Here’s a scenario frequently seen in Chapter 11 cases. A tenant files bankruptcy and rejects a commercial real estate lease. The landlord files an unsecured lease rejection claim seeking to recover the lost future rent under the rejected lease. The claim amount is capped by Bankruptcy Code Section 502(b)(6) but may still be one of the larger unsecured claims in the case. Now let’s add a small, but relatively common, twist. Sometime later, but before distributions are made on the claim, the landlord sells the real estate that the debtor had occupied under the rejected lease.

The FLYi Chapter 11 Case. That, complete with the twist, was the situation in the In re FLYi, Inc. Chapter 11 case pending in the Delaware Bankruptcy Court. After the landlord sold the property, the liquidation trust established under the debtor’s Chapter 11 plan of reorganization objected to the landlord’s claim, arguing that after the sale of the property the debtor had no further obligations under the lease. Virginia law applied because the property was located in Dulles, Virginia. As described by the Bankruptcy Court, the landlord had three options under Virginia law:

[D]o nothing and sue for the rent remaining under the Lease; reenter the Premises for the sole purpose of re-letting it without terminating the Lease; or re-enter the Premises and exercise full dominion over the premises thereby terminating the Lease and eliminating FLYi’s obligation to pay any future rent.

The landlord argued that this interpretation of the law was wrong but asserted that provisions in the lease protected the landlord’s claim anyway. The Bankruptcy Court rejected those arguments and held that the landlord’s sale of the property terminated both the lease and the landlord’s right to future rent after the date of the sale. A copy of the Bankruptcy Court’s decision is available here.

Be sure to read the Delaware Business Bankruptcy Report’s interesting discussion for more details on the decision, including the arguments advanced and the Bankruptcy Court’s treatment of them.

What Does This Mean For Landlords? A landlord contemplating a sale of the real property will have to consider what impact that sale might have on its lease rejection claim.

  • In states like Virginia where, according to the Bankruptcy Court in the FLYi case, termination of a lease cuts off a landlord’s claim for future rent, landlords will have to be prepared to lose all or a portion of a lease rejection claim if they sell the real property. 
  • The outcome may be different in other states. Section 1951.2 of the California Civil Code, for example, expressly permits a landlord, upon termination of a lease, to recover the present value of the difference between the unpaid future rent under the lease and the amount of rent that could reasonably be avoided through mitigation efforts. This may permit a landlord to sell the property and still retain a lease rejection claim.
  • When state law allows it, landlords may seek to include provisions in a lease to preserve contractually the right to a post-sale lease damages claim.

What Does This Mean For Bankruptcy Estates? Debtors, liquidation trusts, and other estate representatives may have an incentive to determine whether the landlord still owns the property. In states where a post-rejection sale of the property operates to cut off the landlord’s future rent claim, this fact could provide a new ground for an objection to the landlord’s Section 502(b)(6) claim.

Conclusion. Time will tell how frequently this scenario will play out in future cases, but landlords should expect to see the "did you sell the property" question asked more often going forward.