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Sabato v. Sabato

June 13, 1975

ROBERT SABATO AND MARYANN SABATO, HIS WIFE, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DOLORES SABATO, DEFENDANT



Scalera, J.s.c.

Scalera

[135 NJSuper Page 162] This action involves a constitutional attack on chapter 49 of the Laws of 1974, popularly known as the Fair Eviction Notice Act (hereinafter, "the act"), N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 (cf. Fair Eviction Notice Act, N.J.S.A.

2A:42-10.15), on the grounds that it impairs the obligation of contract in violation of the U.S. Const., Art. I, § 10 and N.J. Const. (1947), Art. IV, § VII, par. 3, and that it deprives them of their right to property without due process in contravention of U.S. Const., Amend. XIV, § 1, and N.J. Const. (1947), Art. I, par. 1.

On June 20, 1974 plaintiffs, residing elsewhere, became owners of a three-family house known as 52 Montgomery Street, Bloomfield, New Jersey. The act became effective on June 25, 1974.

Plaintiffs, as new owners, sought to occupy the first-floor apartment of the premises and accordingly served on defendant-occupant a notice to quit. At the time of oral argument plaintiffs tendered the representation that the property had been acquired specifically for the purpose of occupying the first-floor apartment so that it could be renovated for accessibility by their son, who was confined to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis. When defendant refused to vacate the premises plaintiffs, on August 6, 1974, promptly instituted a summary dispossess action in the Essex County District Court. Because of plaintiffs' stated intention to raise issues of constitutional magnitude the matter was removed to this court (N.J.S.A. 2A:18-60) bottomed on plaintiffs' realization that they were faced with the act as a bar to their action for dispossession. The State has intervened as amicus curiae. R. 4:28-4(d). The parties agreed that the issue to be decided was one of law for the court to decide on the basis of certain undisputed facts.

Plaintiffs initially mounted a broad-based attack, contending that the entire thrust of the statute violates the federal and state constitutional guarantees against violation of due process and impairment of contract obligations. However, they now concede that, generally, the legislation constitutes a valid exercise of the police power in an area desperately in need of control.

Plaintiffs have thus retreated to a rather narrow issue -- that the Legislature, in preventing owners of such property

from occupying any such dwelling units specifically for their own use, has exceeded constitutional limitations.

Prior to the passage of the Fair Eviction Notice Act (N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1) summary dispossess actions were controlled by N.J.S.A. 2A:18-53. Under the latter statute, rendered anachronistic by the passage of time, a landlord could evict a tenant for any reason or for no reason at all. In recognition of this fact the Legislature, when passing the legislation under consideration, appended a Statement to Assembly Bill 1586 (hereinafter A. 1586), L. 1974, c. 49, § 2, which was not included in the New Jersey Statutes Annotated :

At present, there are no limitations imposed by statute upon the reasons a landlord may utilize to evict a tenant. As a result, residential tenants frequently have been unfairly and arbitrarily ousted from housing quarters in which they have been comfortable and where they have not caused any problems. This is a serious matter, particularly now that there is a critical shortage of rental housing space in New Jersey. This act shall limit the eviction of tenants by landlords to reasonable grounds and provide that suitable notice shall be given to tenants when an action for eviction is instituted by the landlord.

Thus the statute ostensibly was to serve the purpose of protecting tenants by limiting the causes for which they may be evicted and be forced to find new quarters in a market critically short of rental housing. The general condition underlying its enactment was again recently recognized by the New Jersey Supreme Court in the case of Southern Burlington Cty. N.A.A.C.P. v. Mt. Laurel Tp., 67 N.J. 151, 158-159 (1975):

There is not the slightest doubt that New Jersey has been, and continues to be, faced with a desperate need for housing, especially of decent living accommodations economically suitable for low and moderate income families. The situation was characterized as a 'crisis' and fully explored and documented by Governor Cahill in two special messages to the Legislature -- A Blueprint for Housing in New Jersey (1970) and New Horizons in Housing (1972).

In an attempt to help correct this situation N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 was enacted, which provides in pertinent part:

No lessee or tenant * * * may be removed by the county district court or the Superior Court from any house, building, mobile home or land in a mobile home park or tenement leased for residential purposes, other than owner occupied premises with not more than two rental units * * *, except upon establishment of one of the following grounds as good cause : [Emphasis supplied]

There follows therein a compilation of ten bases for eviction which the Legislature defines and limits as "good cause": (a) failure to pay rent; (b) disorderly conduct; (c) destruction; (d) breach of the landlord's reasonable rules and regulations; (e) breach of covenant; (f) failure to pay rent after notice to quit and notice of increase in rent; (g) landlord seeks to demolish the building; (h) landlord seeks to remove the housing permanently from the rental market; (i) tenant refuses to accept reasonable changes in the lease, and (j) habitual failure to pay rent.

This legislation was enacted after public hearings on a series of bills, somewhat limited in the particular area here involved. N.J. Legislature Assembly, Commerce, Industry & Professional Committee, Public Hearings (1974). That the full impact of the entire statute is yet to be discerned is apparent. Various other provisions also appear destined to be tested by adversary proceedings in a court of law. 6 Rutg. Camden L. Rev. 565 (1975).

Obedient to the mandate that only ripe constitutional issues actually before the court are to be considered, we proceed to deal with the one narrow issue raised here. Garcia v. Morales, 47 N.J. 269 (1966), app. dism. 385 U.S. 449, 87 S. Ct. 613, 17 L. Ed. 2d 511 (1967).

Well settled principles must guide this court in any review of legislation. There is a presumption in favor of the validity of an act. Inganamort v. Fort Lee, 120 N.J. Super. 286, 301 (Law Div. 1972), aff'd 62 N.J. 521 (1973). Even though a statute may be open to a construction which would

render it unconstitutional or permit its unconstitutional application, it is the duty of this court to so construe the statute as to render it constitutional if it is reasonably susceptible to such an interpretation. State v. Profaci, 56 N.J. 346, 350 (1970). A statute will be upheld if any reasonable state of facts may be conceived to justify it. Marlin v. McCorkle, 117 N.J. Super. 465, 470 (App. Div. 1971).

It is further the settled rule of judicial policy in this State that a legislative act will not be declared void unless its repugnancy to the Constitution is clear beyond a reasonable doubt. Gangemi v. Berry, 25 N.J. 1, 10 (1957); Inganamort, supra, 120 N.J. Super. at 301. Nor will courts anticipate situations wherein the application of a statute might be unconstitutional. State v. Hobbs, 90 N.J. Super. 146, 148 (App. Div. 1966). Constitutional questions will not be resolved unless absolutely imperative in the disposition of the litigation. Ahto v. Weaver, 39 N.J. 418, 428 (1963). The party attacking the constitutionality of a statute has the burden of proof. Yellow Cab Co. v. State, 126 N.J. Super. 81, 94 (App. Div. 1973), cert. den. 64 N.J. 498 (1974). A statute may be unwise, impolitic or unjust, but the courts have no power to overturn it absent a clear constitutional violation. Municipal Sanitary Landfill Auth. v. Hackensack, 120 N.J. Super. 118, 126 (App. Div. 1972). Asbury Park Press v. Woolley, 33 N.J. 1, 12 (1960). Our duty in this highly charged public policy area is to say what the law is and not what it ought to be. What it ought to be is a matter for the legislative branch of the government, and we must assume that branch will be conscientiously responsive to the requirement of public health and welfare, and the social and economic exigencies of the times. Bush v. Bush, 95 N.J. Super. 368, 378 (Law Div. 1967). The responsibility for policy decisions rests with the other branches of government, and this because of the doctrine of separation of powers. Brown v. Heymann, 62 N.J. 1, 11 (1972); A & B Auto Stores v. Newark, 59 N.J. 5, 19 (1971); Thomas v. Kingsley, 43 N.J. 524, 530 (1965). Moreover, it is not our function

to legislate; it is our duty to interpret. And in so doing we must give effect to the language employed by the legislative body in order to properly effect the legislative design, Dixon v. Gassert, 26 N.J. 1, 9 (1958); Maule v. Conduit & Foundation Corp., 124 N.J. Super. 488, 494 (Law Div. 1973), mindful also that a court should not assume the function of the Legislature and rewrite the law to include therein something which those charged with the legislative responsibility might have inserted if the matter had been called to their attention. Brick Tp. v. Spivak, 95 N.J. Super. 401, 406 (App. Div. 1967), aff'd 49 N.J. 400 (1967). However, it is equally clear that the court has the obligation to declare invalid legislative acts which exceed constitutional limitations or abridge basic rights under the guise of exercise of "police power".

It is the proper function, indeed the obligation, of the judiciary to give effect to the obvious purpose of the Legislature, and to that end words may be expanded or limited according to the manifest reason and obvious purpose of the law. New Capitol Bar & Grill Corp. v. Div. of Employment Secur., 25 N.J. 155, 160 (1957); DeFazio v. Haven S. & L. Ass'n, 22 N.J. 511, 518 (1956); Wollen v. Fort Lee, 27 N.J. 408, 418 (1958). However, it is to be noted that this case does not strictly involve ...


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