We’ve written previously on arbitration and why it so often makes sense for cannabis business contracts, primarily because of enforceability issues stemming from cannabis being illegal under federal law. But in the realm of commercial real estate leasing, cannabis uses can present other unique challenges that require thoughtful solutions to disputes, and, more importantly, thoughtful planning to prepare for potential disputes down the road.
Below are some of the issues our California cannabis lawyers typically consider when anticipating how to draft dispute resolution clauses for commercial cannabis leases.
- Enforceability of the lease and the arbitration award. Federal illegality of cannabis impacts all cannabis business transactions. Though the Federal Department of Justice has issued cannabis enforcement guidelines in the Cole Memo (and every cannabis-touching lease agreement should include language mandating compliance with these guidelines), this does not guarantee against federal civil asset forfeiture or other federal enforcement actions. Another consequence of federal illegality is that cannabis companies must consider what recourse they will have in enforcing their contracts and account for federal district courts being unwilling to enforce any such contract. For this reason alone, it will nearly almost always be better for you to have your disputes resolved in a California state court that will be far more likely to apply and enforce California state cannabis laws. California state courts can also apply federal law, but because there is often a risk of your case being removed to federal court you should always consider putting an arbitration clause in your cannabis commercial leases, specifying the arbitral body, limiting how the lease and the arbitration award can be enforced (confining it to state courts, perhaps) and limiting potential appeals.
- Choice of law. We’ve written about how California commercial cannabis landlords (and tenants) should consider beefing up their lease’s indemnity provisions, allowing for early termination in the event of enforcement actions, disallowing federal illegality as a grounds for invalidating the lease, and generally requiring strict compliance with California state law for the specific proposed cannabis use. For similar reasons, arbitration clauses can include a mandate that the arbitral body apply state law and the California Arbitration Act, and not, for example, the Federal Arbitration Act, which allows an award to be vacated where the arbitrator “manifestly disregards the law.” It is not difficult to imagine a scenario where a federal court vacates an arbitral award for an arbitrators having failed to apply the Controlled Substances Act or void the cannabis lease ab initio. California arbitration clauses should, at minimum, specifically outline 1) the method for choosing the arbitrator, 2) the laws the arbitrator must apply in resolving the dispute, and 3) the standard of review any reviewing court must apply. For many California real estate transactions, the arbitration clause should also include specific statutory notice language.
- Carve-outs for Unlawful Detainer, Nonpayment, and other Early Termination Causes. Though arbitration can be a highly useful tool, landlords will also want to maintain their ability to seek remedies for nonpayment of rent and unlawful detainer (eviction) without having to go through the arbitration process. Similarly, if a tenant faces a state or federal enforcement action, the landlord (and even the tenant for that matter) will likely want to maintain its ability to terminate the lease quickly and without arbitration. The parties to a California commercial cannabis lease should always consider carving out exceptions to arbitration to keep options open and to encourage timely performance of the lease.
- Arbitrator’s industry expertise. California arbitrators tend to be retired California state court judges and the changes of this sort of arbitrator having deep knowledge about the cannabis industry or cannabis laws are not good. But spelling out the arbitrator selection process in your commercial lease agreement (or even naming the specific arbitrator or arbitrators) can allow you to make certain your arbitrator has sufficient cannabis industry knowledge to understand any eventual dispute.
- Consider making mediation the first step. Arbitrations can be expensive and their outcomes uncertain. So instead of drafting a commercial lease agreement that requires you to jump right into that process whenever a dispute arises, consider making private mediation a mandatory first step before a demand for arbitration can be made.
Though every commercial lease dispute is unique (even more so for cannabis commercial leases), there are common themes and one is that private dispute resolution tends to work best for disputes between cannabis businesses.