What effect does the CDC Eviction Moratorium have on leases in Gainesville?
Is there is a legal defense under the frustration of purpose doctrine for a student-tenant who breaks their Gainesville, Florida lease due to the COVID 19 pandemic? (This post is solely my opinion and not to be construed as legal advice.)
In conclusion, it is theoretically possible for a student-tenant to be relieved of their contractual obligations under a lease due to a frustration of purpose, if the student tenant can prove (1) the tenant and landlord could not have reasonably foreseen and included provisions to govern the frustrating events arising from the COVID 19 pandemic, (2) both parties knew about the purpose of the contract which is now frustrated, and (3) the student did not cause the frustrating event.
A. Practical steps to take first
The first action any tenant should take is to try and negotiate with their landlord. There is a chance the landlord will make reasonable efforts to lower the rent or agree to some sort of arrangement to make the lease easier on you.
Before entering the negotiations, a tenant should make a cup of coffee or tea and read the lease several times. What applicable provisions are in the lease? The tenant could also contact a landlord tenant attorney for a case evaluation.
B. The frustration of purpose defense
The issue is if a Florida tenant has legal grounds to break their lease due to COVID 19 under the frustration of purpose doctrine. The Florida frustration of purpose doctrine gives a party to a contract relief when an unforeseen event happens after the contract is signed.
"[T]he doctrine of commercial frustration is predicated upon the premise of giving relief in a situation where the parties could not provide themselves by the terms of the contract against the happening of subsequent events[.]" Hilton Oil Transp. v. Oil Transp. Co., 659 So. 2d 1141, 1147 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1995).
But the frustration of purpose doctrine does not apply where the “unforeseen” event was reasonably foreseeable and could have been accounted for in the contract.
"But [the doctrine of commercial frustration] does not apply where the intervening event was reasonably foreseeable and could and should have been controlled by provisions of such contract.” Hilton Oil Transp. v. Oil Transp. Co., 659 So. 2d 1141, 1147 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1995).
And the purpose, which is now “frustrated,” must have been known by both parties to the contract.
“[The] defense of frustration of purpose refers to the condition surrounding contracting parties where one of the parties finds that the purposes for which it bargained, and which purposes were known to the other contracting party, have been frustrated to the extent that the breaching party is not receiving the benefit of the bargain for which they contracted.” In re Maxko Petroleum, LLC, 425 B.R. 852, 872 (Bankr. S.D. Fla. 2010) (citing Home Design Center–Joint Venture, 563 So.2d at 770)). (emphasis added).
And the “frustration” must not have been caused by the parties to the contract. Unlike the rest of life, under this doctrine you cannot frustrate yourself.
For Florida tenants to successfully gain relief from their lease during the COVID 19 pandemic, the tenant must prove (1) the tenant and landlord could not have reasonably foreseen and included provisions to govern the frustrating events arising from the COVID 19 pandemic, (2) both parties knew about the purpose of the contract which is now frustrated, and (3) the student-tenant did not cause the frustrating event.
In specific, for university student-tenants who entered a lease contract prior to the COVID 19 pandemic, the student-tenants must show (1) the school closures, class cancellations, or other “frustrating events” were unforeseeable at the time the lease was entered, (2) the landlord knew the purpose of the student entering the lease was to attend university classes in the town where the property is located, and (3) the student did not cause the their inability to attend classes in-person at the university.
The landlord may argue the student-tenant should have known of the frustrating events at the time of signing the lease. For example, the landlord could allege the student-tenant signed the lease after the university cancelled their courses or moved the courses online and rendered the purpose of living in the college town frustrated.
The student could then show a timeline of events, demonstrating there was no reasonable way to know of the full extent of the course cancellations, or extent of the dangers prior to signing the lease. Or the student could show, at the time of signing the lease, the student did not know a loved one, or themselves, were included in a high-risk category. And for the student-tenant, traveling to Gainesville from their current location could be potentially deadly.
Landlord knew the purpose
The landlord could make an ignorance is bliss argument, or, the landlord could say they did not know the student-tenant’s purpose of signing the lease was to attend classes, in-person, at the university in the college town.
The tenant could use evidence to show the landlord or their agents knew the purpose of the contract such as screenshots of marketing materials directed toward university students, correspondence between the student-tenant and the landlord or their agents trying to sell the student on the benefits of living close to campus, etc.
Frustrating event with external cause
It would obviously be farfetched for the landlord to argue the student-tenant caused the various frustrating events in the wake of COVID 19. But the landlord could argue the frustrating events did not truly frustrate the purpose of the contract.
For example, the landlord may argue the student was attending all online classes at the time the lease was entered. Or, the landlord could argue the student tenant had a job or significant other in the college town. Therefore, the purpose was not actually frustrated by COVID 19.
The student-tenant could use evidence to show they fully intended to attend classes, in-person, prior to the strike of COVID 19.