Not surprisingly, I get calls from small business owners who are contemplating personal bankruptcy when their businesses fail. There are many issues that arise in these types of cases but I would like to focus on one problem that, more than any other, can force the business owner into bankruptcy.
Generally when the owner of a small business leases retail space, the landlord will demand a personal guarantee. This means, of course, that in the event of a default, the business (which may be a corporation or LLC) faces liability and the business owner personally faces liability.
Given this reality, every small business owner should seek counsel to discussion asset protection options before starting his business, but that is a topic for another day.
If the business fails you might be surprised to learn that the landlord does not necessarily have to take any steps to “mitigate damages” by releasing the retail space. Instead, the landlord can demand payment for the full value of the lease from the business owner personally. If the business owner has a house with $100,000 of equity, that equity is therefore at risk, and given that Georgia’s bankruptcy exemption statute is stingy ($10,000 for an individual or $20,000 for a married couple filing jointly), bankruptcy may not offer much protection.
I ran across two helpful resources that go into more detail about the landlord’s obligations or lack thereof. The first is a blog post from Atlanta lawyer David Pardue in his Georgia Real Estate Litigation blog. In his post, David discusses a recent Georgia Court of Appeals case called Sirdah v. North Springs Assocs., LLLP, which was decided by the Court of Appeals in June, 2010. In the Sirdah case, the Court restated its previous holding that a landlord is under no duty to mitigate damages unless (1) the landlord accepts the tenant’s surrender, or (2) the tenant successfully terminates the lease. In the Sirdah case, the tenant returned his keys to the landlord and argued that by accepting the keys, the landlord accepted the tenant’s surrender. The Court said that accepting the keys did not constitute an acceptance of the surrender.
Another helpful resource is a more extensive article written by attorney Stephanie Everett of the Bloom Law Firm in Atlanta. In this paper, Stephanie examines the various scenarios that could arise when a tenant breaches a lease and the resulting consequences. Although Stephanie’s article is written for the benefit of landlords, tenants will find the information very helpful as well.
As the law in this area could change, you should not rely on these resources in the absence of counsel. If you are a small business owner and you are coming to the realization that your business may not survive, you would be wise to consult with a lawyer to discuss your options both in business and in terms of bankruptcy. I have seen far too many business owners who simply left and discovered after the fact that their bankruptcy options were limited, or too painful.