The Experts: Law State court issues landlords two wins
By L. Steven Emmert, Inside Business – Hampton Roads,
On April 20, the Supreme Court of Virginia decided two appeals involving landlord-tenant issues. While the two cases arise in very different contexts, both should be of interest to owners and managers of rental property.
In the field of commercial real estate, the court ruled in Select Management Resources v. The Runnymeade Corp. that a tenant does not have the right to make a dramatic change to the façade of its storefront in a shopping center without the landlords consent. With regard to residential leases, the court rejected in Isbell v. Commercial Investment Associates a tenants attempt to sue the landlord for defects in the rented premises.
The lease in the Select Management Resources case contained language (fairly typical of commercial leases) that prevented the tenant from making any alterations or improvements without the landlords consent. At the beginning of the lease term, this tenant repainted its storefront to its corporate colors bright yellow, with red trim without securing the landlords consent.
The Supreme Court ruled that while a fresh coat of paint normally is cosmetic, not structural, this paint job was different. Noting that every other storefront in the shopping center was the original uniform color, the court felt that this alteration bore the mark of crass commercialism. The court accordingly approved a directive that the tenant restore the façade to its original appearance.
In the residential lease case, the aspect of tort law is simple and straightforward a tenant cant sue his landlord for injuries sustained as a result of the condition of the premises. Thats because the tenant takes the premises as he finds them, and if he wants to live somewhere newer or in better repair, he can shop around.
The tenant argued that two of the acts requirements landlords must obey local building codes, and keep the premises in good condition meant that he could, indeed, sue his landlord for injuries he sustained in a fall on a stairway. But the act doesnt create such a right to sue, the court found, and did not specifically abrogate the landlords long-established immunity from this kind of liability.
Landlords and property managers will understandably applaud both of these rulings. The Select Management Resources case underscores the tenants obligation to ensure that the lease terms give him the flexibility he wants, or else get the landlords consent for all but the most minor changes to the premises. And the Isbell case closes the door on one tenants effort to circumvent
L. Steven Emmert is chairman of the appellate practice subcommittee of the Virginia State Bars litigation section. His practice at Sykes, Bourdon, Ahern & Levy PC in