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What Is — and What Is Not — Unlawful Detainer in Florida: A Commercial Leasing Case Study

There can be a lot of situations in which a property owner’s taking direct action against a lessee can have extremely serious and negative consequences for the lessor. There are many cases in which lessors have encountered significant legal trouble because they engaged in “self-help.” Generally, lessors that run into problems with regard to self-help are ones that undertake to evict a lessee without going through the proper legal procedures. In other situations, though, a property owner, as long as it is not functionally evicting its tenant without proper legal process, can take some steps to protect its business interests. A recent case originating in Palm Beach County concerns a property owner whose actions were legal and did not, contrary to its lessee’s arguments, violate Florida’s unlawful detainer law. To make sure that the actions you are taking to enforce your rights under a lease are legally permissible, make sure that you are consulting with knowledgeable Florida commercial landlord-tenant lawyers.

The contract that spawned the lawsuit was an agreement between a Boca Raton condominium association and a provider of commercial laundry equipment. The provider agreed to place its commercial washers and dryers in each of the association’s 26 buildings. The lease agreement expired in October 2014, but the arrangement continued after that on a month-to-month basis.

After complaints by residents, the association selected a new laundry machine provider in 2016. By late September, the new provider’s machines were at the site and ready for installation. With the association’s permission, the new provider disconnected and moved each of the old provider’s machines. The machines were not damaged and remained in an unlocked area accessible to the provider. The association sent a letter demanding that the provider remove the machines within 15 days or face an eviction lawsuit. The provider timely removed its equipment.

In some circumstances, that might have been the end. In this situation, though, the provider sued the association. One of its claims was that the association violated Florida’s unlawful detainer statute when it directed the disconnection of the machines without legal action or the provider’s knowledge or consent. The provider’s argument maintained that the association effectively retook possession of the laundry room without going through any legal channels when it disconnected the machines.

The trial court ruled for the association, and the Court of Appeal upheld that decision. The case points out what is – and what is not – dispossession under Florida law. Unlawful detainer in Florida requires three things:  that the plaintiff had been “in peaceful possession” of the space, that the defendant ousted the plaintiff from that space, and that the “defendant withheld possession of the property from plaintiff without consent or legal process.” The mere disconnection of the machines and moving them to another area that was accessible to the lessee was not an “ouster” under Florida law.

In 1990, another Florida appeals court ruled in favor of a laundry machine provider in a somewhat similar dispute. However, in that case, the condo association removed the machines from the property, took them to its locked warehouse, and refused to release them to the laundry provider for a period of time. These factual differences were the key to why the 1990 case was an ouster and this one was not.

Commercial lease agreements can be thorny matters when, as a property owner, you feel you need to take proactive steps to advance your rights and interests. The key is to complete the proper legal steps or to make sure that the action you desire to take does not require legal processes. The diligent South Florida landlord-tenant attorneys at Stok Kon + Braverman have been effectively representing both lessors and lessees for many years in their commercial lease disputes and are here to help you protect your interests.

Contact us online or by calling (954) 237-1777 to schedule your consultation and find out how this firm can help you protect your interests.

More blog posts:

Department Store Overcomes Landlord’s Attempt to Block Sublease of South Florida Mall Space, Florida Business Lawyers Blog, Oct. 27, 2017

Evidence in Commercial Lease Dispute Proved Tenant Was a Holdover and Had Not Renewed Lease, Florida Court Rules, Florida Business Lawyers Blog, July 28, 2017


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