R. Kymn Harp
Robbins, Salomon & Patt, Ltd.
Robbins, Salomon & Patt, Ltd.
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. (more…)