On appeal from the New Jersey Supreme Court, whose opinion is reported in 132 N.J.L. 37.
For the plaintiffs-appellants, Abraham N. Herman.
For the defendants-respondents, Louis Zemel (Louis J. Miller, on the brief).
For the Administrator of the Office of Price Administration, Chester Bowles, John D. Masterson (David Weinstein, of the New York bar, of counsel).
The opinion of the court was delivered by
BROGAN, CHIEF JUSTICE. This appeal is from a judgment of the Supreme Court which reversed two judgments recovered by the plaintiffs against their landlords in the Orange District Court of Essex County. The plaintiffs were tenants first of the defendant, Ingra, and later of the defendants, Sebastian and Antoinetta Farina. They sued the respective owners because of alleged violation by the latter of the Federal Emergency Price Control Act (section 205-e). The plaintiffs paid a $30 rent each month for an apartment when the amount for rent fixed by the Office of Price Administrator for the accommodation was $27. The federal statute, supra, permits the tenant, in these circumstances, to maintain an action for treble the amount of the overcharge or, in the alternative, the sum of $50 for each violation, "which ever is the greater." The District Court Judge found for the plaintiffs. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that there was no direct evidence that the person who received the rent from the plaintiffs, in this instance a rent collector, was the agent of the owner and further that the action, being for a penalty, the general rule of respondeat superior in civil cases has no application but that direct authority should be shown which was not the case here. (See Zuest v. Ingra, 132 N.J.L. 37).
An affirmance of this judgment might well be rested, without more, on the fact that there was a complete want of evidence to connect the rent collectors, Thomas Farina and Sam Farina, with the first owner of the property, John Ingra, or with Sebastain Farina, or Antoinetta, his wife, to whom Ingra sold the house. Nothing whatever was supplied in the proof in the case to show the relationship of Thomas Farina to any
of the defendants in either case. There is a like void so far as Sam Farina is concerned.
The question on appeal being identical in each case, the two appeals are consolidated. John Ingra et ux. book title to the property in which plaintiffs were tenants on January 25th, 1943. They conveyed to Sebastian Farina and his wife, Antoinetta, on April 15th, 1943. In the suit against the latter Thomas Farina is named as a defendant. As to Thomas the court found "a verdict to no cause for action." That removed him from the case and consequently from this appeal. But to return to the main question: there having been, as indicated above, not a shred of evidence that the defendants in these two cases, as landlords, had fixed rent in any amount or had received rent from anybody, or had engaged an agent to collect it, that might well end the matter. But what was said in the Supreme Court opinion, supra, namely, that the instant cases were actions for penalties, is at odds with other cases out of the Supreme Court, starting with Beasley v. Gottlieb, 131 N.J.L. 117, in which it was held that suits of this character are not penal in essence but rather a private suit for a private wrong and therefore cognizable by the District Courts in this state. Our statute concerning the jurisdiction of a District Court (R.S. 2:8-40) provides: "Every action of civil nature at law, or to recover any penalty imposed or authorized by any law of this state, where the debt, balance, penalty, damage or other matter in dispute does not exceed, exclusive of costs, the sum or value of five hundred dollars, shall be cognizable in the district courts of this state." (Italics supplied.)
Now the statute under which this suit is brought is not our statute but one that was passed by the Congress of the United States in 1942. (Cf. 50 U.S.C.A. App. § 925-e.) We find ourselves unable to agree with the reasoning of the opinion of the Beasley case, supra. Rather we read the language of this federal statute and regard the nature of its provisions as a delineation of an action for the recovery of a penalty and not as a compensating action, in the sense of making the injured party whole. To ascertain the purpose of a statute we must consider the nature and essence of its
provisions to give its aim object controlling effect. Compare Helwig v. United States, 188 U.S. 605, 610-13; 47 L. Ed. 614; People of State of New York v. Jersawit, 263 U.S. 493; 68 L. Ed. 405; ...