Thursday, May 21, 2020

Commercial Personal Guaranties Deemed Unenforceable in NYC Council’s COVID-19 Relief Bill – Litigation to Follow if Enacted


On May 13, 2020, the NYC Council approved Int. No. 1932-A, which makes substantial changes to personal guaranties in commercial leases. The bill is on the Mayor’s desk to be enacted.

The bill’s purpose is to provide relief to NYC commercial tenants impacted by COVID-19. It temporarily prohibits the enforcement of personal liability provisions in commercial leases or rental agreements. It would amend the Administrative Code of the City of New York by adding Section 22-1005 and adding Paragraph 14 to Subdivision a of section 22-902 of the NYC Administrative Code.

If enacted, the bill would render guarantee provisions unenforceable against natural persons who are not a tenant in commercial leases or other rental real property. The law would only impact liability for the payment of rent and other charges caused by an occurrence of default, and subject to the following conditions:
1. The tenant must satisfy at least one of the following:
a)     The tenant was required to cease serving patrons food or beverage for on-premises consumption or to cease operation under EO 202.3;
b)     The tenant was a non-essential retail establishment subject to in-person limitations under guidance issued by the NYS Department of Economic Development pursuant to EO 202.6; or
c)     The tenant was required to close to members of the public under EO 202.7; and

2. The default or other event which caused the natural person to become personally liable for such obligation occurred between March 7, 2020 and September 30, 2020, inclusive.

Under the bill, an attempt to enforce a personal liability provision that the landlord knows or reasonably should know is unenforceable, pursuant to the above, shall be deemed commercial tenant harassment, which could result in compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys’ fees and court costs. See N.Y.C. Admin. Code § 22-903.

Sounds too good to be true for many tenants and often when it’s too good to be true, it’s untrue. Expect this law to be challenged on constitutional grounds should it be enacted. Specifically, the bill seems to impair the Contracts Clause of the United States Constitution because it retroactively affects personal guaranties entered into prior to the bill’s passing. For such a claim to succeed, the initial inquiry under the impairment of contracts clause contains three components:
  1. Whether there is a contractual relationship;
  2. Whether a change in law impairs that contractual relationship; and
  3. Whether the impairment is substantial. U.S.C.A. Const. Art. 1, § 10, cl. 1; American Economy Ins. Co. v. State, 30 N.Y.3d 136 (2017).
While tenants will surely argue that the bill doesn’t substantially impair the parties’ contractual relationship, as the bill only covers rent and payments for the period of March 7, 2020 to September 30, 2020, landlords will counter that the personal guarantee was a material term of the lease and a substantial reason that the landlord agreed to enter into the contract.

For analogy, the Court of Appeals has previously struck down similar government interference in contacts. In Patterson v. Carey, the Court of Appeals struck down a law which curtailed toll authority bondholders’ ability to increase their tolls for Jones Beach State Parkway on constitutional grounds. 41 N.Y.2d 714 (1977). 

If the NYC bill passes, it would likely undergo similar challenges and review as the law in Patterson and be deemed unconstitutional. The bill’s impairment to contractual rights agreed upon by landlords and guarantors would be substantial, especially considering that the bill does not merely delay a landlord’s right to enforce the guarantee during the period stated in the bill, it extinguishes it altogether.

Mayor DeBlasio has until June 12, 2020 to either sign, veto, or do nothing. If the Mayor signs the bill or does nothing, the bill will automatically become law. If the Mayor vetoes the bill, it is sent back to the Council. The Council can then override the Mayor’s veto with a 2/3 vote.

In the meantime, both landlords and tenants should contact their attorneys to ensure that their interests are protected and to prepare for expected lawsuits to follow. For ideas on how to creatively resolve lease issues due to coronavirus and for tips on important lease provisions when renegotiating, listen to our podcasts HERE and HERE.