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Fenning v. S.G. Holding Corp.

Decided: October 21, 1957.

HERMAN A. FENNING, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
S.G. HOLDING CORP., A CORPORATION, AND SAMUEL PARIS, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



Clapp, Jayne and Hughes. The opinion of the court was delivered by Hughes, J.A.D.

Hughes

A public emergency presented by the war-born shortage of housing, in the light of continuing economic pressures, was declared by our Legislature in 1950 (L. 1950, c. 234, p. 582, repealed L. 1953, c. 216, ยง 34, p. 1638) in justification of the need for stand-by state rent control, to be operative in the event of removal of federal controls. The anticipated expiration of all such federal controls on July 31, 1953 led to the enactment of L. 1953, c. 216, supra , continuing rent controls under certain conditions (N.J.S. 2 A:42-41), and they were further extended by L. 1954, c. 260. The continuing concept of state rent control has weathered determined assaults upon its constitutional propriety (Jamouneau v. Harner , 16 N.J. 500 (1954); Brookchester v. Ligham , 17 N.J. 460 (1955); Stuyvesant Town, Inc., v. Ligham , 17 N.J. 473 (1955); Addiss v. Logan Corp. , 23 N.J. 142 (1957)) to and including the most recent extender (L. 1956, c. 146; N.J.S. 2 A:42-56 et seq.), adjudged constitutionally valid in the case of In re Freygang , 46 N.J. Super. 14 (App. Div. 1957).

This active course of juridical dispute was but symptomatic of the psychological unrest of those whose property rights thus were subjected to the discipline of the common need and it was, undoubtedly, in this state of mind that was written the somewhat vituperative missive, the alleged publication of which was the basis for the litigation resulting in the Law Division judgment challenged by this appeal. Specifically, the corporate and individual defendants-appellants seek to overthrow verdicts returned against them by a jury, for nominal compensatory damages in the case of the corporation, and for $750 in punitive damages against the individual defendant, in an action in which plaintiff-respondent

contended that by such publication he most cruelly had been defamed.

The events leading to the bruising and allegedly tortious comment upon the good name and fame of plaintiff-respondent were these:

The defendant-appellant, S.G. Holding Corp. (a closely held family corporation of which defendant-appellant Samuel Paris was president, in charge of its management and a major stockholder), had acquired, in July 1954, a large apartment house located in East Orange in Essex County, in an apartment in which plaintiff-respondent, Herman A. Fenning, resided. The rents being subject to control, the owner in May 1955 filed a well-documented application with the Essex County Rent Control Agency (N.J.S. 2 A:42-23) for an increase in the rentals of all apartments including that of Fenning. The tenants, of whom there were 130, were unenthusiastic about this proposal and some of them engaged legal counsel to make known their demurrant views to the agency. The attorney for the landlord in those proceedings requested particularization of the grounds for such objections to the increase petitioned for, and Fenning furnished to his attorney a letter which he had prepared and had intended to file directly, in protest of the landlord's request for the rent increase. This document comprised a detailed and critical analysis of the factors upon which the application for increase was based, and on its face cut very deeply into the merits of the landlord's claims. Its factual statements (although almost polite when contrasted with the picturesque language in the letter in suit) were such that the publication of this document was made the subject of a counterclaim in the action for damages for libel. Before pretrial conference, however, this counterclaim had been dismissed on motion for summary judgment, apparently on the basis that no actionable publication in law was attributable to Fenning, who had merely furnished it to his attorneys, who then filed it, inter alia , in the proceeding thus pending before the agency. That such filing was compatible with that body's rules and practice is apparent by

reference to the formula under which the agency provided for notice and adversary procedure relative to such rent increases:

"RULES AND REGULATIONS OF ESSEX COUNTY RENT CONTROL AGENCY

Landlord's Application

Essex County Rent ...


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