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Please Remain Seated in Theater
by Ron Davis
A tenant who operated a movie theater at a Missouri shopping center must pay the centerís owners for confiscating the theaterís seats when his lease expired.
The shopping center, located in the Lake of the Ozarks, had leased space to the tenant since 1985, and the theater seats at issue were in place when the tenant assumed the lease from another theater operator. But those seats were not the ones the centerís owners installed when they built the theater. The theater operator who initially leased the space had removed the original wooden seats and replaced them with fabric-covered plastic seats. And in transferring the tenancy, he conveyed a "bill of sale and assignment" for the theater seats, "free and clear of all liens, encumbrances, claims, clouds, charges, equities, or imperfections of any kind or nature," to the tenant.
So when the tenantís lease expired, he obviously believed that he could take the theater seats with him when he moved out. So he ripped them up and left with them. In doing so, however, he not only broke sections of the concrete flooring, but also left some 2,600 pock marks caused by removal of the bolts that had attached the seats to the floor.
The shopping centerís owners consequently sued the tenant, claiming that he had no right of ownership to the seats because the lease between the two parties required the tenant to "return the property in the same condition" as when he leased it.
In response, the tenant argued that the seats were "trade fixtures and improvements" to the property and therefore belonged to him.
A Missouri appellate ruled in favor of the shopping centerís owners, explaining, "The lease required the tenant to surrender the premises in substantially the same condition as it was leased. When it was originally leased, it had chairs fastened to the floor so that it could function as a theater. The tenant was therefore required to return the theater with seats fastened to the floor. By uprooting the seats and failing to install other seats, the tenant violated the lease. Under these circumstances, we cannot find that the seats the tenant removed were trade fixtures."
The courts also ordered the tenant to pay for the damages caused by removal of the theater seats from the property. (JEP Enterprises, Inc. v. Wehrenberg, Inc., 42 S.W. 3d 773 [Mo.App. E.D. 2002])
Decision: February 2001
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