marijuana bankruptcy lease
Bankruptcy cases have been hard, when cannabis is involved.

A recent unpublished decision out of the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel presents an interesting set of facts and a decision that may leave one questioning which direction the bankruptcy courts might be headed in the era of legalized cannabis. An elderly Nevada resident owned some commercial property at a shopping mall in South Lake Tahoe, and had been leasing it for several years to a medicinal cannabis dispensary (the lease specifically authorized the tenant to operate a “dispensary”). After several years of state-legal operations, an argument arose over an alleged option agreement to purchase the property, and the tenant sued to force a sale of the property. The bank holding the mortgage recorded a default shortly thereafter and began foreclosure proceedings.

The owner then filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which is a form of debt reorganization that allows a debtor to pay creditors on a court-approved payment plan. Her proposed plan called for her to sell off the commercial property occupied by the dispensary but continue renting it in the meantime, so she filed a motion to reject the lease and the option agreement, and proposed a payment plan that included giving the bank rental income from the dispensary. The city also joined in, asking the court to reject the lease on the grounds that the tenant’s permit to operate the dispensary had expired due to the owner’s failure to provide written consent (a good plug for including a landlord cooperation clause in commercial cannabis leases).

The tenant fired back with an interesting approach: he moved to dismiss the bankruptcy petition altogether on the grounds that the owner’s acceptance of his cannabis dispensary’s rent payments violated the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). None of the motions were heard, though, because the lower bankruptcy court decided to dismiss the petition on its own, declaring that the owner had “committed a crime” by accepting rent from the dispensary while the bankruptcy case was pending.

On appeal, the bankruptcy appellate panel vacated the lower court’s decision and remanded, because the court had failed to articulate any findings or legal basis justifying the conclusion that the owner was violating the CSA and that violation was grounds for dismissal. The appellate panel in its opinion discussed the importance of establishing knowledge and intent to lease the property for marijuana cultivation in order to prove a CSA violation by an owner, and in turn to use that violation as a basis for rejecting a bankruptcy petition. In sum, the appellate panel highlighted the high bar that a court must clear to be able to use accepting cannabis rents as a reason to deny a property owner’s bankruptcy petition, even were the rents are accepted after the petition was filed.

While the owner’s bankruptcy case may have lived to fight another day, nothing about the case invalidates the CSA or even precludes using it as grounds for dismissing a bankruptcy petition. But the case highlights the ongoing conflict that federal courts are confronting due to the status of state-legal cannabis as being federally illegal. The lesson of the case is nicely framed in the concurring opinion: “With over twenty-five states allowing the medical or recreational use of marijuana, courts increasingly need to address the needs of litigants who are in compliance with state law while not excusing activity that violates federal law.”