On appeal from Superior Court, Appellate Division whose opinion is reported in 20 N.J. Super. 503.
For reversal -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Heher, Oliphant, Burling, Jacobs and Brennan. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Burling, J.
This appeal involves claims for damages for rent overcharges under the Federal Housing and Rent Act, June 30, 1947, c. 163, Title II, sec. 205, 61 Stat. 199, as amended March 30, 1949, c. 42, Title II, sec. 204, 63 Stat. 27 (see 50 U.S.C.A. App., sec. 1895). The act was further amended: July 31, 1951, c. 275, Title II, sec. 204, 65 Stat. 147 (see 50 U.S.C.A. App., sec. 1895, supra), but the period of rent overcharges covered by the claims involved in this appeal terminated prior to the effective date of the latter amendment.
The first of the consolidated civil actions here involved was initiated by the filing of a complaint on January 1, 1950 in the Essex County Court. The plaintiffs, Paul Martin, Michael Giuliano, Frank Petrucci and Jean Fratello, in separate counts sought treble damages under the pertinent federal statutory provisions, supra, (hereinafter adverted to as sec. 205 as amended 1949) for alleged rent overcharges and bonus payments received by the defendant Julia Mazziotti. (Essex County Court, Docket No. 91002). This action proceeded to trial. The plaintiffs recovered substantial judgments against the defendant. On the defendant's appeal to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, the judgments were reversed. Martin v. Mazziotti, 14 N.J. Super. 340 (1951). The Appellate Division determined that the question of willful violation was properly left to the jury for determination, but reversed the judgment principally upon evidential rulings.
Prior to the decision of the above appeal in the Superior Court, Appellate Division, the four plaintiffs instituted a second action against the defendant in the Essex County Court. The claims were for treble damages under sec. 205 as amended 1949, supra, for alleged rent overcharges for periods in 1950 beginning February 1 of that year. (Essex County Court, Docket No. 92313.)
After the reversal of the judgments in the first action (No. 91002, supra) and remand thereof to the Essex County Court,
the plaintiffs moved for judgment in both case No. 91002 and case No. 92313. The notice of motion recited that the application was for an order in the above two cases, which had been consolidated for trial, for judgment for "single damages * * * in accordance with the opinion of the Appellate Division" and also for an order striking the defense of general release (as to plaintiff Giuliano), on the ground that those "issues" had been finally determined by, or were res adjudicata as a consequence of, the judgment of the Appellate Division. Prior to the determination of the aforesaid motion, the Essex County Court entered on December 7, 1951, an order amending both complaints "to include in addition to the demand for treble damages a demand for liquidated damages in the amount of the overcharges if the defendant proves that the violations were neither wilful nor the result of failure to take practicable precautions against the occurrence of the violation."
On December 19 and 20, 1951, the Essex County Court, by letter, advised counsel that plaintiffs' motions should be granted, the court stating that "as a consequence, the issue of single damages for overpayments will be out of both suits when they come to trial and I will sign an order accordingly." Following this determination the trial court entered an order on December 21, 1951, which included: (a) denial of a motion by the defendant in case No. 92313 (laid by defendant on the ground that plaintiffs' suit in case No. 91002 barred the other action), (b) grant of plaintiffs' motion to strike the defense of general release as to plaintiff Giuliano in both suits, and (c) ordering judgment to be entered for the plaintiffs for "single damages."
Subsequently the defendant moved the trial court for "summary judgment * * * against the plaintiffs on the ground that there has been an election of remedies made by the plaintiffs and they are estopped from further proceeding with their cases by reason of the fact that they have elected and made a choice for entry of judgment for single damages. * * *" This motion was made returnable on January 11,
1952. On that day the defendant paid into court an amount sufficient to satisfy the plaintiffs' judgment.
On January 8 and 9, 1952 the defendant filed answers to the plaintiffs' amended complaint, asserting in defense thereto that the order of December 21, 1951 constituted an estoppel against the plaintiffs "from further proceeding with their cases," or ...