Delaware, Inc., 4 Ill.App.2d 454, 124 N.E.2d 649, 652 (1st Dist. 1954).
The court found that when a right of passageway is granted over a strip of land having definite boundaries, the right extends over the full width of the tract described. The Fair (a major tenant facing the mall in the shopping center) was entitled to use the entire mall. The court concluded that the injury was a continuing one, and because there was no adequate remedy at law, “the remedy for the obstruction or reduction of a private passageway is by injunction.” 124 N.E.2d at 656, citing Carpenter v. Capital Electric Co., 178 Ill. 29, 52 N.E. 973, 975 (1899).
C. Building Corridors
As with parking rights, a floor plan attached to a lease may establish an implied easement in favor of tenants that would bar the landlord from relocating corridors reflected on the floor plan; however, express language in the lease clearly permitting a landlord to relocate the corridors will overcome any contrary implication arising from the floor plan. Advertising Checking Bureau, Inc. v. Canal-Randolph Associates, 101 Ill.App.3d 140, 427 N.E.2d 1039, 1042 – 1043, 56 Ill.Dec. 634 (1st Dist. 1991).
COMING UP . . .
We hope you have found the foregoing discussion useful. Coming up, in Part 2 of this series, we will discuss the often misunderstood leasehold “Covenant of Quite Enjoyment” in the context of commercial leases.