Commercial Leases: The Devil Really IS In the Details

I’ve often heard other lawyers talk about how lawyers have a sickness.  I’m not sure that I would characterize what makes attorneys different as a sickness, but I will admit that we often seem weird to non-lawyers, and that this weirdness manifests itself in mundane ways.  My most obvious manifestation involves commercial leases.  How so?  Because I actually enjoy reading through them.  In fact, I’ve admitted publicly that being handed a commercial lease to review is like “Where’s Waldo?” for me.  I get out a pencil and my notepad, and I go to work.

Being a “country lawyer”, I don’t get to review the super-complicated, hundred-page plus leases that some attorneys get to build their careers around, but it isn’t unusual for me to be handed a commercial lease which is 30 to 50 pages long, and I have drafted some of similar length for clients.  The key is understanding that it really does take that many pages to include the “boilerplate” that you should expect in every commercial lease.  The problem is that I often discover that everyone takes the boilerplate for granted, and no one bothers to read through it carefully and determine if it makes sense for the individual tenant.  Hazardous materials clauses are a staple of commercial leases, and with good reason.  Environmental cleanup costs are very expensive, many owners policies limit the  but too often, landlords fail to think through the effect of whatever language is in their boilerplate, and the clients either don’t read carefully enough to know if they have a problem.  Many clauses broadly define “hazardous materials”, and if the lease does not narrow the definition, or make exceptions for materials commonly used by certain businesses, then a landlord may put a tenant in a position where the tenant is in violation of the lease from the moment they commence operations.  Perhaps the most obvious example came when I was asked to review a lease for a nail salon.  The hazardous materials clause was broadly written, and the tenant was shocked when I informed them that since they use acetone, they would technically be violating the lease.  In that case, the landlord was just as shocked as the tenant, and was willing to include an exception for acetone, and some other products that the salon used.  This is why patience in reviewing, along with careful note taking can help a tenant avoid nasty surprises like this which may be lurking in plain sight.

I also spend a fair amount of time with commercial leases looking at issues regarding Certificates of Estoppel.  Put simply, a Certificate of Estoppel is a certification by the tenant to a third party of certain facts regarding the lease.  The facts usually involve the length of the lease, whether or not either party is in default, the amount of the rent, or whether the tenant is currently insured as is required by the lease.  It is a subject that should not be an issue, but it frequently is, because landlords, or their banks will often ask tenants to certify things which aren’t true, or do not comport with the lease, which would have the effect of rewriting the lease moving forward, and maybe eliminating any remedy for violations or duties owed by the landlord which the tenant would otherwise be entitled to demand.  Another common error with Certificates of Estoppel occurs when the lease specifically limits what the tenant may be asked to certify, but the landlord (or a creditor of the landlord) asks the tenant to certify something outside of the specific scope defined in the lease.  This frequently occurs when a bank  or other lender has taken over possession of a property, and seeks to rewrite certain lease terms.  I no longer think that these occurrences are accidental.  I’ve spent too much time talking to representatives of banks or other lenders who clearly have a copy of the lease in front of them, and yet they ask, or more often demand, that the tenant certify something outside of the scope limited by the lease, or that otherwise is different than what the lease requires.

Finally, insurance clauses, in concert with indemnity and hold harmless provisions, require specific diligence in review. Many commercial transactions involve burden shifting, and the party with more bargaining power will shift as much liability or potential liability as they can to the party with less power.  This isn’t unusual, and I expect that, but every now and again, I get a lease where someone has gone overboard, and requires the tenant to accept certain liabilities which may or may not cause them to violate provisions of their insurance policies, or even void their insurance policies, which would leave the tenant legally liable and without any recourse against their own insurers for any recovery or contribution.   This is a problem when it involves a small business that doesn’t expect to make a lot of money,because they will often have NO bargaining power to change this, and don’t want to spend any money to even properly understand what it means for them.  But when I’m dealing with larger companies, I will sometimes arrange to sit down with the client and their insurance agent to discuss the specific wording of these clauses, and let the client hear directly from their own agent why the wording of these clauses will create problems with their coverage if it is not changed, and we will make detailed counter-proposals for alternate clauses which won’t leave them bare in the face of potential liability.

These kinds of pitfalls are why if you are looking at signing a commercial lease, it makes sense to hire an lawyer with my particular brand of weirdness to spend a few hours reviewing the lease, and then going through it with you.  Yes, it requires an outlay of capital, but it doesn’t cost as much as voiding your insurance coverage or rewriting a lease to the benefit of your landlord’s creditors.

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