On appeal from the Morris County District Court.
Michels, Kole and Ard. The opinion of the court was delivered by Kole, J.A.D.
The primary question on this appeal is whether defendants, former tenants in plaintiffs' apartment complex, may invoke the remedy of constructive eviction by reason of plaintiffs' claimed failure to take sufficient measures to protect defendants from excessively noisy and unruly neighboring tenants.
Plaintiffs sought rent (at the rate of $400 a month) for the months of September, October and November 1979, plus late charges and additional sums to repair and restore defendants' apartment. Defendants denied liability for rent for the months in question principally because plaintiffs' breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment amounted to a constructive eviction. Defendants also counterclaimed for double the amount of their security deposit, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1.
The matter was tried before Judge Gascoyne, sitting without a jury. The proofs showed that defendants originally became tenants in Oakwood Village, a 516-unit apartment complex, in December 1975, and had renewed their tenancy through January
31, 1980. Defendants experienced no problems during their tenancy until the fall of 1978, when new tenants moved into the apartment immediately beneath defendants. On several occasions in December 1978 and January 1979 defendants complained of "intolerable noise" coming from the downstairs apartment, such as slamming doors, yelling and screaming children, and excessive volume from the television and radio after 10 p.m. Plaintiff Alexander Gottdiener, one of the partners who owned Oakwood Village, expressed sympathy with defendants' plight and made some efforts to effect a resolution of the conflict between defendants and their neighbors. These efforts were not successful and, according to Mr. Mailhot, the neighbors began a campaign of harassment and retaliation. He claimed that in late January 1979 someone from the apartment below had maliciously damaged his vehicle, which he kept in a garage available only to defendants, plaintiffs and the downstairs neighbors.
Defendants brought this incident to the attention of Gottdiener and again requested plaintiffs to take some measures to resolve the problem. Gottdiener responded with a suggestion that defendants and their neighbors amicably settle the dispute, but a subsequent meeting proved fruitless. According to Mailhot, one of the downstairs tenants became very angry and threatened defendants.
Defendants began to look for another place to live in early May, and sometime in June entered into a contract to purchase a home. By letter dated June 29, 1979 they notified plaintiffs that they intended to terminate the tenancy as of August 31. The letter of termination stated that defendants had been "continually harassed and intimidated" by the downstairs tenants and that they believed that plaintiffs' failure to correct the situation constituted a "breach of contract." Gottdiener replied that he still hoped that the matter could be amicably solved, and he suggested that defendants move into another building. Defendants declined the offer and vacated their apartment in late August 1979. Plaintiffs procured another tenant effective December
and shortly thereafter notified defendants of the disposition of their security deposit. Plaintiffs then brought this action for rent for the months of September, October and November, and the other charges, minus defendants' security deposit, which plaintiffs retained.
Judge Gascoyne found that, while he initially believed that defendants were "hypersensitive" to noise, his analysis of the proofs convinced him that the conduct of the downstairs neighbors constituted a "substantial interference" with defendants' quiet enjoyment of the premises. He found that one of the downstairs neighbors had vandalized Mailhot's automobile. He reasoned that excessive noise, like flooding or roach infestation, can make rented premises unsuitable for the purpose for which the premises were leased. He also found that defendants had vacated their apartment within a reasonable time. Thus, he held that plaintiffs were not entitled to rent for the months of September, October and November. A judgment was entered dismissing the complaint with prejudice and awarding $548.70 to defendants on their counterclaim. Plaintiffs appeal.
Plaintiffs contend that a landlord has no duty to evict one tenant in order to eliminate a "questionable" disturbance by that tenant of another tenant, and that defendants were not constructively evicted, since the landlord diligently tried to ...