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Assignment and Consent Standards in Commercial Leases

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John G. Kelly
Commercial Leasing Law & Strategy
March 2020

Assignment provisions in commercial leases are heavily negotiated and very important to both landlords and tenants. This article presents a brief overview of the assignment provision in commercial leases, both office and retail.

Assignment provisions in commercial leases are heavily negotiated and very important to both landlords and tenants. When a tenant’s interest in a lease is assigned, the tenant is transferring its entire leasehold interest and 100% of the leased premises to a third party for the entire remaining term of the lease. For the tenant, the assignment provision represents a potential exit strategy, dependent of course on the local market, and increased flexibility for future needs. For the landlord, the assignment offers greater security for its revenue stream and hopefully the avoidance of a tenant bankruptcy or default while keeping its building occupied. The tenant’s desire for flexibility and the landlord’s need for control is where the negotiations are focused. This article presents a brief overview of the assignment provision in commercial leases, both office and retail, with particular attention on the laws of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. The landlord’s standard for providing consent to a request to an assignment will be reviewed, and we will conclude by offering suggested language.

What If The Lease Does Not Contain An Assignment Provision?

The law traditionally favors the free alienation of property. Therefore, under the laws of almost every state, if the lease is silent on whether the landlord’s consent to an assignment is required, then the commercial tenant has the right to assign its interest. This is true in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Given this baseline, almost every lease form will have a detailed provision setting forth the assignment process. Note also, however, that in most states it is also enforceable for a commercial lease to have an outright prohibition against assignments. Such a provision would likely be a non-starting deal point for most sophisticated tenants.

What Does Reasonable Mean?

If a lease simply provides that the tenant requires landlord’s consent to an assignment, but does not include the standard for giving or withholding that consent, then in many states the implied standard is that the landlord’s consent may not be unreasonably withheld. Historically this was the minority view, with the historical rule allowing the landlord to withhold consent for any reason. The implied duty of reasonableness is now more the norm as more states adopt this position when presented with the issue. There is express case law establishing this rule in Maryland, and most courts in Virginia and Washington, DC will imply such a covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Most states, though, do allow a landlord the sole right to grant or withhold its consent if the lease clearly expressly provides, and in Maryland the lease must specifically state that the landlord’s consent may be granted or withheld in the sole and absolute subjective discretion of the landlord. Again though, a sophisticated tenant with any leverage should never agree to such a provision.

Most negotiated leases will instead contain a provision requiring that landlord’s consent to an assignment is required, but such consent will not be unreasonably withheld. The tenant will likely also try to include landlord’s obligation to not unreasonably delay or condition its consent. A short clause without further defining what constitutes “reasonableness” generally favors the tenant, and landlords typically prefer including specific standards as to the criteria it can consider when reasonably deciding whether or not to consent to an assignment. Without such specificity, defining “reasonable” is difficult as the landlord and tenant clearly will have differing viewpoints and it may be left as a factual question to be decided in litigation. The typical definition (set forth in the Restatement (Second) of Property) would be that of a reasonably prudent person in the landlord’s position exercising reasonable commercial responsibility.

Absent a detailed provision listing the criteria a landlord can consider when reasonably reviewing a request to assign, a landlord is typically found to be considered reasonable if it considers certain general broad factors. First, the landlord reviews the assignee’s proposed use. In a retail setting, the landlord will be concerned whether the proposed use fits with the existing center and/or violates any existing exclusives or insurance requirements. In an office setting, the landlord might review the expected traffic and wear and tear on the building. Second, the landlord will consider the creditworthiness of the assignee. The landlord (and the assignor) will want to be confident that the assignee is capable of performing tenant’s obligations under the lease and a large creditworthy tenant increases the value of the asset. The assignor might argue that a strict financial test (such as a minimum net worth, for example) is unfair since the assignor is likely not being released upon the assignment and the landlord can still pursue the assignor in the event of a default. Third, the landlord will review the experience and history of the assignor. As mentioned above, landlords instead prefer a detailed list setting forth the many factors that they can include as part of reasonably reviewing a request for a lease assignment.

Without further establishing the criteria, the landlord puts itself at risk of a challenge by the tenant that a denial of a consent is unreasonable.

In defining “reasonable,” courts typically do not allow a landlord to deny or condition consent to an assignment based purely on economic reasons where the landlord results in substantially increasing what it was entitled to under the lease. In Washington, DC, there is well established case law holding that it is unreasonable for a landlord to withhold consent solely to extract an economic concession or improve its economic position. For example, a court would not consider it reasonable for a landlord to condition its consent on the assignee paying a greatly increased rent. Instead, as discussed below, landlords should look to protect their interests in a market of increasing rents by providing for either the sharing of excess rentals or a right to recapture.

What Are Typical Provisions In an Assignment Clause?

As discussed above, tenants generally prefer a short assignment provision simply requiring the landlord to not unreasonably withhold, condition or delay its consent to an assignment. But most leases are drafted by landlords, and over the years the assignment provisions have evolved to contain many typical provisions in addition to further defining “reasonableness,” including the following below.

Assignment provisions are heavily negotiated and both the commercial landlord and tenant need to be advised to the applicable local law and know the market for a comparable transaction. (Note: The author represents office and retail landlords and tenants throughout Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.) Sample reasonableness provisions for both office and retail uses are copied below for reference.

Retail Lease

Landlord and Tenant agree, by way of example and without limitation, that it shall be reasonable for Landlord to withhold its consent if any of the following situations exist or may exist: (i) In Landlord’s reasonable business judgment, the proposed assignee lacks sufficient business experience to operate a business of the type permitted under this Lease and to a quality required under this Lease; (ii) The present net worth of the proposed assignee is lower than that of Tenant’s as of either the date of the proposed assignment or the date of this Lease; (iii) The proposed assignment would require alterations to the Premises affecting the Building’s systems or structure; (iv) The proposed assignment would require modification to the terms of this Lease, or would breach any covenant of Landlord in any other lease, insurance policy, financing agreement or other agreement relating to the Shopping Center, including, without limitation, covenants respecting radius, location, use and/or exclusivity; (v) The proposed assignment would conflict with the primary use of any existing tenant in the Shopping Center or any recorded instrument to which the Shopping Center is bound; and/or (vi) The proposed assignment or subletting would result in a reduction in the Rent collected by Landlord during any portion of the term of this Lease.

Office Lease

Without limitation as to other reasonable grounds for withholding consent, the parties hereby agree that it shall be reasonable under this Lease and under any applicable law for Landlord to withhold consent to any proposed Transfer where one or more of the following apply: (i) The Transferee is of a character or reputation or engaged in a business which is not consistent with the quality of the Building; (ii) The Transferee intends to use the Premises for purposes which are not permitted under this Lease; (iii) The Transferee is a governmental agency; (iv) The Transfer occurs prior to the first anniversary of the Lease Commencement Date; (v) The Transferee has a net worth of less than $10,000,000.00; (vi) The proposed Transfer would cause a violation or trigger a termination right of another lease for space in the Building; or (vii) Either the proposed Transferee, or any person or entity which directly or indirectly, controls, is controlled by, or is under common control with, the proposed Transferee, (i) occupies space in the Building at the time of the request for consent, or (ii) is negotiating with Landlord to lease space in the Building at such time, or (iii) has negotiated with Landlord during the six (6)-month period immediately preceding the Transfer Notice.

Reprinted with permission from the March edition of the Commercial Leasing Law & Strategy© 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or reprints@alm.com.