Commercial leasing – rent relief and good faith in a time of Covid-19

Not the Covid-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Act 2020

Victoria’s Covid-19 emergency measures to assist commercial tenants now have formal legal force with the proclamation of the Covid-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) (Commercial Leases and Licences) Regulations 2020.

Some of the new temporary reforms are drastic. For example, paying rent will effectively become optional in the short term for many commercial tenants. And landlords who even attempt to evict such tenants for non-payment will be guilty of an offence.

The new pro-tenant measures will apply to a vast range of retail and non-retail commercial leases for the six months between 29 March 2020 and 29 September 2020.

The changes are effected mainly by the deeming of new terms into commercial leases and licences, but a crucial detail easily overlooked is that the entire scheme is underpinned by the Commonwealth’s JobKeeper scheme. A commercial tenant who is not a qualified participant in the JobKeeper scheme will be effectively excluded from the protections offered by the new rules.

 

The wide focus

First, a quick refresher and backgrounding for recently arrived Martians and/or anyone too overwhelmed by recent events to have maintained focus.

Retail leases (a very broad concept that commonly includes the leases of shops, offices, serviced apartments and the premises of many other small and medium businesses) are governed by Victoria’s Retail Leases Act 2003. (Although note that the “retail” character of any commercial lease is suddenly less important as the new regime temporarily extends parts of the Retail Leases Act to non-retail commercial leases as well.)

Since March 2020, the snowballing Covid-19 crisis has caused Australia’s federal and state governments to order the partial or complete temporary closure of many businesses nationwide. (In Victoria this has been done mainly by orders under the  Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008.)

The Federal Government has sought to mitigate the widespread financial disruption resulting from these closures with measures including the JobKeeper scheme. The JobKeeper scheme is expected to subsidize the earnings of millions of private sector employees (and some small business principals) for at least six months until September 2020.  But it is primarily concerned with maintaining employment relationships. It offers no direct help to landlords or tenants suffering financial distress as a consequence of the Covid-19 crisis.

On 3 April 2020 the National Cabinet announced a Mandatory Code of Conduct for Small and Business Enterprises to impose  “a good faith set of leasing principles to commercial tenancies” affected by Covid-19 shutdowns and downturns.

As commercial tenancies have never been considered within the Commonwealth’s constitutional powers and the National Cabinet has the same constitutional status as unicorns under the Australian Constitution (namely none),  the Code of Conduct’s claim as of early April to be mandatory was very optimistic in the absence of supporting state statutes and regulations.

The states have accordingly in recent weeks been legislating to give the National Cabinet’s various pronouncements practical legal effect in state-governed areas such as leasing (and much else besides). Victoria’s legislation for this purpose is the evocatively-named Covid-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) Act 2020 (“Omnibus Act”) which commenced operation on last Anzac Day , 25 April 2020.

The Omnibus Act is a thumping 299 pages but commercial landlords and tenants need concern themselves with only a slim bite of it. That portion, Part 2.2, sets out parameters for the supporting regulations but, absent those regulations, it has no real practical utility.

However, we now have those regulations. They were promulgated last Friday, 1 May 2020 as the Covid-19 Omnibus (Emergency Measures) (Commercial Leases and Licences) Regulations 2020 (“Omnibus Regs”) but have effect from 29 March 2020 (note the retrospectivity) until 29 September 2020 when they expire (see regs 3 and 25). The regulations aim to give legal force in Victoria to the National Cabinet’s Mandatory Code.

 

The highlights

The first thing to note about the new regime is that a given tenant’s eligibility for and participation in the JobKeeper scheme is a threshold test.

Only tenants with an “eligible lease” will benefit from the new scheme and the chief criteria for any lease’s eligibility is that that the tenant concerned should be a small or medium enterprise and also a qualified participant in the JobKeeper scheme (see Regs 10(2) of the Omnibus Regs).

Tenants under eligible leases who withhold all or part of their rent will in the short term be deemed not to have breached their leases provided they request rent relief from their landlord in writing,  together with prescribed information including showing their eligibility for the JobKeeper scheme (regs 9 and 10).

A landlord receiving such a request from a tenant is then required to offer rent relief to the tenant within 14 days. The Mandatory Code was understood by many to require that landlords  give rent relief in direct proportion to  their tenants’ drop in revenue but this view must be mistaken as no such requirement appears in the Omnibus Act or the Omnibus Regulations. The Act and the Regulations are the enforceable legal instruments (not the Mandatory Code) and neither of them specify any precise amount or formula for calculating rent relief. Whatever the relief arrived at in a given case, the Mandatory Code, the Omnibus Act or the Omnibus Regulations all require the relief must be in the form of a waiver of rent as to half of that relief and deferral of rent as to the balance of the relief (unless the tenant agrees otherwise).

But back to the obvious key question – what  is the amount of the rent relief to be? The answer is that the amount is to be negotiated “in good faith” (per reg 10(5) of the Omnibus Regs) having regard to factors including the reduction in the tenant’s turnover during the six months from 29 March 2020 to 29 September 2020 (which I will call here the “Covid Window”),  the amount of time (if any) that the tenant was unable to operate its business at the leased premises, and the landlord’s “financial ability to offer rent relief” (Reg 10). (This “financial ability” concept is intriguing. It might even become the subject of a future blog — after I have dusted off the writings of Mother Theresa, Karl Marx, Robin Hood and Alan Bond.)

Collectively, the changes are overwhelmingly pro-tenant. Tenants can waive some or all their new entitlements, but landlords are hamstrung.  A landlord who even attempts to evict a tenant under an eligible lease for non-payment of rent or to call up bank guarantees in response to  non-payment of rent will potentially in each instance be guilty of an offence punishable by a fine of 20 penalty units (being $3304.44) (Reg 9)

Tenants, however, don’t get a perpetual free kick. In the absence of a renegotiated lease (which might include rent deferrals and lease extensions on top of the compulsory rent waiver), the parties are to mediate their dispute through the Small Business Commission (reg 20) and, failing success there, litigate it (reg 22). Reg 22 suggests that VCAT will retain its current exclusive jurisdiction for retail lease disputes and will additionally acquire non-exclusive jurisdiction for non-retail commercial lease disputes. VCAT’s “no costs” presumption is likely to apply to both retail and non-retail lease disputes (see s. 92 of the Retail Leases Act 2003 and s. 109(1) of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act.)

None of this is likely to be good news for landlords.

Commercial tenants large and small are struggling. Cash flows across the economy are faltering. Commercial vacancies are climbing.  Reliable replacement commercial tenants are likely to become very rare birds.  And, to top it all off, the Business and Property List of VCAT (which will hear this type of dispute) is functionally closed for the foreseeable future. When VCAT does eventually reopen, it will inevitably be gummed up by the backlog of cases that have gone unheard during its closure. And that is even before the coming avalanche of Covid-19 rental disputes hits the Tribunal.

This looming traffic jam at VCAT must cast a shadow over rent relief negotiations between tenants and landlords.

The Mandatory Code and the Omnibus Regulations both require landlords and tenants to negotiate their revised arrangements in good faith. As ever in these things, our lawmakers’ attempt to compel good faith seems oxymoronic. Either good faith exists in a given relationship and the formal requirement for it is redundant or bad faith exists and nothing in the Code or the Omnibus Regulations will cure that problem.

A cynical tenant might cut its cloth accordingly. The tenant and landlord who cannot voluntarily agree to a revised rental arrangement will join a long and growing queue to have their squabble determined in VCAT and (assuming the tenant’s compliance with reg 10) the tenant is most unlikely to be evicted at any time before the hearing for its non-payment of Covid Window rent. 

Smart (or desperate) landlords caught in this bind might well prefer the short-term certainty of agreeing to a steeply discounted rental income to the uncertainty of waiting a long time to argue their case in VCAT.

Finally, the disclaimer. The Covid-19 commercial rent regime is new and untested. It is likely to be tweaked in the coming months. My thoughts and summaries above are both general and incomplete. If you are a tenant or a landlord you should not rely upon this blog as a substitute for legal advice tailored to your particular circumstances.

 

 

 

 

Is Covid-19 a frustrating event?

mona lisa with face mask

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Is Covid-19 a frustrating event? To almost anyone but a contract lawyer that is a stupid question deserving a terse and emphatic response.

But any decent contract lawyer’s answer is unlikely to be short or sweeping.

In contract law, ‘frustration’ is the discharge of a contract as a consequence of some supervening and unanticipated event rendering some or all of the agreement’s obligations incapable of performance. The reported ‘frustration’ cases involve a litany of  catastrophic surprises ranging from the appendicitis-induced postponement of King Edward VII’s coronation in 1903[1], through various wars[2] to (most familiar to Australian lawyers) the legal consequences of a contractor being injuncted from working 24/7 to build Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs Railway line[3] in circumstances where the construction contract was effectively predicated on ‘round the clock’ work.

The Covid-19 coronavirus is plainly a supervening and unanticipated event. It has already caused history’s first postponement of the Olympic games. It has closed all of your local gyms and eateries. It has largely shut down Victoria’s court system.  And just when we lawyers thought things could not get worse, it is even causing surprise outbreaks of law and order. But none of these extraordinary developments alone answers the question of whether the current crisis is a frustrating event for the purposes of any particular contract.

Here is a quick refresher on the frustration of contracts:

  • When looking at whether a contract has been frustrated, don’t be too distracted by the macro picture. Focus on the specific contract in question. Has the contract become largely or completely incapable of performance because of the Covid-19 crisis? (Obvious casualties would be, say, the catering contract for a large wedding party that would now be contrary to the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008, or the contract for the screening of TV advertisements during the telecast of the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics.) Or has the contract’s subject matter simply become less attractive or more onerous to one of the parties? (Examples in this twilight zone might include the marriage celebrant’s booking for that same large wedding — after all, the wedding itself is still permitted even if the attendance of more than 2 guests is prohibited — or the screening of TV commercials (themselves still clearly legal and feasible) promoting, say, holiday packages that are neither legal nor feasible in the current circumstances.)
  • Frustration is a binary concept. Some contracts will be discharged entirely for frustration. Some will be held not to have been frustrated at all and thus will survive the supervening event entirely unscathed. There is no legal middle ground in between which allows contracts to be amended but otherwise upheld on the basis that they were semi-frustrated.
  • Extreme pessimists (and possibly also those negotiating contracts very recently) might have had the foresight to address specifically the consequences of global pandemics in their agreements. They will have no need for the doctrine of frustration and will instead be governed by the force majeure clauses (aka ‘Act of God’ clauses) to which they have agreed. As frustration applies only where the supervening event is not anticipated by the contracting parties, frustration and force majeure clauses are best thought of as alternatives to each other.
  • Frustration ends a contract as a consequence of the supervening event. By contrast, force majeure clauses are bespoke provisions. They might end the contract but will commonly suspend rather than terminate the contract or reduce rather than eliminate a party’s entitlement to payment.
  • Frustration operates independently of the parties’ acts and intentions. Force majeure clauses are authored by the parties and as such will often require action or communication for invocation.

 

Consequences of frustration

Let’s suppose a given contract is frustrated by Covid-19. What next?

Melbourne’s Formula 1 Grand Prix last month is a high profile example. Armies of large and small contractors and sub-contractors were involved in setting up for the race and its various satellite events. The race was then cancelled at the last minute because of Covid-19 concerns. Myriad contracts must then have become incapable of performance. In each instance, the question arises of who should carry the cost of the food/ entertainment/equipment that was arranged and (mainly) delivered but ultimately wasted as a consequence of Covid-19?

There is no quick and confident across-the-board answer.

And don’t expect much help from the the frustrated contracts provisions of Part 3.2 of the Australian Consumer Law and Fair Trading Act 2012. In very crude summary, it provides that money paid or payable under a frustrated contract ceases to be payable and, if paid, is recoverable by the recipient EXCEPT where a court or VCAT considers it just to order otherwise.

Note that pandemic-sized exception.

Put another way, the answer as to who is to carry the losses of a frustrated contract  is ‘black’ except when a court or VCAT considers that it should be ‘white’ or some shade of grey (or perhaps some chequered-flag pattern for Grand Prix-related events).

This legislation gets more curious still. Its open invitation to litigation appears to have been accepted in Victoria on – wait for it – only a single occasion. That case was Foley v Afonso Building Solutions [2014] VCAT 1640.

In Foley v Afonso a landowner paid a builder a $10,000 deposit on a domestic building contract. It then transpired that the building permit necessary for the project was unobtainable. The owner wanted her deposit back. The builder refused as it was not his fault that the building permit didn’t issue. So the parties went to VCAT.

Senior Member Walker concluded that the contract had been frustrated by the impossibility of getting the essential building permit. He ordered that the owner was entitled to have most (but not all) of her deposit refunded. The builder was permitted to retain the $1800 he had spent on preliminary work (such as drawings and soil tests) but not the $8000 commission he paid the agent who had secured the contract.

The decision is short. It doesn’t mention any authorities or the word ‘restitution’ but the restitutionary flavour is unmistakable.

Presumably Covid-19 will soon ensure that Foley v Afonso is superseded by many more authorities on the consequences of frustrated contracts in Victoria.

 

Conclusion 1

Covid-19’s frustrations are suffocatingly obvious to most of us. But that doesn’t mean contracts affected by the virus will necessarily be themselves frustrated.

And whatever the answer on first principles to your particular frustration query, beware of the continuing cascade of government announcements and promised regulatory changes that might take your client’s situation beyond a ‘first principles’ analysis anyway.

With this in mind, follow resources such as –

Conclusion 2

A final thought over and above frustration.

In these extraordinary times, remember that your clients’ best Covid-19 solutions might not be in the legal textbooks at all.

The unexpected and supervening event of Covid-19 might, for example, trigger the business interruption insurance that your client has forgotten it holds and make the entire frustration discussion unnecessary. Check that insurance.

And while the C-19 maelstrom continues, remember also that the banking industry (see for example this Commonwealth Bank Covid-19 support page) and the laws of insolvency have both been temporarily transformed in recent weeks. (Your clients might have more time and options available than they appreciate.)

Stay safe!

[1] Compare Krell v Henry [1903] 2 KB 740 and Hearne Bay Steam Boat Co v Hutton [1903] 2 KB 683. Both cases involved sightseers disappointed by the coronation’s postponement. In the former case the contract was held to have been frustrated by the postponement; in the latter the contract was held not to have been.

[2] See for example Fibrosia Spolka Akcjyna v Fairbairn Lawson Combe Barbour Ltd [1943] AC 32 where a pre-war contract that required an English company to deliver machinery into Poland was rendered illegal and frustrated by the outbreak of World War 2.

[3] Codelfa Construction Pty Ltd v State Railway Authority of NSW (1982) 149 CLR 337.

Mann up! High Court holds innocent party to a repudiated contract and bins alternative quantum meruit claims

For at least 115 years it has been the law in Australia that where a contract is repudiated the innocent party can recover damages either in accordance with that contract or upon a quantum meruit. Predictably, such claimants have always asked for whichever was the higher of the two available measures and this has sometimes involved shrugging off the contract price as irrelevant.

That all changed yesterday when the High Court delivered its decision in Peter Mann v Paterson Constructions [2019] HCA 32.

The seven judges delivered three judgments spanning 99 pages. In a nutshell, they  agreed that the contractual measure of damages should be the ceiling on damages and that the former long-standing position is, in the words of Keifel CJ, Bell and Keane JJ, based on “fallacious reasoning … which may give rise to serious mischief”.

In Peter Mann v Paterson Constructions, property owners contracted with a builder for the construction of two townhouses in Blackburn, Victoria. The contract price for the development was $971,000. The work was largely completed and $946,000 of the contract price had been paid before the relationship ended in acrimony with each party accusing the other of repudiation and purporting to accept such repudiation.

Their dispute then went to VCAT where Senior Member Walker held that the owners had wrongfully repudiated the contract, the builder had accepted that repudiation, the contract was at an end, and that the builder as the innocent party was entitled to recover damages calculated by reference to the market value of the building work and labour delivered to the owners. He assessed that value at $1.6 m.

After allowance for the $946,000 already paid, he held that the builder was entitled to damages from the owners of $660,000. Hence the bottom line financially at VCAT was that the owners were liable to  the builder for about 165 per cent of the original contract price because of their repudiation of that contract.

The owners appealed unsuccessfully to a single judge of the Supreme Court and then to the Court of Appeal before winning seven judges to nil in the High Court.

Following  yesterday’s decision, where a building contract in Australia (or other contract for work and labour done) is terminated for repudiation or breach, damages for breach of that contract will generally be the sole remedy.

What now? The High Court has remitted  Mann  back to VCAT for its recomputation of the builder’s damages. More than three years after he first heard the matter, that recalculation might be done by Senior Member Walker as the owners’ submission to the High Court that he should not hear the remitter was rejected.

The wash-up? Three thoughts occur to me.

First, the High Court’s decision will be big news for building and construction lawyers,  as it overturns a century of established law. But it won’t be a big surprise to those who remember Sopov v Kane [2009] VSCA 141 in which Victoria’s Court of Appeal unanimously expressed sympathy for the owners’ predicament in a similar case but nevertheless found for the builder on the basis that treating repudiated contracts as a ceiling on quantum meruit claims was “a step which the High Court alone can take”.

Second, until yesterday builders and others stuck in unprofitable contracts had a powerful financial incentive to terminate for breach by their counterparty in the expectation that they would be able to reprice their work retrospectively with a quantum meruit claim in the subsequent litigation. That financial escape route has just been soundly shut by the High Court.

Third, the decision is also bad news for quantity surveyors. Demand for their expert evidence as to the ‘as built’ value of construction works is likely to take a hit.

The Turkish purge fails in VCAT

Image

erdogan 090517Since last year’s failed coup attempt against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pictured), his regime has ousted 4,238 judges and prosecutors, purged 95,000 public servants, jailed at least 81 journalists and sought to remove one sitting member from a VCAT domestic building case.

Yes, all extraordinary numbers but let’s focus here on that last and most local statistic. It made it on to the public record only yesterday via VCAT’s decision in Mackie v Republic of Turkey [2017] VCAT 620.

VCAT is currently 25 hearing days (!) into a domestic building dispute. Another 10 hearing days are anticipated. In it, a builder is claiming payment for constructing a house in Toorak Road, Toorak, for the Turkish government. The Republic of Turkey has  counterclaimed and also joined the project’s architect to the action.

Things cannot be going well for the Turks because, together with the architect, they used a long adjournment last month to seek an order from VCAT’s president to have the VCAT senior member hearing the case removed from it.

That senior member is not identified in yesterday’s decision. His removal was sought  on two alternative grounds.

Member “ill-suited”

The first was that the member concerned was “ill-suited” to this particular building case and accordingly the Tribunal should be reconstituted pursuant to s 108 of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act.

Evidence in support of the reconstitution application was by affidavit derived,  among other things,   from approximately 2,000 pages of transcript. The complaints against the member included,  among much else,  his own statement during the hearing that he had “little experience” in construction law,  his apparent unfamiliarity with some building concepts and terminology (such as the difference between a civil engineer and a structural engineer),  and a comment during the litigation describing it as  “a nightmare”.

Apprehension of bias

The second limb of the reconstitution application was that the member had created a reasonable apprehension that he was biased in favour of the builder.

Evidence in support of this contention was said to include some stern words from the member to the architect’s principal witness about the architect’s repeated failure to give responsive answers in cross-examination,  the poor success rate by the architect and Republic’s respective counsel in making objections to evidence when compared to the builder’s counsel’s equivalent run rate,   and the member’s solicitude for the health and comfort of the builder’s 74 year-old, laryngitis-suffering witness while giving vive voce evidence.

All of these complaints were in support of a contention that a fresh member should replace the incumbent for the remainder of the hearing. It seems that the  architect (who made the formal application) and the Republic (which supported it) were hoping that the current hearing would then trundle on,  with the new VCAT member relying for his/her decision in large part on a truckload of transcript and no direct memory of what was said in evidence during the marathon hearing.

Decision – unsuitability

VCAT President Justice Greg Garde’s decision is unlikely to improve President Erdogan’s view of the rule of law as administered by a securely-tenured and independent judiciary.

Garde J dismissed the argument that the member was ill-suited. Among other things, he stated that cherry-picking certain remarks by the member from 25 days’ worth of transcript was not persuasive about the competency of the member when it was conceded that no single remark was, of itself, demonstrative of the member’s alleged unsuitability.

As to the member’s professed inexperience, Garde  J stated a VCAT member is entitled to be unfamiliar with industry jargon and concepts. Indeed, members in such a situation should not be bashful about it – they are under a duty to speak up and seek assistance from counsel as appropriate.

Decision – apprehended bias

Applying the High Court’s two-step test in Ebner v Official Trustee in Bankruptcy (2000) 205 CLR 337,   Garde J dismissed the bias argument too.

He stated that VCAT members are entitled to take up issues with counsel and the parties “and express robust views and opinions without prejudgment” and that in this case there was not sufficient evidence that the member did not “apply the same standards to all witnesses or act appropriately to progress the hearing and the determination of the proceeding….  I hold that if a fair-minded lay observer were asked whether he or she might reasonably apprehend that the senior member might not bring an impartial mind to the resolution of the issues and the questions which arise in the proceeding, the answer would be ‘no’.”

Garde J dismissed the application and ordered that the hearing resume next Monday before the same senior member who has heard it to date.

Four thoughts occur to me on this:

  1. VCAT members can be removed under s.108 of the VCAT Act during the running of a case but neither professed unfamiliarity with the subject matter nor a robust approach from the bench will of themselves be sufficient grounds for a successful application.
  2. If you are going to make a s.108 application best make it early. An application too far into the hearing is much more likely to expose the applicant to failure (and potentially grave costs consequences too).
  3. Isn’t it cheering to live under the rule of law where humble builders can take on foreign governments secure in the knowledge that the tribunals of law and fact won’t be distracted in their deliberations by the prospect of mass (or even targeted) judicial sackings?
  4. Blogging about a case involving the Republic of Turkey is a tenuous but sufficient excuse to reprint a famous limerick (below) about the censorious President Erdogan. It won its author, Boris Johnson, the prize in The Spectator magazine’s 2016 ‘President Erdogan Offensive Poetry Competition’.  (You will recall that Johnson subsequently became Britain’s  Foreign  Secretary and, as such, today remains in charge of his nation’s diplomatic relations with Turkey.) Enjoy.

There was a young fellow from Ankara

Who was a terrific wankerer

Till he sowed his wild oats

With the help of a goat

But he didn’t even stop to thankera.

ADDENDUM # 1

VCAT Senior Member Robert Davis delivered his decision in the substantive litigation on 25 August 2017. The decision is Mackie v Republic of Turkey & Tectura [2017] VCAT 129. The Republic of Turkey was ordered to pay the builder $693,824.58 and its counterclaim against the builder was dismissed. The Turks did have a win against the architect. It was ordered to pay the Republic of Turkey $119,664.65.

(Presumably the next issue for the builder will be actually collecting on the judgment. Some successful VCAT litigants find this a problematic exercise against even Victorian residents. Registering and enforcing a VCAT decision against a distant authoritarian sovereign state with an elastic approach to the rule of law is likely to prove a challenge indeed.)

ADDENDUM # 2

Boris Johnson has also survived President Erdogan’s displeasure. The limerick master became the UK’s prime minister in July 2019 and was resoundingly returned as prime minister at the British general election in December 2019.

Retail tenant ordered to pay its landlord’s costs. Again.

In May this year I blogged (here) about the retail tenant that won a VCAT claim and received nothing but an adverse costs order for its trouble. Subsequently the tenant appealed the costs order (but, interestingly, not VCAT’s refusal to allow it damages) to the Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal (comprising Hansen JA, Ferguson JA and McLeish J) delivered its decision last Thursday. The joint judgment was more bad news for the tenant.The decision is 24 Hour Fitness Pty Ltd v W & B Investment Group Pty Ltd [2015] VSC 8216.
In a nutshell, the Court of Appeal said that VCAT’s Judge Jenkins sitting at first instance had set her reasoning out sufficiently and that it was “only in exceptional cases” that leave to appeal from a costs order would be granted. Leave to appeal was accordingly refused with the further comment that even if leave to appeal had been granted the appeal would still have been dismissed.
My colleagues Robert Hay QC and Sam Hopper have respectively blogged about the appeal decision here and here with Hopper suggesting that the decision might discourage some weaker retail claims in what is usually a ‘no costs’ jurisdiction.
The Court of Appeal, of course, has never been a ‘no costs’ jurisdiction. Although it is not apparent from the judgment, the landlord last Thursday made a Calderbank-based application for costs of the appeal on an indemnity basis. Finally there was a small win for the tenant. It was ordered to pay the landlord’s costs of the appeal but only on the standard basis.

Retail tenant wins VCAT fight but gets nil damages and an adverse costs order

VCAT’s no costs presumption is more elastic in some parts of the tribunal than in others.

In building cases, the losers commonly pay the winners’ costs. In retail tenancies disputes the losers very rarely do. But the winner paying the loser’s costs? Calderbanks and their equivalents aside, it is almost unheard of  anywhere at VCAT or beyond it.

So imagine the winner’s chagrin in the retail tenancies case of 24 Hour Fitness Pty Ltd v W & B Investment Group Pty Ltd [2015] VCAT 596 when it won the liability stoush, produced an expert report seeking just over $3m in damages and then received nothing but an order to pay the ostensible loser’s costs.

The case is an illustration of one of the hazards of compartmentalising a single business within separate corporate vehicles.

24 Hour Fitness Pty Ltd was the tenant. A gym operated on the premises. Unremarkably, the landlord understood that the tenant owned the gym.

Back in 2013, the tenant claimed the landlord had breached a provision of the lease. VCAT agreed. The matter was eventually relisted three years later for an assessment of damages the tenant had suffered by reason of the landlord’s breach.

But in March this year, on day 1 of what was to have been a five-day hearing, the evidentiary penny dropped.

The tenant had never owned or operated the gym (or even any other business). Instead, a company associated with the tenant, ran the gym business. That associated company was a complete stranger to the lease. It occupied the premises and operated the gym entirely without the landlord’s knowledge or permission. Its business might have suffered by reason of the landlord’s non-compliance with the lease but, being a stranger to the lease, it couldn’t recover from the landlord for that breach.

And because the ostensible tenant had no direct interest in the business which claimed to have suffered the financial loss, it could not show any compensable loss referable to the landlord’s breach either.

In the costs decision published last month, Judge Jenkins took a dim view of the tenant conflating itself, its associated company and the associated company’s business for the purposes of the VCAT litigation.

Necessarily, her starting point was s. 92 of the Retail Leases Act 2003. That section proscribes costs orders in VCAT retail tenancy disputes unless a party has “conducted the proceeding in a vexatious way that unnecessarily disadvantaged the other party to the proceeding”. (The other exception, refusal to participate sufficiently in mediation or ADR, did not arise.)

What does “vexatious” mean? The tribunal’s answer includes a handy survey of authorities dealing with exceptional costs orders in both courts and tribunals and (at para 19) this checklist of matters to be taken into account when considering whether to order indemnity costs:

  1.  Whether a party has been forced to take legal proceedings entirely through the wrongful or inappropriate conduct of the other party;
  2. Whether an action has been commenced or continued in circumstances where the applicant, properly advised, should have known he had no chance of success;
  3. Where a party persists in what should, on proper consideration, be seen to be a hopeless case;
  4. Whether the party against whom indemnity costs are sought has made a false allegation of fraud;
  5. Particular misconduct that causes a loss of time to the Court and the parties;
  6. Commencing or continuing proceedings for an ulterior motive or in wilful disregard of known facts or clearly established law; 
  7. Making allegations which ought never to have been made or undue prolongation of a case by groundless contentions; and
  8. An imprudent refusal of an offer of compromise.

Judge Jenkins found five of the eight matters on that list present in the case before her. She ordered the tenant to pay the landlord’s costs relating to the preparation of the damages hearing dating all the way back to 2013.

The tenant did have one minor win. The landlord had asked for indemnity costs but failed. Judge Jenkins found there was insufficient evidence to justify an inference that the tenant was motivated in its claim by an ulterior motive. She held that indemnity costs were reserved “for the most exceptional circumstances” and that solicitor and client costs (which she suggested were similar if not equivalent to standard basis costs) would suffice.

The lesson? If a lease (or any other type of contract for that matter) has been breached but the resulting loss has been suffered by a stranger to that agreement, any resulting commercial litigation might not be very commercial at all.

POSTSCRIPT: The Court of Appeal subsequently upheld Judge Jenkin’s decision. See my brief blog on the appeal decision here.