Tennessee Courts Will Enforce Anti-Assignment Provisions in Leases

Commercial and residential leases frequently have an anti-assignment provision, which is a provision that prohibits the tenant from assigning or transferring the tenancy to a third party. A property owner should have final say, the reasoning goes, as to who can possess the owner’s property, and the tenant shouldn’t be able to transfer those rights to a stranger without the landlord’s consent. (Except in Bankruptcy Court.)

A new opinion posted by the Tennessee Court of Appeals emphasizes how strongly courts in Tennessee will enforce these provisions.

In Simmons Bank v. Vastland Development Partnership, No. M2018-00347-COA-R3-CV (June 27, 2019), the tenant assign the lease to a stranger or a literal third party; instead, the original tenant (First State Bank) merged into and was acquired by Simmons Bank. “Simmons Bank was the surviving entity, and First State Bank no longer existed separately. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 48-21-108(a)(1).”

A few months after the merger, Simmons Bank attempted to exercise its option to renew the Lease, and the landlord objected, saying that lease expressly states that any renewal requires that “Tenant is the Tenant originally named herein.” Here, Simmons Bank was not the tenant “originally named herein.” First State Bank was named in the Lease.

The Chancery Court agreed with Simmons Bank, but the Court of Appeals reversed, citing  the maxim that contracts are interpreted strictly according to their terms.  As a result, reading the text in its clear and strict meaning, the appellate court wrote: “the parties agreed to restrict the right to renew the Lease to one entity, First State Bank, ‘the Tenant originally named’ in the Lease. As a consequence, Simmons Bank does not have the right to exercise the renewal option.”

This is an interesting case because, as Simmons Bank argued, a merger of two entities really doesn’t introduce a new “stranger” into the tenancy, but, instead, pursuant to pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 48-21-108(a)(2), a merger transfers all rights of the merged entity into the new one.

My guess is that the business, the employees, the phone numbers–most everything except the sign out front–remained the same. My concern is that the focus on the “name” of the entity creates an opportunity for a landlord to create a “technical” default.

To throw out an absurd example, what if a woman gets married and takes her husband’s name? Would she no longer be the “Tenant originally named herein”?

Under this new opinion, she wouldn’t.

Nevertheless, they don’t ask me to write the judicial opinions. But, they do pay me to help clients draft and negotiate lease provisions. An easy fix to a situation like this would be a provision that allowed for a new named tenant in the event of a merger or sale of all tenant’s assets.

 

Tennessee Detainer Actions: Not Just for Tenants and Landlords

What if you own real property, but someone else has possession of the property, and you want them gone? You evict them. But, as you’ll see under Tennessee statutes, they don’t call it an “eviction” lawsuit; they call it a “detainer” lawsuit.

The statute in Tennessee is Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-18-104, titled “Unlawful Detainer.” That statute provides:

Unlawful detainer is where the defendant enters by contract, either as tenant or as assignee of a tenant, or as personal representative of a tenant, or as subtenant, or by collusion with a tenant, and, in either case, willfully and without force, holds over the possession from the landlord, or the assignee of the remainder or reversion.”

These detainer actions are generally brought in general sessions court, where, as I’ve noted before, you can exceed the $25,000 jurisdictional limit. Also, even though general sessions appeals are very easy on most matters, they are complicated and expensive in general sessions court.

So, if you’re a landlord, you’re probably reading that statute and thinking it’s exactly what you need, right? But, what about if you’ve purchased the property, either by a typical sale or a foreclosure? In that case, you’re not a landlord, and the defendant isn’t entering by contract (i.e. lease). Does a different statute apply?

No, said the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Federal National Mortgage Association v. Danny O. Daniels, W2015-00999-COA-R3-CV (Dec. 21, 2015).  There, the Court noted that the Deed of Trust will create “a landlord/tenant relationship … between the foreclosure sale purchaser and the mortgagor in possession of the property,” and, as a result, “constructive possession is conferred on the foreclosure sale purchaser upon the passing of title; that constructive possession provides the basis for maintaining the unlawful detainer.”

In such a case, a plaintiff must prove: (1) its constructive possession of the property (i.e. ownership of the property); and (2) its loss of possession by the other party’s act of unlawful detainer.

In short, the detainer statutes in Tennessee aren’t well crafted. Sometimes they reference landlords and tenants; sometimes they don’t. Courts have a tendency to construe statutes as written and to assume that the legislature means what it says when it uses specific words. That’s bad news for the foreclosure sale purchaser, who isn’t a landlord and who isn’t dealing with a tenant.

Here, however, it’s clear that the legislature should have proofread the statutes a few more times. Fortunately, Tennessee courts have applied the statutes in a broader sense.