SB 939 Proposes Moratorium on Unlawful Detainer Actions for Commercial Tenants and Allows Tenants Who Can’t Renegotiate Their Lease in Good Faith to Terminate Their Lease Without Liability

May 21, 2020 Published Article

SB 939 is currently working its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee. The legislation would impose new obligations on landlords, and provide protections for commercial tenants who meet specified criteria. SB 939 would impose a moratorium on eviction of those qualified commercial tenants while emergency COVID-19 orders are in effect. Any eviction actions commenced after the date of the emergency COVID-19 order, but before the adoption of SB 939, would be void and unenforceable. The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing for SB 939 on May 22, 2020, at 9:00 a.m.

Who qualifies as a commercial tenant under SB 939?

To qualify under this legislation, a commercial tenant must be a business that operates primarily in California. The commercial tenant must be a small business, nonprofit, an eating or drinking establishment, place of entertainment, or performance venue. Publicly traded companies or any company owned by, or affiliated with a publicly traded company, do not qualify. The commercial tenant must have experienced a decline of at least 40 percent monthly revenue, either as compared to two months before the emergency COVID-19 order, or other local government shelter-in-place orders took effect, or as compared to the same month in 2019. If the commercial tenant is an eating or drinking establishment, place of entertainment, or performance venue, the commercial tenant must also show a decline of 25 percent or more in capacity due to social or physical distancing orders or safety concerns, and show that it is subject to regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 that will financially impair the business when compared to the period before the emergency COVID-19 order or other local shelter-in-place orders took effect.

What eviction actions are prohibited while emergency COVID-19 orders are in effect?

If adopted, SB 939 would add Section 1951.9 to the Civil Code. This section would make it unlawful to terminate a tenancy, serve notice to terminate a tenancy, use lockout or utility shutoff actions to terminate a tenancy or otherwise evict a tenant of commercial real property, including a business or nonprofit, during the pendency of the COVID-19 emergency order proclaimed by Governor Newsom on March 4, 2020. Exceptions apply if a tenant poses a threat to the property, other tenants or a person, business or other entity. Any violations of this eviction prohibition would be against public policy and unenforceable.

Any eviction started after proclamation of the state of emergency but before the effective date is deemed void, against public policy and is unenforceable

Does SB 939 impose new penalties or remedies?

Any landlord who harasses, mistreats or retaliates against a commercial tenant to force the tenant to abrogate the lease would be subject to a fine of $2,000 for each violation. Further, any such violation would be an unlawful business practice and an act of unfair competition under Section 17200 of the Business and Professions Code and would be subject to all available remedies or penalties for those actions under state law.

When is a commercial tenant required to pay unpaid rent due to COVID-19?

If a commercial tenant fails to pay rent during the emergency COVID-19 order, the sum total of the past due rent must be paid within 12 months following the date of the end of the emergency proclamation, unless the commercial tenant has successfully negotiated an agreement with its landlord to pay the outstanding rent at a later date. Nonpayment of rent during the state of emergency cannot be used as grounds for eviction. Notwithstanding lease terms to the contrary, landlords may not impose late charges for rent that became due during the state of emergency.

Are landlords required to provide notice of protections adopted under SB 939?

Landlords would be required to provide notice to commercial tenants of the protections offered under SB 939 within 30 days of the effective date. SB 939 does not preempt local legislation or ordinances restricting the same or similar conduct which impose a more severe penalty for the same conduct. Local legislation or ordinances may impose additional notice requirements.

Does SB 939 impose new protections for commercial tenants when negotiating lease modifications?

If enacted, SB 939 would permit commercial tenants to open negotiations for new lease terms, and provide commercial tenants the ability to terminate the lease if those negotiations fail. A commercial tenant who wishes to modify its commercial lease, may engage in good faith negotiations with its landlord to modify any rent or economic requirement regardless of the term remaining on the lease. The commercial tenant must serve a notice on the landlord certifying that it meets the required criteria, along with the desired modifications.

If the commercial tenant and landlord do not reach a mutually satisfactory agreement within 30 days, then within 10 days, the commercial tenant may terminate the lease without any liability for future rent, fees, or costs that otherwise may have been due under the lease by providing a written termination notice to the landlord. The commercial tenant would be required to pay previously due rent, in an amount no greater than the sum of the following: (1) the actual rent due during the emergency COVID-19 order, or a maximum of three months of the past due rent during that period, and (2) all rent incurred and unpaid during a time unrelated to the emergency COVID-19 order through the date of the termination notice. The payment is due within 12 months from date of the termination notice. The commercial tenant would be required to vacate the premises within 14 days of the landlord’s receipt of the termination notice. Upon service of the notice, any lease, and any third party guaranties of the lease would terminate. If the landlord and commercial tenant reach an agreement to modify the lease, the commercial tenant would not have the option to later terminate the lease under this provision.

When is the next Senate Judiciary Committee Meeting for SB 939?

The Senate Judiciary Committee set a hearing for SB 939 on May 22, 2020 at 9:00 a.m. The Senate will livestream the hearing on its website at www.sen.ca.gov. Public comments or testimony may be submitted in writing to the Judiciary Committee by emailing [email protected]. Alternatively, the public may participate via telephone during the public comment period. Any changes to the Judicial Committee schedule may be found at: https://www.senate.ca.gov/calendar.

Newmeyer Dillion continues to follow COVID-19 and its impact on your business and our communities. Feel free to reach out to us at [email protected] or visit us at www.newmeyerdillion.com/covid-19-multidisciplinary-task-force/.