New Court of Appeals opinion affirms landlord’s duty to mitigate damages on Tennessee leases

In a post from last month, I mentioned that, when a commercial tenant defaults and leaves a leased property, the landlord is faced with a hard decision: File the lawsuit for unpaid rent now, or do you wait 6-9 months until a replacement tenant can be found?

One thing we know for sure: A landlord can’t just file a lawsuit for all the rent due for the remainder of the term. Instead, the landlord has a duty to mitigate its losses, which means–in this situation–to try to find a replacement tenant.

Last week, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reaffirmed this duty in Loans YES v. Kroger Limited Partnership I, et. al. No. M201901506-COAR3CV, 2020 WL 6386884 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 30, 2020).

As a quick summary, the Court makes the following points:

Continue reading “New Court of Appeals opinion affirms landlord’s duty to mitigate damages on Tennessee leases”

It may be time to start filing Davidson County evictions in Circuit Court.

The new 25 case limit on the civil dockets in Davidson County General Sessions has been the problem we thought it would be.

As of last Thursday, the next available civil hearing date for new and pending cases was December 9, 2020.

Since last Thursday, 357 new cases have been filed in Sessions Court.

Given the usual holiday court schedule, I’d bet that–as of this blog post— there are no more open civil dockets in 2020.

The Nashville Bar Association hosted a General Sessions Court Town Hall today to talk about these issues, but, given the unprecedented nature of this problem, nobody knows what’s next and how to solve it. Will there be afternoon dockets? Staggered morning dockets? Video appearances?

I’ve received a handful of calls from local lawyers, for advice on how to navigate all this. In some cases, the best move is to file the matter and just get a date locked down before things get worse (even if it’s in mid-January).

Another option, though, if you aren’t going to get into Court until January or February, is to file your commercial eviction lawsuits in Circuit Court (which has jurisdiction, per Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-18-108).

If you file an eviction action in Circuit, today, and get it served this week, you may be able to get a judgment by early December (or early January).

And, yes, I know I’ve criticized lawyers for filing Sessions-sized and eviction matters in Circuit Court (a move that generally presents no tangible strategic advantage, other than the lawyers get more billable hours).

But these unprecedented times call for novel ideas.

After a judgment for possession, does res judicata prevent a landlord from taking a money judgment?

I represent a lot of commercial landlords, and, when there’s a payment default and they want to evict a tenant, there’s an early strategy question that they all face: (1) Do we sue for possession only; or (2) Do we sue for money and unpaid rent (through the date of the court hearing)?

It’s a nuanced question. Most landlords choose # 2, especially since detainer lawsuits are filed in General Sessions Court and, due to a little-known exception, you can take a huge money judgment in “small” claims court.

But, they’ll generally say, what about the unpaid rent for time periods after we get a judgment and evict them from the property? That’s a second lawsuit. Isn’t there a rule against two lawsuits on the same issues?

Yes, it’s called res judicata, which we talked about last year.

So, can you sue a tenant two times on the same lease agreement?

Continue reading “After a judgment for possession, does res judicata prevent a landlord from taking a money judgment?”

Davidson County General Sessions Caps Dockets at 25 Cases: This is a Big Problem

Last week, the Davidson County General Sessions Court entered an Administrative Order that limited the number of cases that can be set on the civil dockets in Courtrooms 1A & 1B, with a cap of 25 cases per day (effective October 5, 2020).

That sounds like a lot of cases. It is not.

A typical General Sessions civil docket might have 50 to 100 cases on the docket. Davidson County has civil dockets every day of the week.

By my math, this represents a minimum 75% cut in capacity.

Granted, when I first heard about the 25 case limit, it didn’t sound like too much of a problem, since I don’t have a high volume consumer or residential eviction practice. The high volume lawyers who routinely have 25 of their own cases on each docket would be the ones with the problem, right?

Then, I got a call from a commercial landlord whose tenant hasn’t paid rent since March and has “gone dark.” The landlord asked me to get a judgment for possession as soon as possible.

Spoiler-alert: The 25 case limit is a problem.

Continue reading “Davidson County General Sessions Caps Dockets at 25 Cases: This is a Big Problem”

Should the Bankruptcy Code be changed to provide rent relief? Maybe, says the New York Times.

I represent a lot of landlords all over Tennessee. I also represent a lot of Tennessee small businesses who are, invariably, tenants.

Since COVID-19 hit, I’ve probably read 60 different leases. Sometimes, I’m looking at force majeure provisions or for ambiguities that would provide an argument against payment of rent. Other times, I am reading those same provisions (different leases) hoping for the opposite outcome.

Over the last 4 months, when scheduling my client calls, I’ve joked that “I do all my calls with my tenants in the morning, and I do all the landlord calls in the afternoon. I need to remember which argument to make.”

Even by lawyer standards, it’s rare to see such a equal distribution of misery on both sides of an issue.

So, today, when I read this New York Times Op-Ed, “The One Change That Could Save Your Neighborhood Stores,” I appreciated the generally even-handed approach to this nuanced topic.

The issue facing tenants?

[T]here’s no blueprint for how small-business owners should deal with their landlords during an economy-toppling pandemic.

Here’s one option: ignore your landlord and plan on resuming rent payments when sales hopefully improve, and try to not get evicted in the meantime. Another option? Stay current on rent and pray that the economy recovers before you run out of cash.

Neither one of these options are really good, but the tenant doesn’t have any better options. Making matters worse, the Bankruptcy Code isn’t much help, unless the lease assumption statute gets changed, to provide relief to tenants:

One possible solution is that Congress temporarily change bankruptcy law so that small businesses can be allowed to pay their landlords more reasonable amounts until the pandemic is behind us.

Some quick background: Under the Bankruptcy Code, a Chapter 11 debtor can generally stop paying its creditors during the time the case is pending and, even after a plan of reorganization is confirmed, that plan may provide drastically modified (reduced) payments to its creditors.

That’s not the case with landlords, though: Under 11 U.S.C. Section 363 of the Bankruptcy Code, landlords are entitled to demand their full monthly rent due the entire time, and, in order for a lease to be included in a bankruptcy plan, the landlord must be paid current. Long story short, a tenant’s bankruptcy filing is a temporary speed bump for landlords, but the path to payment in full for a landlord is pretty direct.

As a result, many landlords have been aggressive during the pandemic, emboldened by state and federal law. The article mentions that many landlords are starting to see the writing on the wall (and that, maybe, there aren’t any replacement tenants) and are considering “pay what you can” agreements.

States have offered limited help to tenants, in the form of moratoriums on evictions (though such efforts are not reducing or stopping the financial payment obligations for the accruing rent). Plus, deep-pocketed large retailers are cooking up some innovative legal arguments (the article cites Valentino and Victoria’s Secret, but it could have also cited the Nashville lawsuit filed by The Palm Restuarant against the Nashville Hilton).

To the landlord’s defense, the article notes that landlords, themselves, may be small entrepreneurs with mortgages of their own and who depend on the rental income stream. The article advocates for tax cuts for commercial lessors.

Again, the article presents a fairly even-handed consideration of a “no win” situation. If the landlords win, then thousands of small businesses go under in the next 6 months.

As for the landlords, it’s just one of many problems facing them during the pandemic. This Reuters article’s title says it all: Who still needs the office? U.S. companies start cutting space.

Remember: Detainer Appeals without the possessory bond are still valid appeals

Posting the proper bond in an eviction appeal in Tennessee is confusing and, sometimes, very expensive. Remember, though, if a landlord is granted an eviction judgment, the tenant can still have a valid appeal, even if the tenant doesn’t post the possessory bond required by Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-18-130(b)(2).

I thought this issue was settled–I was blogging about it 5 years ago–but it keeps coming up in circuit courts across Tennessee.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals issued an opinion yesterday, affirming this line of decisions, in Thomas v. Millen, W2019-00086-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App., Dec. 19, 2019). This case cited the Court’s own recent, similar opinion at Belgravia Square, LLC v. White, No. W2018-02196-COA-R3-CV, 2019 WL 5837589 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 7, 2019).

Long story short, the possessory bond is not jurisdictional, meaning the circuit court has jurisdiction to consider the issues, and an appeal remains valid despite the failure to post the § 29-18-130(b)(2) bond.

As a practical matter, most eviction appeals will die once the tenant loses the right to possession. But, not all. In that situation, the tenant could be dispossessed of the property, but the tenant can still challenge the landlord’s rights and, if successful, seek monetary damages against the landlord if the tenant wins.

That type of fight does happen. I’ve had an opposing party / tenant lose in Sessions, appeal to Circuit, lose possession in Circuit, but continue fighting my matter…all the way to the Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court.

New Tennessee Court of Appeals decision provides advice for foreclosures of real property developments

A new opinion from the Tennessee Court of Appeals provides valuable guidance to attorneys foreclosing on commercial properties.

The matter is Tennessee Funding, LLC. v. William Worley (No. M2019-01099- COA-R-CV, Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 26, 2019), and the issue was whether a foreclosing lender took ownership of the contract rights associated with the real property–specifically, whether the foreclosure sale of the entire residential development transfer ownership of the “developer’s” or “declarant’s” rights of the property.

The actual issue was more nuanced than that and, trust me, I know (I represented the prevailing party in both the trial and appellate courts). The full opinion can be found here.

For purposes of this blog post, I won’t bore you with the deep analysis, but here are the main takeaways from yesterday’s decision:

  • In many development loan/construction loan transactions, the lender will be granted both a lien on the real property and a UCC lien on all the “other stuff” associated with the development project.
  • A real property foreclosure pursuant to the Deed of Trust and Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-5-101, et. seq., transfers to the foreclosure buyer all of the dirt.
  • The real property foreclosure does not transfer ownership of all the “other stuff,” including contract rights associated with the development.
  • These contract rights can include plans, drawings, and, yes, developer’s rights under a Master Deed or Declarations (i.e. the right to manage the development/developed property).
  • The rights are personal property, and those rights must be transferred by a creditor’s UCC Sale under Article 9, including Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-9-610.

Ultimately, that was the critical factor in this case–that the foreclosing lender did a dual sale–a foreclosure under the Deed of Trust to purchase the dirt and a UCC sale under the Security Agreement to purchase the personal property.

Keep this case in mind the next time you represent a creditor contemplating a foreclosure on a property development. You may not be doing your job if you only foreclose on the land.

How to Get Rich in Distressed Assets in Nashville? (You probably won’t like my answer)

In a strong economy like Nashville-2019, I get lots of calls from people looking for “good deals” on real estate.

First, I tell them to buy a time machine that will take them back to 2010.

Then, I commiserate with them about all the awesome deals that I watched other people pounce on over the last 7 years (with, of course, a quick reminder about all the awful deals that brought people to financial ruin in the 7 years before that).

After all that, I get serious and talk to them about buying distressed real estate, and all the forms and forums where that can happen. Bankruptcy Sales. Foreclosures. Sheriff’s Sales. Tax Sales.

It’s, literally, a path full of misery and heartbreak, but it’s probably the only realm in present-day Nashville where you can truly get a good deal.

And part of the reason that there’s so much upside is that there’s so much risk in these types of sales. There’s no way to avoid that risk, and, at best, your goal is to simply mitigate that risk.

TL;DR: You have to know what you’re doing. Otherwise, you’re buying your dream house for pennies on the dollar, only to learn that you’re not getting what you thought you were.

I recently taught a CLE for OutkickCLE on distressed buying, and I’ll post that video link here when it goes live. In the meantime, I’ll be posting snippets from my CLE materials here. Stay tuned.

You’ll be hearing a lot about “predatory installment loans” in 2020

There’s a new lending device that’s gaining popularity across the country, and it’s coming to Tennessee soon.

As in, “to be considered by the 2020 Tennessee Legislature” soon.

It’s called an “online installment loan,” and it’s a new form of pay-day lending, but with a few extra bells and whistles that make it look more like a regular bank loan.

And while many people know the downsides of going to a title-lending place for a loan, this new device is being marketed to a broader group of American consumers, says Bloomberg News in an article published today, titled “America’s Middle Class is Addicted to a New Kind of Credit.” Per Bloomberg, these are:

…a form of debt with much longer maturities but often the same sort of crippling, triple-digit interest rates. If the payday loan’s target audience is the nation’s poor, then the installment loan is geared to all those working-class Americans who have seen their wages stagnate and unpaid bills pile up in the years since the Great Recession.

In just a span of five years, online installment loans have gone from being a relatively niche offering to a red-hot industry … and have done so without attracting the kind of public and regulatory backlash that hounded the payday loan.

[The] average online subprime installment loan customer has an annual income of about $52,000. About 80% have been to college and 30% own a home…[m]ore than 10% of the company’s core customer base makes over $100,000 a year.

These instruments generally have a longer repayment period, like 90 days to a year, but they have the same insanely high interest rates (ranging from 20% to 35% to, in some cases, 155%) as other title loans.

Not in Tennessee, right?

These lenders are targeting Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-14-104, and, specifically, that statute’s 10% cap on interest rates. The lenders hope to eliminate that cap entirely.

Tax Sale Buyers Beware: Your property could be Redeemed

Sure, one of the best deals in distressed real estate is to buy property at a county tax sale, where you can purchase a property–basically–at an opening bid that is generally the past due taxes.

But, that strategy has a number of down-sides. The biggest is the taxpayer / property owner’s ability to “redeem” the real property by coming back and paying the debt.

This redemption period is defined at Tenn. Code Ann. § 67-5-2701 and, generally, lasts a year.  And, trust me, if you’ve paid money for a distressed property that’s gone to a tax sale, you probably don’t want to wait an entire year to do anything with the property, especially where the property is abandoned or in disrepair.

Well, the Tennessee Legislature has some good news for you. In legislation sponsored by John Stevens in 2019, there are some changes to the redemption law that allows a shorter redemption period based on the number of years a property has been delinquent.

This is quickly summarized as follows: Continue reading “Tax Sale Buyers Beware: Your property could be Redeemed”