On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Atlantic County.
King, Brody and Thomas. The opinion of the court was delivered by Thomas, J.A.D.
Plaintiff, an Atlantic City casino employee who rented a room in defendant Trinidad Motel for a little over two months, appeals from his lock-out eviction for nonpayment of rent. This eviction was held lawful in a trial court ruling that plaintiff was not protected from lock-out, by either the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 to -61.21, or the Forcible Entry and Detainer Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:39-1 to -9. In doing so, the trial Judge ruled that plaintiff did not come within the scope of special procedural safeguards afforded residential tenants under the Anti-Eviction Act because he was a transient guest of the motel, not a "tenant." While recognizing that a motel or hotel guest may acquire tenant status under some circumstances, the Judge concluded that plaintiff's arrangements with defendant motel were insufficient to convert a fundamentally transient status into a tenant status. We agree and affirm.
On July 16, 1991, plaintiff filed a verified complaint and application for order to show cause with temporary restraints, in the Special Civil Part, Law Division, Atlantic County. The complaint alleged that plaintiff had been locked out of his room in defendant motel for non-payment of rent. He alleged that this eviction, without court process, violated the Forcible Entry and Detainer Act.
On July 19, 1991, the return date of the order to show cause, Judge Weinstein conducted a summary proceeding pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:39-6. He heard testimony from plaintiff and from defendant's representative. This testimony revealed that plaintiff had registered with defendant on May 1, 1991 at a special weekly rate of $120 and was assigned a room on the second floor. When plaintiff registered, this weekly rate was based upon an anticipated stay for one year. However, plaintiff conceded he never committed himself to any duration of stay and never discussed how long he would stay. In fact, he felt free to move out at any time. Plaintiff was advised that he would have to move to a different room upon arrival of summer
clientele. Defendant provided towels and linens but plaintiff made his own bed and cleaned his room. In addition to linens, plaintiff received telephone service to his room routed through the motel switchboard. Any mail was received at the motel desk and held until picked up. Other services provided by defendant included cable television, utilities, air conditioning and maintenance. Defendant retained keys to plaintiff's room and always had access. The motel registration form signed by plaintiff contained written notice that the motel was intended for transient occupation only. Plaintiff was required to reregister each week, was not permitted to entertain visitors, and had no control over what room would be assigned to him. His room had no facilities for maintaining food or preparing meals.
On July 1, plaintiff was told he had to change rooms. He was switched to a first-floor room which he began sharing with another man at a weekly rental of $100. By the second week of July, plaintiff fell behind in his rent. On July 10, 1991, plaintiff was told to leave unless he paid the overdue rent within an hour. Plaintiff went out and when he returned, the door to his room was locked.
Judge Weinstein, in his comprehensive and well reasoned oral opinion, concluded that under these facts, plaintiff's status was not converted from a guest to a tenant. The Judge held:
I am satisfied from the credible evidence that Mr. Francis sought and obtained a special rate at the Trinidad in consideration of two factors: One, that he would not have maid service, which is afforded the other guests; and two, that his stay at the Trinidad would be for an indefinite period on a weekly rental or rate and that he would be amenable to being moved to a different room when the demands of the business required it. There were no facilities in the room for food service or for entertaining. There was no responsibility on the tenant to do anything by way of maintenance of his room other than to clean it as he chose to; full maintenance being the responsibility of the innkeeper. All telephone service came through the switchboard, mail service came through the desk, keys were maintained at the desk, and access to the room at all times was available to the manager and his employees. It is true that Mr. Francis had been in occupancy for two months sometime in one room, 216, and then beginning in early July in another room, when he was asked to assume occupancy with another guest.
I do not believe that under the facts in this case Mr. Francis's status was converted from a guest to a tenant. As I've said, there are circumstances under which such change in status is obvious and will be accepted by the Court and the protection of the anti-eviction statute provided. I don't find that to be so in this case, notwithstanding he was staying by the week for an indefinite period at a specially reduced rental. The innkeeper had certain rights under the innkeepers' statutes, when a guest failed to pay that rent. The utilization of those statutory rights by the Trinidad was, under these circumstances, appropriate. There is no violation of the anti-eviction statute, no unlawful detainer. The hotel is free to resume possession of the room.
Plaintiff contends that the Judge erred by ruling that he was not a "tenant" within the meaning of N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1. If he had been deemed a tenant, eviction required initiation of a summary dispossess proceeding rather than simply resorting to the lock-out, self-help method used by defendant. Plaintiff supports his contention of error by relying on a statutory construction argument. He contends that because of housing shortages and homelessness, the legislative intent of the Anti-Eviction Act and its manifest public policy require that the term "tenant" in that Act be liberally construed to include patrons like himself, for whom a motel room is their sole residence for an indefinite period. He notes that the Act, which applies to a "lessee or tenant," ...