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.