Archive for November, 2014

“Claw back” of lease incentives thrown into doubt

Landlords often offer incentives to a tenant to encourage the tenant to enter a lease. Common incentives are rent free periods and contributions to the fit out. The logic behind the inducement is that landlord will benefit because the tenant will occupy the premises for the term of the lease. Landlords sometimes require a “claw back” provision in the lease so that if the landlord terminates the lease before the expiry of the term the lease incentive (or part of the lease incentive) must be repaid.

The enforceability of “claw back” clauses has been thrown into doubt by the decision of the Queensland Supreme Court in GWC Property Group Pty Ltd v Higginson [2014] QSC 264.

In GWC the tenant and the landlord entered into a lease and on the same day entered into an incentive deed. The incentive deed was recited to “supplement the lease” and recited that the landlord had agreed, among other things, to contribute to the tenant’s fit-out and grant a rent abatement. The lease did not require the tenant to undertake a fit-out. The incentive deed also provided for repayment of part of the landlord’s contributions if the lease was terminated (other than by expiry of the term or the lessor’s default) or if the tenant parted with possession without the landlord’s consent. The obligation to repay was guaranteed by guarantors.

The landlord terminated the lease after the leased premises were abandoned by the tenant. The court decided that:

  • the lease and the incentive deed had to be construed as if they were one document;
  • the obligation to repay only arise if there a termination;
  • the tenant could be obliged to repay the landlord’s contributions for reasons other than the tenant’s breach – for example where the tenant went into liquidation or following a natural disaster;
  • the repayment obligation should not be viewed as a restitutionary payment;
  • in addition to contractual damages for breach of the lease, the landlord was entitled, by the repayment clauses, to recover substantial additional payments;
  • the repayment obligation were not a genuine pre-estimate of damage.

The court decided that the obligation to repay landlord’s contributions was a penalty and was therefore not enforceable.

The case contains a good discussion about the law of penalties. Thanks to Tony Burke of Burke & Associates Lawyers Pty Ltd for alerting me to GWC.

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Date of termination confirmed as the date for assessing damages for breach of contract for sale of land

The general rule is that damages for a breach of a contract for the sale of land are assessed at the date of the breach. The task is usually to compare the contract price with the value of the land a the time of the breach. If the value is greater than the contract price, the vendor has suffered no loss. But if the value is less than the contract price, it may be inferred that the discrepancy is an element of the vendor’s loss (Vitek v Estate Homes Pty Ltd [2010] NSWSC 237 at [179]).

 

In Ng v Filmlock Pty Ltd [2014] NSWCA 389 the NSW Court of Appeal heard an appeal by a purchaser of land from a judgment where the trial judge had assessed the vendor’s loss as being the difference between the contract price and the price obtained on a resale. The contract restricted the use of the resale price as an element in the quantification of loss to a resale within 12 months of termination but otherwise the vendor was entitled to damages for breach of contract. The resale took place more than 12 months after termination and therefore the general law applied. The land had declined significantly in value by the time of the resale.

The vendor argued that there was no available market as at the date of the breach of contract and therefore the resale price was relevant to the calculation of loss. The argument was based on a proposition said to be derived from the decision of the English Court of Appeal in Hooper v Oates [2014] Ch 287: the correct date for assessment of damages for breach of contract is the date of breach only where there is an immediately available market for the subject matter of the sale.

Emmett JA, after noting that the English Court of Appeal did not explain what was meant by an “immediately available market”, said at [26]:

“While a sale of land might take longer than the sale of other types of assets, it does not follow that there should be a departure from the general rule, which focuses on the value of the land as at the date of termination of the contract. There is good reason for that approach where the damages sought by the innocent seller are loss of bargain damages. The critical date is when the bargain was lost.”

While the appeal was successful the court accepted that in an appropriate case the interests of justice may require that “the date of breach” rule should not apply and damages may be assessed by reference to a later date, such as the contract price on resale. See: Johnson v Perez (1988) 166 CLR 351 at 367.

Gleeson JA said at [58]:

“….whether a market value may be assessed in the case of land as at “the date of breach” is ultimately a question of fact. Of necessity, the sale of land will generally require a period to elapse for proper marketing. Unsuccessful attempts by a vendor to resell the property are not determinative as to whether there is no market for the land. Much will depend on the usual method of sale for the land in question having regard to its location, particular characteristics, the range of likely interested purchasers, and the time usually required for proper marketing of land of that type. Expert valuation evidence is likely to have a significant role.”

And at [59]:

“It needs to be emphasised that that departure from the general rule is not a matter of discretion: Clark v Macourt [2013] HCA 56 at [109] (Keane J). A vendor claiming damages assessed at a date later than “the date of breach” must demonstrate that there are particular reasons on the facts which would make it unjust to apply the prima face or “usual” measure of damages.”

 

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Rent reviews – mandatory or at the landlord’s discretion?

The issue of whether a lease requires a rent review or whether the review is at the discretion of the landlord often arises. The problem can avoided by clear drafting. In Growthpoint Properties Australian Limited v Austalia Pacific Airports [2014] VSC 556 the court had to decide whether a rent review was mandatory under the lease or whether the review was at the discretion of the landlord.

Clause 4.2 of the lease provided that:

“On each Market Review Date, the Rent is to be adjusted by a market review in accordance with the Market Review Method….”

Part B of the Lease provided:

“On each Market Review Date, the Rent will be adjusted by a market review if:

(a) APAM gives written notice to the Tenant (“Rent Review Notice”) setting out APAM’s opinion of the market rent for the Premises as at the Market Review Date; and

(b) the Rent Review Notice is given to the Tenant in the period between 6 months before and 6 months after the Market Review Date.

New Rent applies unless a dispute notice is served.

The Rent stated in the Rent Review Notice applies from the Market Review Date unless the Tenant gives APAM a notice disputing the specified Rent (“Dispute Notice”) within 21 days after the Rent Review Notice is given.”

The controversy between the tenant and the landlord arose from the imperative language in clause 4.2 (“is to be adjusted”) and the use of the conditional language in Part B (“will be adjusted”).

The tenant contended that the clauses, when read together were ambiguous and that there was a conflict between the clauses. On the tenant’s construction of the lease the landlord was obliged to initiate a rent review.

The landlord submitted that the rent provisions gave the landlord an entitlement, but not an obligation, to give the lessee a rent review notice.

The court held that the rent provisions gave the landlord an entitlement, but not an obligation, to give the lessee a rent review notice.

The case is useful because it discusses in detail the principles governing the construction of leases and rent review clauses and highlights the need to examine the lease as a whole. Of particular interest is the discussion about the purpose of rent review clauses: the House of Lords in United Scientific Holdings Ltd v Burnley Borough Council [1978] AC 904 viewed the benefit of a rent review to the landlord as being the ability to adjust rent market with the benefit to the tenant being seen as the security of a long lease.

The lease in Growthpoint was a commercial lease. If the lease is a “retail premises lease” a tenant may initiate a rent review if the landlord fails to do so within 90 days after the period provided for in the lease for the review. See: s.35(5) of the Retail Leases Act 2003.

 

 

 

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