On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Cape May County.
Approved for Publication November 12, 1996.
Before Judges Muir, Jr. and Kleiner.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kleiner
Plaintiffs Gino Lanzi, John Lanzi, and Keith Lanzi appeal from a judgment entered at the Conclusion of a contested non-jury trial. Plaintiffs were awarded $800, the balance of the security deposit paid to their landlord, defendant Warren E. North, and a penalty of $400 mandated by N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1. The trial Judge denied plaintiffs' application for interest, costs of suit, and attorney's fees.
We conclude that the trial court properly evaluated the testimony of all witnesses and, after assessing their credibility, correctly determined that plaintiffs had failed to pay, during the term of their one year tenancy, one month's rent, $800. We find, however, that the trial court improperly computed the damage award to plaintiffs. We are obliged to reverse the judgment as entered and to remand to the trial Judge for the entry of judgment consistent with this opinion.
Plaintiffs executed a written one-year lease for an apartment in a building owned by defendant. The lease required a monthly rent of $800 and the payment of $1,250 as a security deposit prior to the commencement of the lease term. On May 8, 1993, at the termination of their lease, plaintiffs vacated the apartment. On February 8, 1994, plaintiffs filed a complaint contending that defendant had failed to comply with the obligation imposed by N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1.
The applicable statute provides in pertinent part:
Withtin 30 days after the termination of tenants lease . . the owner . . . shall return by personal delivery, registered or certified mail the sum so deposited plus the tenant's portion of the interest or earnings accumulated thereon, less any charges expended in accordance with the terms of a contract, lease, or agreement, to the tenant . . . . The interest or earnings and any such deductions shall be itemized and the tenant . . . . notified thereof by personal delivery, registered or certified mail.
In any action by a tenant . . . for the return of moneys due under this section, the court upon finding for the tenant . . shall award recovery of double the amount of said moneys, together with full costs of any action and, in the court's discretion, reasonable attorney's fees.
After plaintiffs filed their complaint, defendant filed a counterclaim for unpaid rent contending that during the lease term, plaintiffs had failed to pay two months' rent.
At trial, plaintiff Gino Lanzi testified that all rental sums had been paid. Defendant and his wife, who at times assisted plaintiff in conducting his apartment rental business, testified to the contrary and produced rental receipt records which partially corroborated their assertion. The trial Judge reviewed those records and placed substantial weight on the credibility of the witnesses in reaching his ultimate Conclusion that defendants were owed $800 in unpaid rent for a period of one month.
In reviewing a trial court's Conclusions in a non-jury civil action, we are bound to grant substantial deference to the trial court. See Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 483-84, 323 A.2d 495 (1974). A trial court's Conclusions will not be disturbed unless we are "convinced that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of Justice." Id. at 484 (quoting Fagliarone v. Township of North Bergen, 78 N.J. Super. 154, 155, 188 A.2d 43 (App. Div.), certif. ...