On appeal from Union County District Court.
For affirmance -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Heher, Oliphant, Wachenfeld, Burling, Jacobs and Weintraub. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Burling, J.
The eight plaintiffs instituted suit in the Union County District Court to recover a statutory penalty for rental overcharges, N.J.S. 2 A:42-38. A single complaint was filed and the various counts incorporated therein set forth the individual grievance of each plaintiff. Practically all issues of fact were disposed of by stipulation, and judgment was eventually entered against defendant. An appeal and cross-appeal were taken from the judgment to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, and we have certified the cause prior to a review below.
The legal issues raised at the trial related to the constitutionality of the Rent Control Act of 1953, as amended by L. 1954, c. 260 and whether the two-year limitation of action on penal statutes contained in N.J.S. 2 A:14-10 was applicable to the instant suit.
The district court rejected the constitutional contention on the basis of Jamouneau v. Harner, 16 N.J. 500 (1954) (which concerned the Rent Control Act of 1953 prior to amendment), and also held that because the recovery sought by the plaintiffs pursuant to N.J.S. 2 A:42-38 amounted to a forfeiture upon a penal statute within the meaning of N.J.S. 2 A:14-10(b) there could be no recovery based on overcharges taking place more than two years prior to the
commencement of the instant action on May 2, 1956. Additionally, the court, after hearing and disposing of the entire case, entered an order of severance which had the effect of requiring each plaintiff to pay a filing fee. These costs were taxed to defendant.
On this appeal the defendant presents a question of jurisdiction of the court below, see Donnelly v. Ritzendollar, 14 N.J. 96 (1953), and raises the issue of constitutionality as well as attacking the order of severance. Plaintiffs' cross-appeal concerns the applicability of the two-year limitation of N.J.S. 2 A:14-10(b).
That the county district court had jurisdiction to enter the judgment is clear beyond doubt. L. 1953, c. 216, sec. 25 (N.J.S. 2 A:42-38) provided a jurisdictional basis. Friedman v. Podell, 21 N.J. 100, 106 (1956). This statute was amended by L. 1956, c. 76, and now provides:
"Any landlord who shall violate any provision of this act, or of any order of a county rent control agency, or of a county rent control review board made pursuant to this act, shall forfeit to his tenant a sum equal to 3 times the amount of any rent received by him from his tenant in excess of the lawful base rental and of any rent increase allowed by the county rent control agency, county rent control review board, or by the court, but not in excess of 1 year's lawful rent, to be recovered in an action in the county district court. Every such action may be brought in a summary manner and shall be heard by the court without a jury. Any such action must be commenced within 1 year next after the accrual of the right thereto or be barred thereafter. Where the right to commence any such action has heretofore accrued and has not been barred, an action may be brought within the time remaining for the bringing of such action under the law heretofore applicable or within 1 year from the effective date of this amendatory act whichever is shorter. Judgment may be rendered for any amount which is found to be due to the tenant under the provisions of this section." (The provisions emphasized indicate the effect of L. 1956, c. 76.)
The action here was commenced in May 1956; the State Rent Control Act expired on June 30, 1956 (N.J.S. 2 A:42-51); L. 1956, c. 76, above noted, became effective June 7, 1956; the instant judgments were entered in July 1956. Defendant takes the position that plaintiffs' actions were instituted in reliance upon N.J.S. 2 A:42-38 prior
to amendment and that the respective claims must be decided in accordance with the law existing at that time. Because that law expired prior to the entry of the judgments it is said that the court was without jurisdiction. Further, it is argued that the amendment of N.J.S. 2 A:42-38 by L. 1956, c. 76, is not applicable to rights existing ...