On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Essex County.
Petrella, R.s. Cohen and Kestin.
Defendant Roberto Dixon, a unit owner of a co-operative and a shareholder in plaintiff Harrison Park Owners, Inc. (Harrison Park), appeals from the entry of a default judgment against him and the denial of his R. 4:50-1 motion to vacate that judgment.*fn1 He argues on appeal that the Law Division Judge erred in failing to vacate the default judgment.
The facts are not complicated. In 1982 Dixon purchased 290 shares of stock which were allocated to and gave him possession of Unit No. 7N at Harrison Park Apartments in East Orange, which he used as his residence. In connection with his stock purchase, Dixon signed a "Proprietary Lease"*fn2 with Harrison Park under which he "leased" the "apartment" (Unit No. 7N) for a term ending "July 1, 2020 (unless sooner terminated as hereinafter provided)," and subject to the terms contained therein, including payment of rent or "maintenance" each month.
In May 1988, various rooms in Dixon's unit were extensively damaged by water, as was some of his personal property. Apparently, this was not due to any fault of Dixon. A dispute arose between Dixon and Harrison Park and its maintenance service contractor over the repairs. Dixon began to withhold payment of his monthly maintenance charges until repairs were made. He also demanded payment for his damaged personal property.
Notwithstanding the continuing dispute between the parties, and presumably as a result of Dixon's withholding of monthly maintenance payments, Harrison Park filed a complaint in the Law Division against Dixon on January 18, 1990 for "unpaid rent due and owing by [Dixon] as of the date of this Complaint [of] $6,251.71." The complaint also sought attorney's fees in connection with collection efforts under paragraph 28 of the Proprietary Lease. Paragraph 8 of the complaint said:
Pursuant to paragraph 31 of the Lease, the Corporation has the right to re-enter Unit No. 7N, upon the termination of the Lease and has the further right to remove all persons and property therefrom and to repossess Unit No. 7N.
Thus, the complaint not only demanded a money judgment, but also possession of Unit No. 7N under the lease, attorney's fees, costs of suit and such other relief as the court might deem appropriate.
The summons and complaint were served on Dixon on January 29, 1990. When he received them, he went to the office of an attorney who called the attorneys for Harrison Park. He also went to the management company offices, C & R Management Co. (C & R), to discuss maintenance fee arrears and to straighten out the situation. Apparently, C & R conceded that there was a mistake in the amount Harrison Park claimed Dixon owed. Harrison Park admitted in a February 10, 1990 letter to Dixon that his outstanding balance had been overstated by $1,025 and the balance should be reduced to $5,226.71. That letter also advised Dixon that unless he paid within five days, legal action would proceed. Moreover, it acknowledged the Discussions concerning water damage to Dixon's unit and indicated that management was requested to "review the situation and take care of any unfinished work relating to the water damage in [Dixon's] apartment." The letter ended with an expression of hope that the matter would be resolved shortly.
On February 13, 1990, Dixon received a note from C & R that repairs were going to be done on his apartment. On that date Dixon issued two checks to Harrison Park totaling $2,719.58 in partial ...