Must Landlord Give Notice to Terminate Expired Fixed-Term Lease?
A restaurant in Seattle signs a fixed-term lease containing the following clause:
Lease Termination Date. The term of this Lease is 36 months and shall expire at midnight on May 31, 2019, or such earlier or later date as provided in Section 3 (the “Termination Date”). LANDLORD MAY TERMINATE THIS LEASE WITH A SIXTY (60) DAY WRITTEN NOTICE TO TERMINATE THE LEASE.
The landlord never sends the tenant a termination notice. So, when the clock strikes midnight on May 31, 2019, the tenant stays put and attempts to pay June rent, figuring it has at least 60 days to vacate when and if it ever gets a termination notice from the landlord. But the landlord has other ideas and sues the tenant for unlawful detainer three weeks later.
Does the landlord have a valid case for unlawful detainer?
A. Yes, because the lease term ended on May 31.
B. No, because the landlord never provided the required 60-days’ termination notice.
C. Yes, but only if the tenant was in default on May 31.
D. No, because the lease language is ambiguous and contradictory.
A. The landlord’s unlawful detainer claim is valid because the lease expired automatically on May 31.
This scenario, which is based on an actual case, is a useful illustration of the basic bread-and-butter rules governing the termination of fixed-term leases. The punchline: A lease with a specified term ends automatically when the term expires, even if the landlord (and/or tenant) doesn’t provide a termination notice. In this case, the lease term ended and the tenant had to vacate on May 31, 2019, without need for the landlord to provide 60-days’ notice. So, A is the right answer.
WHY WRONG ANSWERS ARE WRONG
B is wrong because the landlord’s duty to provide 60-days’ notice kicked in only for terminations before the scheduled May 31 expiration date. According to the Washington court, the provision gave the landlord the option to terminate early but didn’t require it to provide notice to terminate at the end of the fixed 36-months’ term.
C is wrong because a fixed lease ends when the fixed term ends regardless of whether the tenant is in default. However, being in default may impact whether the tenant has the right to renew the lease at the end of the term.
D is wrong because, at least according to the court, the lease was crystal-clear. “[It] plainly states ‘the term of this [l]ease shall expire at midnight on May 31, 2019.’ It is not ambiguous.” In fact, the case was such a no-brainer that the court saw fit to order the tenant to pay the landlord’s court costs and attorney’s fees [Centric v. Wubushet, 2020 Wash. App. LEXIS 1693].