Articles Posted in Real-Estate Litigation

As Naperville, Oak Brook, Wheaton, and Chicago business trial lawyers with substantial experience in shopping center claims, we were interested to see a recent decision by the First District Court of Appeal on the obligations of people who guarantee a lease. A change in the lease and a directed verdict at trial do not relieve a couple of their liability as guarantors of a commercial lease, the court has ruled. In Chicago Exhibitors Corporation v. Jeepers! Of Illinois and Swento, 1-06-3313 (Aug. 30, 2007), the court ruled that a guaranty agreement written to survive changes to the lease is enforceable even if the lease is assigned to a new tenant who changes it without the guarantor’s approval.

Harvey and Cherry Swento owned a business that leased space from a predecessor landlord to Chicago Exhibitors Corporation (CEC). To sweeten that lease, the Swentos in 1991 personally guaranteed their lease payments and all of their other obligations as tenants, with a clause specifying that the guaranty would survive changes to or assignment of the lease. In 1997, they sold their business to Jeepers! of Illinois, Inc. and executed an agreement in which Jeepers! indemnified them from losses stemming from their personal guaranty. Jeepers! then failed to pay its rent, causing CEC to demand an amendment to the lease that reaffirmed the Swentos’ personal guaranty. CEC declined to recognize the transfer of lease obligations from the Swentos’ company to Jeepers! until rent was paid in full and Jeepers! executed its own guaranty.

Jeepers! never did take on the guaranty, but it failed to pay its rent again several times. In an effort to avoid eviction, it agreed to several changes to the lease in January of 2001. The Swentos did not sign this amendment, even though it called for the ratification of all guarantors. When CEC eventually sued Jeepers! for unpaid rent and repairs, it included the Swentos as guarantors. In the trial, the Swentos asserted that the January 2001 amendment was a material change that discharged them from their obligations as guarantors; CEC successfully moved in limine for a ruling that it was not. The parties then agreed to move straight to the damages phase of the trial, so the judge granted a directed verdict on liability. The Swentos were eventually found liable for unpaid rent and damages as well as attorney fees. They appealed the in limine motion, the directed verdict and the award of attorney fees.

As Chicago business trial attorneys with substantial experience in disputes involving shopping centers, our firm was interested to see a recent Fourth District Court of Appeal decision allowing a shopping center to go through with its lease despite a restrictive covenant in a land sale by its predecessor. In Regency Commercial Associates v. Lopax, 4-06-0332 (May 4, 2007), the appeals court upheld the trial court’s ruling that the business at issue was not covered by the covenant, and that starting the lease while the case was still pending did not bar it from requesting a declaratory judgment.

Regency Commercial Associates, LLC and Lopax, Inc. are companies that own neighboring parcels of land in Savoy, Ill. The prior owner of Regency’s land, Arbours Development Limited Partnership, sold Lopax its land, which Lopax then leased to a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee. The sales contract between Lopax and Arbours restricted Arbours from allowing another “fast-food restaurant … or restaurant facility whose principal food product is chicken[.]” It also lists the types of businesses allowed, which include “casual dining.” Regency later purchased Arbours’ rights under the contract.

When Regency wanted to lease to a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant, it negotiated with Lopax, arguing that the restaurant is “casual dining” and not fast food. Lopax disagreed, saying it believed the contract restricts any restaurant that primarily serves chicken. Regency filed for declaratory judgment, asking the court to find that Buffalo Wild Wings is not fast food and that the covenant restricts only fast-food restaurants that primarily sell chicken. Finding that there was a genuine issue of material fact to try, the court denied Lopax’s motion to dismiss.

As Chicago class action attorneys with a focus on consumer rights and consumer protection law, we know that renters in Chicago are fortunate to be protected by a law requiring landlords to pay interest on the renters’ own security deposits once a year, as long as the tenant stays for more than six months. Section 080 of the Chicago Residential Landlord and Tenant Ordinance (PDF) also specifies that landlords must return security deposits, minus unpaid rent or reasonable costs of repairs, within 45 days of the tenant’s departure. Unlike with the corresponding state law, this is true regardless of the number of units the landlord owns. If a landlord fails to comply, the tenant has the right to sue for twice the amount of the deposit, plus interest and attorneys’ fees.

The ordinance also applies even if the landlord did not willfully (that is, intentionally) withhold the payment. That provision was established by the decision of the First District Court of Appeal in Lawrence v. Regent Realty Group, 307 Ill.App.3d 155, 717 N.E.2d 443, 240 Ill.Dec. 350 (1999). In that case, Aurelia Lawrence sued her landlord for withholding interest on a pet deposit. At trial, the court decided that a pet deposit is a security deposit for the purposes of the law (rather than a fee or charge). But because the landlord didn’t willfully refuse to pay interest on that pet deposit, it declined to impose the penalty of twice the deposit plus interest and attorney fees. Lawrence moved for a new trial, which was denied, and appealed to the First District.

In its analysis, the appeals court noted that it did not need to decide whether the landlord actually did willfully fail to pay; what mattered was whether the ordinance required willfulness in the first place. In order to require willfulness, the court wrote, a law must be penal (intended to punish) rather than remedial (intended to make the victim whole). Both sides agreed that the case turned on the issue of penal versus remedial. The court first decided that its decision should not be controlled by Szpila v. Burke, 279 Ill. App. 3d 964, 665 N.E.2d 357 (1996), in which the appeals court decided that a tenant was entitled to damages once rather than for each separate violation of the ordinance. In that case, the First District said, it found willfulness because to do otherwise would give a result that was out of proportion to the violation and unjust. A similar case, Namur v. Habitat Co., 294 Ill. App. 3d 1007, 691 N.E.2d 782 (1998), was dismissed because it did not address the question at issue here.