unreported case -overcrowding not automatic grounds for eviction
unreported case -overcrowding not automatic grounds for eviction
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
DOCKET NO. A-4889-11T4
February 28, 2013
Argued January 30, 2013 - Decided
Before Judges Grall and Simonelli.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Camden County, Docket No. LT-3752-12.
Sonia Bell argued the cause for appellant (South Jersey Legal Services, Inc., attorneys; Ms. Bell, on the briefs).
Dale W. Keith argued the cause for respondent (Grimes & Grimes, LLC, attorneys; Mr. Keith, on the brief).
In this summary dispossess matter, defendant Tacy Albertson appeals from the May 24, 2012 judgment of possession entered in favor of plaintiff Peachtree Management Co., Inc. Because we conclude the court lacked jurisdiction to enter the judgment, we reverse.
In June 2001, defendant executed a lease with plaintiff's predecessor for a one-bedroom apartment. The apartment is subject to rent stabilization, with a fixed monthly rent and pet fees. The lease only permitted two occupants; defendant and her child resided in the apartment. Defendant's tenancy continued after plaintiff purchased the property in December 2007.
At some point, defendant permitted her husband to reside in the apartment. In May 2009, the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) cited plaintiff for various violations relating to the apartment, including overcrowding. A June 25, 2009 Report and Orders of the Commission indicated that nearly all of the violations, including overcrowding, were abated on June 17, 2010 (the 2009 DCA order). There is no evidence that plaintiff received any other local or State agency citation for violations relating to the apartment, including overcrowding violations.
Plaintiff believed that defendant's husband was still residing in the apartment. In an April 25, 2012 letter, plaintiff advised defendant as follows:
This is your three (3) day Notice to Quit and Landlord's Demand for Possession of the above premises based upon [N.J.S.A.] 2A:18-61.1(c), [willful] or grossly negligent damage to the premises. You have moved additional people into your one (1) bedroom apartment which [is] in violation of the NJ Administrative Code.
Based on the size of the bedroom in your apartment your one (1) bedroom unit is limited to only two (2) occupants. The New Jersey housing code limits the number of occupants who can reside in your apartment.
You are hereby notified that your lease IS HEREBY TERMINATED and that you have three (3) days from the receipt of this letter to vacate the property.
The landlord DEMANDS POSSESSION. You must vacate the property within three (3) days and deliver possession to the landlord or eviction proceedings will be instituted.
On May 3, 2012, plaintiff filed a complaint for possession based on two causes of action: non-payment of rent; and "[d]estruction of property." At trial, plaintiff proceeded solely under the latter cause of action, arguing there was overcrowding, which violated the New Jersey Administrative Code (Code), specifically N.J.A.C. 5:10-22.3. As evidence of overcrowding, plaintiff presented the 2009 DCA order and the landlord's testimony that he saw defendant's husband in the apartment on a regular basis. Plaintiff presented no evidence of actual damage to the property, but argued that overcrowding constituted damage. The court rejected that argument and determined there was no evidence of any damage to the property to warrant eviction under N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1c. Nonetheless, the court found there was overcrowding, which constituted a lease and Code violation, and granted a judgment of possession on those grounds. This appeal followed.
On appeal, defendant contends that the court erred in entering a judgment of possession based on grounds not listed in the complaint and because plaintiff failed to prove there was destruction of property. Defendant also contends the court lacked jurisdiction to consider the matter because plaintiff never served a notice to cease or a notice to quit based on a lease or Code violation.
Our review of a trial court's fact-finding in a non-jury case is limited. Seidman v. Clifton Sav. Bank, S.L.A., 205 N.J. 150, 169 (2011). "'The general rule is that findings by the trial court are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence. Deference is especially appropriate when the evidence is largely testimonial and involves questions of credibility.'" Ibid. (quoting Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998)). We "should not disturb the factual findings and legal conclusions of the trial judge unless [we are] convinced that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice." Ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted). "However, '[a] trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference[,]'" and is subject to de novo review. Mountain Hill, L.L.C. v. Twp. Comm. of Middletown, 403 N.J. Super. 146, 193 (App. Div. 2008) (quoting Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995)), certif. denied, 199 N.J. 129 (2009). Because this matter involves the court's interpretation of the New Jersey Anti-Eviction Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 to -61.12, our review is de novo.
The Act protects residential tenants from eviction absent a showing of good cause. Morristown Mem'l Hosp. v. Wokem Mortg. & Realty Co., 192 N.J. Super. 182, 186 (App. Div. 1983). The Act specifically enumerates permissible grounds for eviction and the associated notice requirements. N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 and -61.2. Absent proof of one of the enumerated grounds for eviction, the court lacks jurisdiction to enter a judgment of possession. Housing Auth. of Morristown v. Little, 135 N.J. 274, 281 (1994). In addition, the public policies underlying the Act require strict compliance with the notice and procedural requirements before a landlord may evict a tenant. 224 Jefferson St. Condo. Ass'n v. Paige, 346 N.J. Super. 379, 383 (App. Div.), cert. denied, 172 N.J. 179 (2002). "In any instance in which a notice to quit is required as a prerequisite to the entry of a judgment of possession, the notice must be facially accurate in every substantial respect." Bayside Condos., Inc. v. Mahoney, 254 N.J. Super. 323, 326 (App. Div. 1992). A notice must be specific and detailed in order to provide the defendant with adequate opportunity to prepare a defense. Ivy Hill Park Apts. v. GNB Parking Corp., 236 N.J. Super. 565, 570 (Law Div.), aff'd, 237 N.J. Super. 1 (App. Div. 1989). A mere legal conclusion is insufficient to satisfy the specificity requirement. Carteret Props. v. Variety Donuts, Inc., 49 N.J. 116, 124 (1967). Failure to provide a notice to quit that is factually and formally sufficient deprives the court of jurisdiction to enter a judgment of possession. Bayside Condos., supra, 254 N.J. Super. at 326.
Here, plaintiff sought to evict defendant pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1c, which permits eviction of a "person [who] has willfully or by reason of gross negligence caused or allowed destruction, damage or injury to the premises." This provision requires proof of actual physical damage to the property. Les Gertrude Assocs. v. Walko, 262 N.J. Super. 544, 549 (App. Div. 1993). There is no evidence of actual physical damage in this case. Accordingly, the court correctly denied a judgment of possession based on N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1c.
However, the court erred in granting a judgment of possession based on a lease or Code violation. A landlord can evict a tenant for breach of a lease provision. N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1e(1). However, the landlord must give the tenant "one month's [written] notice prior to the institution of the action for possession." N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.2b; see also N.J.S.A. 2A:16-61.1e(1). Plaintiff's April 25, 2012 notice to quit does not state a lease violation as a ground for eviction, and plaintiff never gave defendant a one-month written notice of a lease violation. Accordingly, the court lacked jurisdiction to grant a judgment of possession based on a lease violation. Bayside Condos., supra, 254 N.J. Super. at 326.
Because overcrowding or a Code violation are not among the enumerated grounds for eviction under N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1, the court lacked jurisdiction to grant a judgment of possession on those grounds. See Housing Auth. of Morristown, supra, 135 N.J. at 281. Even assuming that N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1g(2) or (3) permit an eviction for a Code violation based on overcrowding, the landlord must give the tenant "three months' [written] notice prior to the institution of the action for possession" based on a Code violation. N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.2c. Plaintiff gave defendant no such written notice.
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