Frustration of Purpose: Judge Rules Newbury Street Cafe’s Rent Excused During Covid-19 Shutdown

by Rich Vetstein on February 14, 2021

One of the First Reported Court Rulings Addressing Whether Business Can Be Legally Excused From Paying Rent While Subject to Government Covid-19 Shutdown

As the Boston Globe reported this week, Suffolk Superior Court Business Litigation Session Judge Kenneth Salinger ruled that a Caffe Nero coffee shop on Newbury Street was legally excused from paying rent for the nearly three months last spring when indoor dining was halted under state orders to combat the spread of COVID-19. The ruling could give leverage to struggling restaurants dealing with lost business and unpaid rent bills. The 12-page court ruling is embedded below.

UMNV 205-207 Newbury LLC (UrbanMeritage) v. Caffe Nero Americas, Inc., Suffolk Superior Court CA 2084CV01493-BLS2

The dispute between Caffe Nero and UrbanMeritage, a prominent Back Bay landlord that owns a number of storefronts on Newbury Street, began not long after Governor Charlie Baker ordered indoor dining closed on March 24, 2020 — a massive blow for a European-style cafe whose business model hinges on people lingering over lattes and croissants. Caffe Nero promptly asked for a break on its roughly $13,000-a-month rent, but UrbanMeritage said no, and issued a default notice for nonpayment. By June, UrbanMeritage had launched eviction proceedings, ultimately filing a lawsuit seeking more than $300,000 in back rent, damages, and legal fees.

Frustration of Purpose Doctrine

Applying the doctrine of “frustration of purpose,” Judge Salinger ruled that rent payment is excused when performance becomes impossible through no fault of either party, such as a natural disaster or pandemic. Since Caffe Nero’s lease only allowed for restaurant use (and no other uses), and Gov. Baker’s Covid-19 shutdown order of indoor dining during the early days of the pandemic prevented that use, Judge Salinger found that the doctrine of frustration of purpose applied in this case.

Force Majeure Clause

Judge Salinger also side-stepped the parties’ “force majeure” lease clause, which could have been read to negate the frustration of purpose defense used by Caffe Nero. A force majeure provision is a common clause commercial leases which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as a war, strike, riot, crime, epidemic, sudden legal changes or an event described by the legal term Act of God, prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations under the contract. The force majeure provision in the Caffe Nero lease, however, specifically stated that the payment of rent due to financial inability cannot be a reason to invoke the clause. In perhaps questionable reasoning, Judge Salinger ruled that “the force majeure provision addresses the risk that performance may become impossible but does not address the distinct risk that the performance could still be possible even while [the] main purpose of the Lease is frustrated by events not in the parties’ control.”

Take-Aways

I have several Covid-19 related lawsuits pending where businesses and restaurants could not pay their rent during the pandemic, and I’ve pled the same defense as Caffe Nero did in this case. (I don’t yet have a formal ruling in my cases). I think it’s inevitable that we will see more of the same rulings by judges who are sympathetic to businesses who were shut down completely due to Gov. Baker’s orders. Certainly, this ruling will cause landlords to reevaluate whether they will be able to collect all unpaid rent from a Covid-impacted business. Of course, the usual considerations will also apply — financial ability to pay, assets, timing of payments, etc. We will see….as always, if you are dealing with a commercial lease dispute or know someone who is, feel free to contact me at [email protected].

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