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The Supreme Court Catches A “Waive”

The Alaska Supreme Court does not often delve into the world of commercial lease clauses. When it does so, we commercial real estate lawyers have to sit up and take notice. The rest of you out there can safely ignore these court decisions because they are B-O-R-I-N-G. But those of us toiling in the field have to read them whether we want to or not.

A few weeks ago the Court decided Carr-Gottstein Foods Co. v. Wasilla, LLC. The case turned on the application of a . . .wait for it now . . . WAIVER clause in a commercial lease. And I mean, really, is it possible to get any S-E-X-I-E-R than that? (OK, maybe a waiver clause tied into an insurance subrogation claim would be just a bit more dazzling, but we can’t always get everything we want.)

It seems that in 1996 Safeway’s predecessor (Carr’s) moved out of the stand-alone liquor store it had been leasing in Wasilla from some formerly affiliated company, which I’ll just call Landlord LLC for simplicity. Safeway moved its liquor store into part of its main grocery store space that it was also renting from Landlord LLC. Landlord LLC knew about the move and even helped with it. Landlord LLC later affirmed for lenders that Safeway was not in default on its lease. The head man at Landlord LLC (a lawyer no less) said he thought the move was a technical default under the lease but he decided that he would “keep his options open” and not declare the tenant in default until the “economic ramifications” shook out. (The technical legal term for this is “lying in the weeds.”)

Some six years later, after letting the situation ride without complaint, Landlord LLC sued Safeway for breaching the lease. Landlord LLC based its case on the use restrictions in the lease (supermarket only) and the prohibition against subleasing (the liquor store was technically owned by a separate entity). Landlord LLC offered up a creative damage theory to go with its claim. Since Safeway had fully paid its rent to Landlord LLC all along for the main store, Landlord LLC said its damages were the loss of rentals on the stand-alone store that had been vacated years earlier. Sure, the lease for that stand-alone store had expired six years ago, but Landlord LLC claimed that if Safeway had not moved its liquor store to the main building then it would have continued to rent the stand-alone store to sell liquor and it would have paid rent on it all those years.

So the reality was that Landlord LLC was suing to recover rent under a lease that did not actually exist for premises that the supposed tenant did not actually occupy. Can you spell C-H-U-T-Z-P-A-H?

cover.jpgIt was not hard for the Supreme Court to decide that this was not a situation crying out for the terrible swift sword of justice. (Or even the terrible slow sword of justice, which would be a more accurate characterization.) But the Court did two interesting things in leaving Landlord LLC hanging out there with its chutzpah flapping in the breeze: (1) the Court decided Landlord LLC had waived its default claims as a matter of law; and (2) the Court sidestepped the anti-waiver clause in the lease by saying it only applied to future breaches.

In finding waiver as a matter of law, the Court’s decision deviated from the conventional wisdom that waiver is a fact issue, one that has to be decided by the jury. The Court in effect held that some instances of waiver are just soooooo obvious that even a lowly Superior Court judge can make that call. (As opposed to letting unsophisticated jurors flip a coin in the back room.) Unfortunately, though, the Court gave no practical guidance for distinguishing waivers as a matter of law that the judge should decide from the more garden variety waivers that are fact issues to be punted to the jury.

In characterizing the waiver clause as being applicable only to future breaches, the Court ducked the more difficult question of on-going obligations under the lease. Sure, the past breaches of the “use” and “sublease” covenants of the lease were waived. But those covenants impose on-going obligations on the tenant that are theoretically violated anew with each day the liquor store remains in operation on the main premises. Isn’t the anti-waiver clause meant to apply in exactly that sort of situation? The Court did not really come to grips with this.

But don’t get me wrong. I am not criticizing the Supreme Court’s decision. I have no doubt the outcome of the case was entirely correct. Even if the anti-waiver clause should not have been sidestepped, the clause itself can be treated as being waived. It’s the same thing as orally amending a contract that says it can only be amended in writing, because the writing requirement itself can be orally modified. It sounds wacky, I know, but there is a lot of 24-carat legal authority vouching for it as the real deal.

And, you know, if the circumstances are so egregious that a mere trial court judge should be able to figure it out, then there’s got to be a waiver of the anti-waiver clause as a matter of law. Because the fundamental truth is, at bottom, the law just does not let you get away with this C-R-A-P.

(Hey, I warned you upfront that it was B-O-R-I-N-G.)