Boilerplate Language Upheld in Ohio Storage Lease

By: Stephen D. Richman, Esq.-Senior Counsel-Kohrman, Jackson & Krantz

boil•er•plate (boi l r-pl t ) n.

1. A steel plate used in making the shells of steam boilers.
2. Inconsequential, formulaic, or stereotypical language: The new provisions of the lease renewal were merely boilerplate.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved

The first type of “boilerplate” defined above is pretty tough stuff. It can be up to twelve (12) inches thick and stop arrows, Greek fire and low caliber ammunition. Tough, one-sided contract and lease language is also referred to by many as “boilerplate”. What is amazing to me is how many tenants, landlords, brokers and dictionary writers believe such language is inconsequential or unenforceable, and how many do not worry about such language because they deem it “merely boilerplate.”

Notwithstanding the above definition, this author would like to caution you to worry, if you ever find yourself on the “wrong side of the boilerplate.” Contrary to “Mr. Heritage’s” beliefs, odds are that boilerplate (at least in a commercial lease/contract) will most likely be enforceable unless it is contrary to statutory law or public policy. Judges assume (rightly or wrongly) that commercial tenants and landlords are on equal footing with equal sophistication in business and lease matters. They believe commercial parties say what they mean and mean what they say in their contracts. Ohio court decisions regarding commercial leases are replete with language like the following: “when reviewing lease provisions, a court is to presume that the intent of the parties is in the language they used, and if the contract is clear and unambiguous, then we must follow the contract’s expressed terms and must not go beyond the plain language of the contract.” Langfan v. Carlton Gardens, 2009 Ohio App. LEXIS 2863. Accordingly, self-help provisions, landlord disclaimers of the duty to mitigate damages, warrants of attorney to confess judgement and disclaimers of warranties are just a few examples of boilerplate language upheld in commercial leases in Ohio.

The primary exception to the general enforceability of boilerplate language in Ohio is Ohio’s Landlord-Tenant Act (ORC Chapter 5301 et. seq.), which governs Ohio residential leases. Specifically, Section 5321.13 (d) of such Act provides that
 “No agreement by a tenant to the exculpation or limitation of any liability of the landlord arising under law or to indemnify the landlord for that liability or its related costs shall be recognized in any rental agreement or in any other agreement between a landlord and tenant.” Awards of attorney fees and warrants of attorney to confess judgment are also prohibited in residential leases. The Ohio Landlord-Tenant Act was enacted to protect residential tenants who are often in an unequal bargaining position from their landlords, and have a lot more to lose (e.g., their homes).

What about boilerplate language in storage unit leases? Often, such units are utilized to store beds, refrigerators and other furniture and appliances typically found in a residence. Do storage unit tenants have the same protection residential tenants have?

What if such boilerplate language in a storage unit lease goes so far as 1) disclaiming landlord liability (for patent and latent defects, failure  to repair and express and implied warranties); 2) imposing minimal, liquidated damages; and 3) requiring the tenant to indemnify landlord? That’s just inconsequential boilerplate, right Mr. Heritage? 

Not according to the Tenth District Court of Appeals in the recent case of Hopkins v. Car Go Self Storage,2019-Ohio-1793.

In Hopkins, the tenant-appellant entered into a lease agreement with appellee, “Car Go Self Storage” to store her personal belongings, including furniture, in appellee’s storage facility. Appellant testified in court that the facility was dry when the items were moved in, but when such items were retrieved, they were damp and covered with mold. Apparently there was a water leak that allowed water into the unit, causing the mold. Appellant sued appellee for breach of contract, negligence and conversion. The trial court held for appellee on all counts, and appellant appealed.

The court of appeals in Hopkins affirmed the decision of the trial court. The appellate court held that the negligence claim was properly dismissed because it was barred by the two-year statute of limitations. The conversion claim was properly dismissed because appellant admitted she was not prevented from recovering her property.

Regarding the contract claim, appellant claimed that her contract contained an implied warranty that the unit was fit and habitable for storage of property, and that such warranty was breached by the landlord. The 10th District Court of Appeals apparently agreed with appellant that the elements establishing an implied warranty had been met. However, according to the court, such warranty was disclaimed by the landlord’s exculpatory clause that included a broad, but unambiguous release of liability for damage to property; and a clear, express waiver of implied warranties. Citing precedent (similar cases on point), the court in Hopkins simply applied the “general rule,” namely, that “exculpatory causes in lease agreements are generally valid absent a showing of ambiguity or unconscionability” and “if the court can determine intent from the plain [albeit exculpatory] language of the contract, then the court must apply that language as written and refrain from further contract interpretation.”

It is important to note that the Hopkins court did not preclude future challenges to a  storage lease, as unconscionable. Since appellant did not challenge her lease as unconscionability, however, the court in Hopkins simply concluded that “the court cannot address an argument that was not raised.”

So, what is the moral of this story? All language in a  lease is of consequence; boilerplate or not. The best weapon against boilerplate language is the delete key. Negotiate away boilerplate language before signing the lease. Afterwards, odds are you will be no more successful shooting holes through boilerplate language in court, as you would be shooting holes through the 12- inch- thick steel kind of boilerplate.

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