Resolving disputes with a commercial landlord can require finesse

Smart Business magazine observes that commercial landlords are, generally, sophisticated, attentive and in business to rent commercial space. Their reputations are at stake and they typically desire to keep their tenants satisfied. Sometimes, however, disputes arise between a commercial tenant and its landlord. If the dispute cannot be resolved quickly and informally, a California commercial tenant may have no choice except to go to court in an effort to vindicate its rights under the terms of the lease.

The breach of a lease agreement by a commercial landlord will most likely lead to a dispute between it and the tenant. For example, a tenant understandably becomes irate if a landlord fails to abide by a lease provision which makes the landlord responsible for repairing the tenant’s leaky roof. Similarly, it is a good bet that a significant dispute will occur if a landlord, in direct violation of an exclusive use clause, leases space to a competing business in the same shopping center, mall or building. The violation of an exclusive use clause would be a major violation of the lease since on-site competition could be the death knell of a tenant’s business.

Once a dispute arises, it is vital for the tenant to try to keep the channels of communication open so that there is a chance of an amicable resolution. Smart Business advises that, while attempting to resolve the dispute, tenants should begin the process of documenting the specifics of the dispute and the tenant’s attempts to resolve it short of filing a lawsuit. In the event of litigation, if the tenant can show good-faith efforts on its part to resolve a dispute “the tenant can look like the good guy in court.” Emails, faxes or old-fashioned snail-mail letters sent to the landlord would constitute documentation of a tenant’s attempts to reach out to the landlord in order to resolve the dispute.

Although litigation often becomes necessary, it should be viewed as a last resort. The CCIM Institute notes that, looking back, parties who have become embroiled in litigation can usually identify a point in the dispute where litigation could still have been avoided if the parties had not taken certain actions. Poorly chosen words in a letter, or verbal promises not reduced to writing, can lead to legal action neither party really desired. The CCIM Institute advises that, in dealing with a landlord that you suspect you may find yourself in litigation with, it is wise to conduct yourself with “an eye toward how a third party, such as a judge or jury” would view the conduct. Keep your conduct above reproach and avoid taking any course of action which could be misconstrued by a judge or jury.

Three basic tips

All offers three basic tips for handling disputes in a manner that could help you avoid unnecessarily setting litigation in motion. First, review your lease so you understand precisely what obligations you owe to the landlord and which obligations are owed to you. If you are unsure about the meaning of a lease provision, contact an attorney who can explain it to you. Second, keep your cool and stay calm. By staying calm, you cast yourself in the best possible light and project an aura of confidence in your dealings with the landlord. Third, arrange for a face-to-face meeting with the landlord and try to resolve the dispute by talking it over. Letters, e-mails and text messages can often be misconstrued where a face-to-face conversation can help clear the air.

Seek legal advice

If you are a commercial tenant and find yourself embroiled in a dispute with a commercial landlord, you should contact a California attorney experienced in handling cases involving the breach of a lease.