Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ocean Petroleum, Co., Inc. v. Yanek (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed: October 4, 2010
Opinion by Judge Mary Ellen Barbera.

Held: A lease term granting a tenant the option to purchase the land at "fair market value" must be interpreted within the context of the lease and the circumstances under which it was executed. Accordingly, the phrase “fair market value of the land” refers to the fair market value of the land to a buyer, unencumbered by the tenant's existing lease.

Facts: Appellant's lease agreement, for property on which its convenience store is located, provided that Appellant shall have the right and option to purchase the premises after twenty years. The lease directed the parties to negotiate a price and, if a negotiated price could not be reached, the price would be the fair market value, determined by appraisers. The parties could not agree on a purchase price or on the meaning of the phrase “fair market value,” with the dispute being whether “fair market value” meant the value as encumbered by the existing 99-year lease (the reversionary interest of the landlord) or the value as unencumbered. Appellant filed a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment construing that phrase. The lower court determined that “fair market value” should be determined as if the land were unencumbered.

Analysis: Employing an objective approach to contract construction, the Court “consider[ed] the plain language of the disputed provisions in context, which includes not only the text of the entire contract but also the contract’s character, purpose, and ‘the facts and circumstances of the parties at the time of execution.’” The Court reasoned that “[b]ecause the relevant provisions of the lease agreement contemplate a transaction between a landlord and a tenant rather than an ordinary property owner and potential buyer, these provisions indicate that the parties contemplated a transaction in which the property is sold free of the tenant’s encumbrance thereon.”

The full opinion is available in pdf.

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