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Uncertainty Surrounding the Identity of the Correct Landlord Allows St. Petersburg Tenant to Avoid Summary Judgment

question markA classic comedy bit from the first half of the 20th century involved Abbott and Costello and a baseball game. While “Who’s on First” may be good for a laugh, it also points to a basic truth – which is the importance of understanding the true identities of all of the essential players in a given setting. That can be very important in your Florida landlord-tenant dispute. If you, as the tenant, need to sue or defend against a lawsuit, it is very important to make sure that the litigant opposing you is legally entitled to claim to be your landlord. In a recent dispute in the Tampa Bay area, the tenant was able to use a lack of clarity on that subject matter to avoid summary judgment in an eviction action.

The owner of a St. Petersburg fish restaurant signed a commercial lease for a space in South St. Pete. The lease’s rent provision stated that the tenant was to pay either a flat amount or a percentage of gross annual revenues, whichever was greater. The restaurant timely paid all of its rental obligations in accordance with the flat-rate base rent provision. According to the landlord, the problem was that the tenant, after 2007, stopped providing its financial information to allow for a determination if the restaurant owed rent in excess of the base rate as a result of the volume of revenues it took in.

The landlord, Maximo Harborage Marina, LLC, sought an order of eviction and a determination of rents in the summer of 2014. Unfortunately for the landlord, it was not current with some of its mandatory filings with the state Division of Corporations, so it could not litigate the case. The landlord eventually substituted another LLC, JMS Marinas, LLC, as the plaintiff in the eviction case.

The trial court awarded summary judgment to the landlord. JMS argued successfully in the trial court that it was the successor landlord to Maximo, which was the entity that had executed the original lease with the restaurant.

The tenant appealed, arguing that the case was not a proper one for summary judgment disposition. The appeals court concluded that the tenant had brought forward sufficient proof to have a viable argument regarding which entity actually owned the rented space and, therefore, had the legal right as a landlord to pursue the eviction litigation. In the lower court, the restaurant owner provided testimony that JMS was not, and never had been, the tenant’s landlord. The restaurant owner testified that, several years into the lease, a representative of the landlord stated that Maximo had changed its name to Harborage Marina and that the restaurant should pay Harborage Marina. Several years after that, the landlord allegedly stated that the property had been transferred to Harborage Land LLC and that the restaurant should pay rent to Harborage Land. The Harborage Land entity, according to the tenant, was the current landlord at the time of the dispute.

Additionally, the tenant tried to offer testimony from an attorney who had completed a title search and discovered that the recorded owner of the property was Harborage Land, rather than JMS. The tenant lost this evidence, however, since it didn’t have certified copies of the land records upon which the lawyer relied to form his opinion.

Even without the attorney’s opinion testimony, the tenant’s case was still strong enough that summary judgment was improper, according to the appeals court. JMS only had testimony from one of its owners to back up its claim that it was the successor landlord to Maximo. The tenant, on the other hand, had enough proof to create a valid dispute that Harborage Land, rather than JMS, was the owner of the property and therefore was the restaurant’s landlord (and the entity with a legal right to pursue an eviction).

In your commercial landlord-tenant dispute, even the smallest of details can have the biggest importance. Sometimes, that’s something as basic as “who is the landlord of this property?” If you’re involved in a commercial landlord-tenant dispute, the experienced South Florida commercial leasing attorneys at Stok Folk + Kon are here to help. Our team has spent many years helping commercial landlords and tenants in Florida seek outcomes that adequately protect their business interests.

Contact us online or by calling (305) 935-4440 to schedule your consultation and find out how this firm can help you protect your interests.

More blog posts:

Florida Landlord Entitled to Summary Judgment on Possession But Not Rent in Lease Abandonment Case, Florida Business Lawyers Blog, March 3, 2017

Voluntary Use of the Court Registry in a Florida Commercial Landlord-Tenant Dispute, Florida Business Lawyers Blog, Feb. 15, 2017

Photo credit: CC0 Public Domain