A commercial real estate lease often represents the largest single liability of many debtors. For retailers, which typically have scores or even hundreds of store leases, the liability involved is orders of magnitude larger. It’s fair to say that the management of lease obligations can be of enormous consequence to debtors, landlords, and other creditors in Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases.

Rejected Leases And The Capped Claim. As explained in an earlier post on how commercial real estate leases are treated in bankruptcy, one of a debtor’s options in a Chapter 11 case is to reject uneconomic or otherwise burdensome leases, terminating the debtor’s obligation to pay rent and turning the landlord’s claim for termination of the lease into a prepetition claim. Section 502(b)(6) of the Bankruptcy Code goes further and caps the landlord’s prepetition rejection claim at an amount equal to the greater of (1) one year’s rent or (2) fifteen percent of the remaining lease term, up to a maximum of three years’ worth of rent. The starting date for calculating the claim is the earlier of the date when the bankruptcy petition was filed or when the landlord recovered possession of, or the tenant surrendered, the premises. A landlord with six years left on a rejected lease, for example, would have its claim capped at one year’s worth of rent.

What’s Covered By The Cap? This ability to cap a landlord’s claim in bankruptcy can be a major benefit to debtor tenants. Ever since a 1995 decision by the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel (BAP) of the Ninth Circuit in In re McSheridan, 184 B.R. 91 (B.A.P. 9th Cir. 1995), debtors have been successful in many cases in capping a variety of claims by landlords. In McSheridan, the BAP held that the cap applied to all damages for the lessee’s nonperformance of the lease, not just to claims based on future rent. Landlords have challenged that analysis but, at least in the Ninth Circuit, have had little success — until this week.

The Ninth Circuit’s El Toro Decision. In an eight-page opinion (available here) issued on October 1, 2007 in the In re El Toro Materials Company, Inc. Chapter 11 case,, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit took a very different view of the landlord cap under Section 502(b)(6). In the El Toro case, the debtor was a mining company that leased property from the Saddleback Community Church, paying $28,000 per month in rent. After the lease was rejected, Saddleback brought an adversary proceeding against El Toro for $23 million in damages alleging that El Toro left a million tons of wet clay "goo," mining equipment, and other materials on the property.

  • The bankruptcy court held that Saddleback’s claim, which asserted waste, nuisance, and other tort theories, would not be limited by the Section 502(b)(6) cap. 
  • Following its McSheridan precedent, the BAP reversed and held that any damages would be subject to the cap. 
  • Interestingly, two of the three judges on the BAP panel filed concurring opinions, voicing doubts about the wisdom of the McSheridan case. A copy of the BAP’s unpublished El Toro decision from July 2005 is available here.

Judge Kozinski’s Analysis. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed the BAP’s decision, holding that the cap did not apply to the landlord’s tort claims. Judge Alex Kozinski authored the opinion and analyzed the key issues this way:

The structure of the cap—measured as a fraction of the remaining term—suggests that damages other than those based on a loss of future rental income are not subject to the cap. It makes sense to cap damages for lost rental income based on the amount of expected rent: Landlords may have the ability to mitigate their damages by re-leasing or selling the premises, but will suffer injury in proportion to the value of their lost rent in the meantime. In contrast, collateral damages are likely to bear only a weak correlation to the amount of rent: A tenant may cause a lot of damage to a premises leased cheaply, or cause little damage to premises underlying an expensive leasehold.

One major purpose of bankruptcy law is to allow creditors to receive an aliquot share of the estate to settle their debts. Metering these collateral damages by the amount of the rent would be inconsistent with the goal of providing compensation to each creditor in proportion with what it is owed. Landlords in future cases may have significant claims for both lost rental income and for breach of other provisions of the lease. To limit their recovery for collateral damages only to a portion of their lost rent would leave landlords in a materially worse position than other creditors. In contrast, capping rent claims but allowing uncapped claims for collateral damage to the rented premises will follow congressional intent by preventing a potentially overwhelming claim for lost rent from draining the estate, while putting landlords on equal footing with other creditors for their collateral claims.

The statutory language supports this interpretation. The cap applies to damages “resulting from” the rejection of the lease. 11 U.S.C. § 502(b)(6). Saddleback’s claims for waste, nuisance and trespass do not result from the rejection of the lease—they result from the pile of dirt allegedly left on the property. Rejection of the lease may or may not have triggered Saddleback’s ability to sue for the alleged damages.But the harm to Saddleback’s property existed whether or not the lease was rejected. A simple test reveals whether the damages result from the rejection of the lease: Assuming all other conditions remain constant, would the landlord have the same claim against the tenant if the tenant were to assume the lease rather than rejecting it? Here, Saddleback would still have the same claim it brings today had El Toro accepted the lease and committed to finish its term: The pile of dirt would still be allegedly trespassing on Saddleback’s land and Saddleback still would have the same basis for its theories of nuisance, waste and breach of contract. The million-ton heap of dirt was not put there by the rejection of the lease—it was put there by the actions and inactions of El Toro in preparing to turn over the site.

(Footnotes omitted.)

McSheridan Holding Overruled. The Ninth Circuit opinion noted the two concurrences from the BAP decision questioning McSheridan and suggested that the BAP consider adopting an en banc procedure to reconsider such doubtful precedents. Given the Ninth Circuit’s holding, it will come as no surprise that the Court of Appeals also explicitly overruled McSheridan:

To the extent that McSheridan holds section 502(b)(6) to be a limit on tort claims other than those based on lost rent, rent-like payments or other damages directly arising from a tenant’s failure to complete a lease term, it is overruled.

The Ninth Circuit noted that McSheridan also holds that "damages flowing from the failure of a party that has rejected a lease to perform future routine repairs or pay utility bills are capped," but declined to address — or overrule — that holding.

Post-El Toro Ramifications.  At least in the Ninth Circuit, with McSheridan overruled landlords will work hard to characterize their damage claims as arising from tort theories or otherwise not being based on "lost rent, rent-like payments or other damages directly arising from a tenant’s failure to complete the lease term." At the negotiation stage, when the market permits landlords may demand larger security deposits and letters of credit on the view that the Section 502(b)(6) cap no longer limits every type of damage recoverable against such security. They may also structure leases to separate claims for items such as clean-up costs, hazardous waste removal, property damage, and even tenant improvement repayments from rent claims, in an attempt to bolster the argument that these claims fall outside of the cap.

Conclusion. Like a bull charging a matador, the El Toro decision has ripped a hole in the Section 502(b)(6) cape previously used to turn away cap-busting landlord claims. Time will tell just how significant the decision turns out to be, but at first blush it seems that debtors and non-landlord creditors may be the ones who end up seeing red.