By: Michael C. Fee
The Appeals Court’s recent decision in Cedar-Fieldstone Marketplace, LP v. T.S. Fitness, Inc., 17-P-791, 2018 Mass. App. LEXIS 30, serves as a stark reminder to commercial tenants and their counsel of potential guarantor liabilities that live on even after settlement of an underlying lease debt.
The facts in Cedar-Fieldstone are familiar and common. The defendant tenant, a corporation, rented commercial property from the plaintiff landlord in New Bedford. The tenant’s president executed a detailed, three-page personal guaranty. The guaranty provided that the president’s liability was “co-extensive” with the tenant corporation, and was capped at a specific amount. The guaranty also recited:
[T]he liability of [guarantor] hereunder shall in no way be affected, modified or diminished by reason of . . . any consent, release [,] indulgence or other action, inaction or omission under or in respect of the [l]ease, or . . . any dealings or transactions or matter or thing occurring between [the l]andlord and [the t]enant.
Finally, the guaranty drew a bright line between the landlord’s relationship with the tenant and the tenant’s guarantor, noting that “[a]ll of [the l]andlord’s rights and remedies under the [l]ease and under this [g]uaranty, now or hereafter existing at law or in equity or by statute or otherwise, are intended to be distinct, separate and cumulative and no exercise or partial exercise of any such right or remedy therein or herein mentioned is intended to be in exclusion of or a waiver of any of the others.”
When the tenant defaulted under the lease the landlord brought a summary process action to recover the premises and money damages. The summary process action was resolved by the parties entering into an agreement for judgment, which the tenant president/guarantor signed in his corporate capacity. Thereafter, the landlord brought a separate action against the president, in his capacity as guarantor, to recover amounts left unsatisfied by the tenant. A superior court judge granted summary judgment for the landlord. The guarantor appealed and the Appeals Court affirmed. On appeal, the guarantor argued that once the tenant no longer was liable under the lease, he automatically was relieved of his guaranty obligations as a matter of law. He based that contention on the “black letter legal principle that a guarantor’s obligations are coextensive with those of the principal obligor.” The Appeals Court was unpersuaded.
The Appeals Court first addressed cases standing for the broad principle that “the liability of the guarantor cannot exceed the liability of the debtor.” 275 Washington St. Corp. v. Hudson River Intl., LLC, 465 Mass. 16, 30 (2013). However, on these specific facts, the Appeals Court found that such proposition establishes only that “a guarantor’s own liability is bounded by the scope of the underlying liability that he has guaranteed,” or, stated another way, the guarantor’s liability under the guaranty could not exceed the tenant’s payment obligations that arose under the terms of the lease.
The Appeals Court then applied an entirely different lens to the question of whether a subsequently negotiated compromise of such underlying lease liability affected the president’s obligations as guarantor, and held:
We consider it self-evident that parties negotiating the terms of a guaranty would be free to agree that a subsequent release of a principal obligor’s underlying debt would result in a discharge of the guarantor’s own obligations. But we see nothing in the case law or elsewhere that requires such a term as a matter of law.” Put differently, we see no legal bar to a guarantor’s agreeing – as part of the negotiated terms of a guaranty – that his obligation to fund the underlying debt would survive a settlement of that debt between the principal obligor and the recipient of the guaranty. Rather, what the parties to a guaranty agree to in this regard is simply a matter of contractual intent. After all, “[a] guaranty is a contract ‘like all other contracts.’” Federal Financial Co. v. Savage, 431 Mass. 834, 817 (2000), quoting from Merchants Natl. Bank v. Stone, 296 Mass. 243, 250 (1936). Accordingly, “[t]he liability of a guarantor is to be ascertained by which the obligation is expressed, construed according to the usual rules of interpretation.” Agricultural Natl. Bank of Pittsfield v. Brennan, 295 Mass. 325, 327 (1936).
The ruling may come as a surprise to some, and offers a cautionary tale for tenants, guarantors, and those who draft and negotiate their documents. First, in many instances, the boiler plate terms of a personal guaranty are barely negotiated. Lawyers often assume that when a landlord requires a guaranty as a condition of entering into a lease there can be little discussion about terms. If the tenant defaults, the guarantor is liable. End of story. Careful attention should be paid, however, to the type of broad and all-encompassing guaranty language that the Appeals Court found so compelling in Cedar-Fieldstone. Guarantor’s counsel should at least attempt to carve out a limitation such that if an agreement of compromise is struck between landlord and tenant, the guarantor’s liability may be extinguished as well.
Second, provisions in an agreement for judgment in a summary process case, must, if possible, specifically address and include the guarantor. The Court in Cedar-Fieldstone remarked that the prefatory “Whereas” clauses contained language that could suggest the agreement for judgment was intended to resolve the entire dispute between the parties:
“WHEREAS, by this Agreement, the [landlord] and [the tenant] desire to settle the [District Court summary process action] and any and all of the disputes, if any, arising out of [that action];
“WHEREAS, by this Agreement, the [landlord] and [the tenant] also desire to settle any and all of the disputes, if any, arising out of the [l]ease, whether or not such disputes could have been raised by the [tenant] within this court proceeding;
“WHEREAS, the [landlord] and [the tenant] have agreed that it is in their mutual interest to resolve fully and finally all of the disputes which were, have been, or could have been raised in connection with the [summary process action] and/or [the l]ease, whether or not such disputes could have been raised by the [tenant] within this court proceeding.”
Ultimately, however, such general language was insufficient to overcome the clear, unambiguous, and all-encompassing provisions of the guaranty. Thus, both the trial court and Appeals Court correctly construed the agreement for judgment as a final resolution of disputes between the landlord and tenant, but not between the landlord and the guarantor.
Drafters and litigators beware: at least when a personal guaranty is involved, sometimes a final settlement agreement can be anything but the end of the story.
Michael Fee is a shareholder at Pierce and Mandell, P.C. and former chairman of both the Boston and Massachusetts Bar Association’s Real Estate Sections. The firm frequently represents both landlords and tenants in commercial and residential lease negotiations and litigation matters.