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Future of Rent Acceleration Clauses in Doubt

Appeals Court: Landlord Can Collect Actual, Not Liquidated, Damages
By Christopher R. Vaccaro
Special to Banker & Tradesman

Commercial leases typically give landlords several rights and remedies when tenants default, including lease termina­tion, eviction and suits for contract damages. But for some landlords these remedies are not enough, so they add rent acceleration as an additional remedy.

Rent acceleration clauses let landlords evict defaulted tenants, and also demand that tenants immediately pay as liquidated damages all remaining unpaid rent through the end of the lease term. Tenants get no offsets for the fair rental value of the va­cated premises or rents received from new tenants if the premises are relet.

Rent acceleration clauses let landlords evict defaulted tenants, and also demand that tenants immediately pay all remaining unpaid rent through the end of the lease term.

Despite the harshness of this remedy, Massachusetts appellate courts have upheld rent acceleration clauses. For example, in 2007, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Cummings Properties, LLC v. National Communications Corp. that a tenant had to pay more than $500,000 in accelerated rent. The Appeals Court in 2019 enforced a rent acceleration clause in Cummings Proper­ties, LLC v. Calloway Laboratories, Inc., requiring a tenant to pay over $1.8 million as liquidated damages.

A tenant narrowly escaped a rent acceler­ation clause in SpineFrontier, Inc. v. Cum­mings Properties, LLC, a 2019 Appeals Court decision. The tenant’s lease in that case automatically renewed for five years unless the tenant sent the landlord a termi­nation notice. The tenant emailed its land­lord a termination notice, but the lease re­quired that notices be sent by constable, certified mail, or courier service. The land­lord claimed that the lease renewed auto­matically because the emailed termination notice was ineffective, and demanded more than $1.7 million in accelerated rent for the unused renewal term. Fortunately for the tenant, the Superior Court and the Appeals Court ruled that the emailed notice and the tenant’s other communications with the landlord were sufficient to terminate the lease, rendering the landlord’s accelerated rent claim academic.

Last December, the appeals court directly ruled on the validity of a rent acceleration clause in Cummings Properties, LLC v. Hines. Plaintiff Darryl Hines organized the Massachusetts Constable’s Office Inc. (MCO) as a civil process service firm. The firm developed a reputation for using ag­gressive tactics to serve process and make arrests, which earned Hines and MCO un­wanted attention in the local media.

Cummings Files for Further Review

After MCO secured a contract with the Massachusetts Department of Revenue in 2016, it rented space in Woburn from Cum­mings Properties under a five-year lease. Hines personally guaranteed the lease. Like many of Cummings’s commercial leases, MCO’s lease had a rent acceleration clause. Less than a month into the lease, DOR sus­pended its contract with MCO, whereupon MCO defaulted on the lease. Cummings sued MCO in District Court for eviction and $74,000 of accelerated rent. Hines signed an agreement for judgment on behalf of MCO, without an attorney’s assistance, awarding Cummings possession and $74,000 in dam­ages. A year later, Cummings signed a new lease with a different tenant. One might think that the new lease would have ended Cummings’s desire to collect accelerated rent, but it did not.

Years after Cummings and MCO signed the agreement for judgment and Cummings secured the new tenant, Cummings sued Hines under his lease guaranty in Superior Court for the accelerated rent. At trial, for reasons that are unclear, Cummings dis­avowed the agreement for judgment against MCO in District Court when MCO did not have an attorney. Cummings stated that it was pursuing rights against Hines under the lease and the guaranty only. A Superior Court judge entered a judgment against Hines for $82,000, concluding that the accel­erated rent clause was enforceable because it was a reasonable estimate of Cummings’s anticipated damages. Hines appealed.

The Appeals Court noted that rent accel­eration clauses may be enforceable as liqui­dated damages provisions as long as they are not punitive, and Hines had the burden of proving that the clause was unenforce­able. However, the court observed that Cummings’s acceleration clause allowed it to recover possession of the leased prem­ises, relet it and collect rent from a new ten­ant, and still claim accelerated rent from MCO, without accounting for the rent re­ceived from the new tenant. Therefore, the accelerated rent clause bore no reasonable relationship to Cummings’s expected dam­ages, rendering it an unenforceable penalty. The Appeals Court ruled that under these circumstances, Cummings could only col­lect its actual damages, not liquidated dam­ages, from Hines under his guaranty.

Cummings has applied to the Supreme Judicial Court for further appellate review of this decision. Many commercial land­lords and tenants, and their lawyers, will be watching with interest as to how the SJC rules on that application.

Download the article as seen in  Banker & Tradesman on February 27, 2023. Learn more about Christopher R. Vaccaro.