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Burstein v. Liberty Bell Village Inc.
Decided: June 15, 1972.
DONALD BURSTEIN AND ELLEN BURSTEIN, PLAINTIFFS,
LIBERTY BELL VILLAGE, INC., DEFENDANT
The main issue to be determined in this case is whether the tenant-plaintiffs should receive double the amount of security retained by the landlord. The defendant maintains that the deductions which were for late payments of rent were justified under the lease's provisions. On the other hand, the tenants contend in the alternative that (a) the late charges were not justified; (b) the deductions were unconscionable, and (c) the deductions were incorrectly made. Further, the tenants argue contrary to the landlord's position that if the court finds that the deductions were improper, then the court has no discretion but must award punitive damages under Chapter 223 of the Laws of 1971 (N.J.S.A. 46:8-19 et seq.) even if the deductions were made in good faith.
On eight occasions after the plaintiffs failed to pay their rent before the due date, the landlord, Liberty Bell Village Inc., instituted dispossess proceedings T 23204, T 23470, T 23916, T 24252, T 24370, T 24629, T 24883, T 25193. These actions were "settled" when the tenants paid the rent to defendant. On each of these occasions, and on one occasion when suit was not started, the landlord filled in the following form letter and sent it to the tenants:
Because your rent was paid late and you did not include the late penalty charge in your rent payment, we now charge your security deposit the $late rent penalty. We will charge your security deposit this amount each time your rent is paid late and the extra late charge is not included in your rent payment for that month.
As a reminder to you, your lease calls for rent to be paid in ADVANCE on the FIRST day of each and every calendar month and you are considered in default of your lease if you are not paid up in full at that time.
THE MANAGEMENT [Emphasis added]
The total late rent penalties on these nine notices amounted to $207. After the tenancy was terminated the landlord tendered a check for $136 to the Bursteins. There was a notation on the check, that it was for "return of security deposit minus late rent costs and damages apt. G-13." The Bursteins had given a security deposit of $358, which was deposited in a bank in Little Ferry, New Jersey. The Bursteins refused to accept this check and filed suit for return of their full security deposit plus punitive damages authorized by statute. A $15 deduction made by the landlord for alleged reimbursement for actual ...
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