Tigers thump their retail landlord and Port Adelaide on the same day

Featured

Dusty Martin’s reaction to the Court of Appeal’s judgment

Richmond Football Club had two big wins on Friday – one over Port Adelaide in the preliminary final and the other over a retail landlord in Victoria’s Court of Appeal.

One result gets the Tiges into the 2020 Grand Final; the other should win them lots of new fans among Victoria’s retail tenants.

The Court of Appeal’s decision is Verraty Pty Ltd v Richmond Football Club Ltd [2020] VSCA 267.

In short, it allows Richmond to rely on the Retail Leases Act (‘the Act’) to save a mountain of land tax and prune back some rent increases (the precise monetary consequences are not set out).

The decision confirms that a ‘retail premises lease’ once entered or renewed will not change its legal character during its term by reason of extraneous circumstances (such as rent increases). This is important because the Act gives various protections to tenants of ‘retail premises’ including (at s. 50) voiding any requirement in a lease that the tenant effectively pay its landlord’s land tax. These protections commonly make the question of whether a particular lease relates to ‘retail premises’ within the meaning of s. 4 of the Act financially significant for tenants and landlords.

The Act’s definition of ‘retail premises’ focuses on the retail supply of goods and services but it has several carve-outs. One of the exclusions is that premises with ‘occupancy costs’ of over $1 million per year are not ‘retail premises’. But what happens if the proper categorization of premises as ‘retail premises’ changes during the life of a lease?

This was the issue that arose between Richmond and its landlord, Verraty.

Since (at least) 2004, Richmond had leased a Wantirna pokies venue from Verraty. In 2004 the venue constituted ‘retail premises’ within the meaning of the Act.The written lease included a requirement that the tenant reimburse the landlord its annual land tax but, because the lease was a ‘retail premises lease,’ that requirement was unenforceable by reason of s. 50 of the Retail Leases Act.

Over time the property’s rent and outgoings increased. By May 2016 the tenant’s annual occupancy costs ticked over the $1 million mark. Did the fact that the occupancy costs now exceeded $1 million mean that the premises ceased to be ‘retail premises’ within the meaning of the Act and that the hitherto-void land tax clause hence suddenly became enforceable against Richmond?

The landlord took that argument to VCAT and won – see Verraty v Richmond Football Club [2019] VCAT 1073.

Richmond then appealed to the Supreme Court (Croft J in his final case before retirement from the bench) and won – see Richmond Football Club v Verraty [2019] VSC 597.

Verraty then appealed to the Court of Appeal. There Justices Kyrou, Kaye and Sifris dismissed Varraty’s appeal in a joint judgment. The nub of it is in para 8:

“… if a lease is a ‘retail premises’ lease at the commencement of the lease, it remains subject to the Act even if the premises cease to be retail premises. In short, the text, context and purpose of the Act strongly support the view that it is not possible [for a lease] to jump in and out of the Act from time to time depending on whether the premises continue to fall within the definition of ‘retail premises’.

The judgment is a ringing vindication of Croft J’s final Supreme Court judgment but it is silent on the question of whether leasing relationships can ‘jump’ in or out of the Act when leases are renewed (cf during a lease term). This question did not squarely arise in the Richmond v Verraty matter but Croft J nevertheless ventured an opinion on it in his judgment. He suggested (at paras 74 – 78) that whether premises could change their ‘retail premises’ characterization upon renewal of a lease depended upon the lease provisions regarding such renewals.

The Court of Appeal does not look at this question but it certainly approved of Croft J’s analysis generally.

Conclusions? Three occur to me.

  1. It is now settled that whether a lease is or is not a ‘retail premises lease’ is established on a ‘once and for all’ basis upon its entry or renewal. Its character won’t change during its term.
  2. It is less clear whether a lease can ‘jump’ upon renewal of a lease. For example, ‘retail premises’ under the Act exclude premises whose tenants are listed on the ASX. Despite this, Verraty suggests that the retail premises lease for a ‘Mum and Dad’ business will continue to be a retail premises lease even where the tenants sell their business and assign their lease to an ASX-listed company during the life of that lease. So if that ASX-listed assignee then exercises an option to renew the lease, what is the status of the resulting further term? Croft J implies the answer depends on the terms of the lease involved. The Court of Appeal does not express a view.
  3. Richmond is going into Grand Final Week on a winning streak on and off the field. This might be a bad omen for Geelong.

Is VCAT a court?

Is the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal a court?

According to the Court of Appeal decision this week in Subway Systems Australia v Ireland and Ireland [2014] VSCA 142 the answer depends upon the context of the question.

The case was a bunfight about a sandwich-making franchise. The franchise documents included both retail tenancy provisions and an arbitration agreement.

Relying on the retail tenancy aspect, the franchisee commenced a claim in VCAT. But the franchisor then sought a stay relying on the arbitration agreement.

The franchisor’s stay bid failed in VCAT and again on appeal to a single judge of the Supreme Court (Croft J) but was third time lucky in the Court of Appeal.

It all turned on whether VCAT was a “court” for the purposes of s 8(1) of the Commercial Arbitration Act. That section provides;

A court before which an action is brought in a matter which is the subject of an arbitration agreement must, if a party so requests not later than when submitting the party’s first statement on the substance of the dispute, refer the parties to arbitration unless it finds that the agreement is null and void, inoperative or incapable of being performed.

Generally VCAT should not be considered a court. Here (from para 96) is part of Kyrou AJA’s explanation:

In my opinion, VCAT could not be characterised as a court under the common law because it is not bound by the rules of evidence; it cannot enforce its own decisions; some of its members are not legally qualified; it can be required to apply a statement of government policy and it can be required to provide advisory opinions. Further, VCAT and its predecessor … were expressly established to be inexpensive, informal and speedy administrative tribunals rather than courts.

Later, Kyrou AJA observed that this common law position is reflected in the Civil Procedure Act 2010, the Interpretation of Legislation Act 1984 and the Constitution Act 1975. His dissenting judgment favoured a consistent approach. “As VCAT has generally not been regarded as a court, if Parliament had intended that it be treated as a court for the purposes of the [Commercial Arbitration] Act, it could easily have said so.”

The majority, Maxwell P and Beach JA disagreed. In separate judgments they concluded that, at least for the purposes of the Commercial Arbitration Act 2011 (Vic), VCAT is a court even if it is considered to be a tribunal (cf court) for other purposes.

In separate judgments each canvassed the policy objectives associated with the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law’s Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration on which Victoria’s Commercial Arbitration Act is very closely based.

The lesson? Arbitration clauses in private agreements can trump clear statutory conferrals of jurisdiction on VCAT.

When a Calderbank offer is likely to be a hundred-to-one outsider

At the track, bets are customarily not paid until the winning jockeys and their saddles have weighed in and the stewards have declared ‘correct weight’.

Similarly, in commercial litigation (never entirely dissimilar to gambling) the financial outcome of the courtroom contest is often unclear until the final costs orders are made.

But in retail tenancies cases at VCAT successful punters rarely even glimpse the stewards’ scales. This is because of the near-prohibition on costs orders contained in s 92 of the Retail Leases Act 2003 .

The latest illustration of this problem for successful litigants, and boon for unsuccessful litigants, is Complete Pets Pty Ltd v Coles Group Property Developments Pty Ltd [2012] VCAT 361.

A tenant, its guarantor and two investors together sued a landlord. The landlord cross-claimed. The landlord offered in a Calderbank letter and, later, in an open offer, that all claims be settled on the basis that each party walk away from the litigation and bear its own costs.

The tenant’s camp did not bite. They fought on with disastrous consequences. They were awarded zilch. The landlord won $342,901.

The landlord then sought its costs.

The landlord argued firstly that the guarantor and investors had brought their claims under the Fair Trading Act and accordingly were not caught by the savage restriction on costs orders contained in the Retail Leases Act.

Senior Member Riegler was unmoved, stating (at para 16): –

I am of the view that it is of no consequence that the relief is being sought under the Fair Trading Act 1999 …… The critical question is not what relief is being sought but rather whether the parties are parties to a proceeding before the Tribunal under Part 10 of the Retail Leases Act.

He concluded that the parties were involved in such a proceeding and, as a consequence, the landlord could not obtain a costs order against any of the tenant, guarantor or the investors unless it could show that one of the exceptions to s 92 of the Retail Leases Act applied. This required the landlord to satisfy VCAT that its opponents had conducted the proceeding either in a vexatious way that unnecessarily disadvantaged the landlord, or after failing to participate in alternative dispute resolution.

The landlord relied on its spurned settlement offers to make precisely those alternative submissions. It argued that as the ‘walk away’ offers it had made were clearly more favourable to the litigation’s losers than the end result vexatious conduct and/or the failure to participate in alternative dispute resolution should be inferred.

Again Senior Member Riegler was not persuaded. He said –

  • a litigant merely putting its opponent to its proof is not of itself vexatious;
  • neither is a litigant’s failure to accept an advantageous offer of settlement; and
  • the reference in the Retail Leases Act to alternative dispute resolution does not extend to settlement offers.

Conclusion

Is a party with a strong case wasting its time and money making a Calderbank offer (or similar) in VCAT’s Retail Tenancies List?

Probably.

Of course, not every punter who backs himself to pick the four winners necessary for a quadrella comes away disappointed – just the overwhelming majority.

In a retailing leasing dispute your client’s odds of getting a costs order are probably similar. Your punter might do much better taking a form guide to Flemington than a Calderbank offer to a costs application in the Retail Tenancies List.