On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Hudson County.
Michels and Landau. The opinion of the court was delivered by Landau, J.s.c. (temporarily assigned).
On leave granted, defendants Katherine Ferreira and Sharon Marshall appeal from an interlocutory order of the Law Division entered August 11, 1986 barring "all references to municipal court proceedings and/or municipal convictions or contempt proceedings" and "any evidence of proceedings before or findings of the North Bergen Rent Leveling Board" from use during the trial of a landlord/tenant dispute transferred to the Law Division and consolidated for trial.
Defendants are each tenants in possession of apartments in a two-family home in North Bergen owned by plaintiffs-respondents Kohrherr. In August and September, 1985 the North
Bergen Board of Health conducted three inspections of the basement of the leased premises, based upon defendants' complaints. At each inspection, evidence of rat infestation was found and plaintiffs were served with three notices of abatement.
Subsequent to these complaints, plaintiffs raised defendants' rent. Defendants then complained of the rent increases to the North Bergen Rent Leveling Board on September 20, 1985. By resolution dated October 21, 1985, the Rent Leveling Board found that plaintiffs had violated the North Bergen Rent Leveling ordinance and ordered a rent rollback. The Board further ordered plaintiffs to permit defendants use of one parking space. The decision of the Rent Leveling Board was affirmed by the Mayor and Commission. Plaintiffs' action in lieu of prerogative writ is pending.
On November 11, 1985, plaintiffs served upon defendants a notice to quit by January 15, 1986. On December 10, 1985, as a result of criminal complaints filed by defendants, plaintiff Thomas Kohrherr (Thomas) was tried in North Bergen Municipal Court on charges of violation of Section 15 of the North Bergen rent leveling ordinance and harassment (N.J.S.A. 2C:33-2a(1), (2)). The court reserved decision. However, by interim order dated December 17, 1985, Thomas was instructed to cease harassing defendants, particularly with regard to use of the parking space, to unscrew a rear door which he had screwed shut, and to replace rear steps which he had removed. The order expressly provided that violation thereof "shall constitute a contempt of court." During the December 10 municipal court proceedings, Thomas admitted screwing the door shut, removing the steps and chaining a fence on October 22, 1985 (the day after the resolution of the Rent Leveling Board) but denied that his purpose was to harass defendants.
On January 24, 1986, the Kohrherrs filed the present action in Superior Court, Special Civil Part-Tenancy Division, Hudson County, seeking to dispossess defendants for nonpayment of
rent and also complaining of unsightly and unsanitary occupancy. Soon after, on January 30, 1986, a judgment of conviction was entered on the previously reserved decision in North Bergen Municipal Court finding Thomas guilty of 1) willful violation of section 15 of the North Bergen Rent Leveling ordinance because of his failure to abide by the order of the Rent Leveling Board to allow defendants use of one parking space, and 2) harassment under N.J.S.A. 2C:33-2a(1) for impeding defendants' use of a parking space and under N.J.S.A. 2C:33-2a(2) for removing the back steps, screwing the back door shut and locking the gate of the leased premises.
On appeal to the Law Division, Thomas' municipal court conviction was upheld and the sentence modified. The conviction has not been further appealed.
On February 7, 1986, defendants counterclaimed in the present suit, seeking dismissal and damages on the ground of retaliatory eviction, as well as damages for intentional acts of harassment. They requested a jury trial. The consolidated tenancy matter and counterclaim were transferred from the Special Civil Part-Tenancy Division to the Law Division. Thereafter, at a contempt hearing on February 19, 1986, before a different municipal judge, Thomas admitted one of the charges of contempt (impeding defendants' use of a parking space) in violation of the municipal court's December 17, 1985 order, apologized, and after stern admonition, was purged of contempt. By order dated ...