On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Passaic County.
Judges King, R.s. Cohen and Stern. The opinion of the court was delivered by Stern, J.A.D.
Plaintiff appeals from a judgment dismissing his complaint seeking repossession of the premises where he resided with his family at the Alexander Hamilton Hotel and compensatory damages, or, alternatively, treble damages under N.J.S.A. 2A:39-8, and punitive damages, attorney's fees and costs.*fn1
In his verified complaint, plaintiff alleged that he had been a "tenant" of Room 317 at defendant Alexander Hamilton Hotel since December of 1987; that his wife and two minor children live with him and that he was locked out of his room on March 23, 1990 because he owed $471 in back rent. Plaintiff took the position that he could not be dispossessed without proceedings
under the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1, and that he suffered "expenses . . . emotional distress and . . . physical hardship" by virtue of the wrongful dispossess. He also claims that defendants' "forcible entry and detainer upon the plaintiff's premises" violated N.J.S.A. 2A:39-1 et seq., giving rise to monetary damages under N.J.S.A. 2A:39-8, including treble damages if repossession "is inappropriate."
An order to show cause issued, and at the following trial, the proofs substantially conformed to the factual allegations.*fn2
As a result of a "hit-and-run" automobile accident and resulting disabilities, plaintiff, his wife and his children were forced to leave their prior residence and, on December 5, 1987, moved into the Alexander Hamilton Hotel. Plaintiff's family lived in the hotel for approximately two and-a-half years before the "lockout." They paid rent of approximately $180 to $190 a week (which included stove, oven, and refrigerator), but plaintiff's wife had her own linens and did housekeeping for the unit.
Plaintiff testified that when permitted to return to work by his doctors he would do so, and that upon returning to work he would want to find another and more suitable home for his family. Plaintiff further testified that he had unsuccessfully
applied for Social Security benefits, but that a hearing was still pending, and by agreeing with his wife's stricken testimony, plaintiff stated that his children attended a local school based on their residence at the hotel, and that his wife registered to vote from her residence there.
On March 23, 1990 plaintiff's room was padlocked while the family members were not there. Plaintiff testified that he owed the defendant over $500 for back rent.
On cross-examination plaintiff testified that by the time he got his "disability" his former residence was "torn down" and that he had moved into the hotel because of the accident and disability. He answered affirmatively to the question, "and was it not your intention to at some point go back to living in an apartment when you were better and went back to work?" He stated that when they moved into the hotel "we planned on -- on staying there for awhile" and "if the doctor says I could go back to work. If not, we -- we wouldn't have no place else to go but the hotel." He acknowledged that he "planned on getting another apartment once [he was] able to go back to work."
The trial judge concluded that N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 "does not exempt the hotel from the provisions of the Anti-Eviction Act", but that Poroznoff v. Alberti, 161 N.J. Super. 414 (Cty. D. Ct. 1978), aff'd 168 N.J. Super. 140 (App. Div. 1979), controlled the case and that plaintiff and his family were "transient guests" of the hotel and, thus, not entitled to the protection of the Anti-Eviction Act.*fn3 He found plaintiff's "cross examination was indeed telling" and that when "Mr. and Mrs. Williams began to occupy this hotel . . . their intention was to remain temporarily; that they still have an intention to live in ...