Commercial landlords often rely on anti-assignment provisions to restrict the ability of tenants to assign their interest in a lease to a third party. Such provisions will often explicitly restrict assignments by “operation of law,” which are generally considered involuntary assignments mandated via a court order. Commercial landlords may assume that a change of control transaction violates a basic anti–assignment clause, but clear drafting is necessary for Landlords to protect their interests. Landlords wishing to restrict change of control of a tenant entity, should have clear anti-assignment provisions in their leases that expressly restrict such transactions and characterize such “changes of control” as assignments.
A change of control is a significant change in the equity, ownership, or management of a business entity. This can occur through a merger, consolidation or acquisition.
The general rule is that change of control of a corporate entity is not an assignment by operation of law, and therefore does not violate a basic anti-assignment provision. Courts have reasoned that a landlord entering into a lease with a corporate tenant should be aware that a corporation, or limited liability company, is an entity which exists separate and apart from its ownership, and that a change in ownership of the corporate entity does not change the tenant entity under the lease.
Courts in many states including Florida, New York and Delaware have held that a change of control is not an assignment by operation of law. In Sears Termite & Pest Control, Inc. v. Arnold, a Florida court held, “[t]he fact that there is a change in the ownership of corporate stock does not affect the corporation’s existence or its contract rights, or liabilities.” Further, in Meso Scale Diagnostics LLC v. Roche Diagnostics GMBH, a Delaware court ruled, “[g]enerally mergers do not result in an assignment by operation of law of assets that began as property of the surviving entity and continued to be such after the merger.”
Importantly, the rule is different if the tenant entity does not survive the transaction. In MTA Canada Royalty Corp. v. Compania Minera Pangea, a Delaware Superior Court held that a merger in which the contracting entity does not survive may be held to be an assignment by operation of law.
If a landlord intends for a change of control of a tenant to violate the anti-assignment clause in its lease, the landlord should ensure that its lease expressly states that a change of control constitutes an assignment.