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Penbara v. Straczynski

January 30, 2002


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Middlesex County, DC-001570-00.

Before Judges Eichen, Lintner and Collester.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eichen, J.A.D.


Argued January 15, 2002

In this Special Civil Part appeal, transferred from the Small Claims Section, plaintiff Joseph Penbara (the landlord), appearing pro se, filed suit against defendant James Straczynski, (the tenant) seeking a declaration that he was entitled to retain the tenant's security deposit after the tenant vacated the leased premises, and damages allegedly caused to the premises in excess of the amount of the security deposit. The tenant filed a counterclaim seeking return of the security deposit. The judge granted a directed verdict in favor of the tenant at the close of the landlord's case and dismissed the complaint, entering judgment in favor of the tenant on his counterclaim in the sum of $1,200, plus interest and costs, for a total judgment of $1,414. We reverse.

The facts are derived from the landlord's "testimony." *fn1 Under a written lease dated February 19, 1997, the landlord leased a bungalow located in Old Bridge to defendant and his girlfriend *fn2 commencing "March 1997" and ending "March 1998" at a monthly rental of $800. The landlord received $1,200 as a security deposit. Six months after the lease expired, the tenant executed another lease for six months, commencing October 1, 1998 to March 31, 1999. When that lease expired, the tenant remained in the premises until August 31, 1999 as a month-to-month tenant. On that date, the tenant vacated the premises without giving the landlord one month's advance notice of his intention to vacate. Thereafter, the landlord was unable to rent the bungalow until October 1999 and allegedly lost one month's rent as a result of the tenant's failure to give him notice.

The lease required all notices to be in writing and sent by certified mail. The lease also required the tenant to pay the water and sewage expenses. According to the landlord, the tenant failed to pay the balance due on a "water bill" of $400 in accordance with the lease. The landlord proffered the lease to support his claim and a check marked "payment stopped" issued by the tenant to show that the tenant acknowledged his obligation to pay the utilities.

After the tenant moved out, the landlord entered the bungalow and found it to be in disrepair, requiring extensive cleaning, which he claimed he performed himself, keeping a log of the time spent. He also claimed that the carpet was "ruined" by pet stains, dirt and bleachn, *fn3 and that professional cleaning could not remedy the problem. He proffered a cleaning receipt from Macy's attesting to the condition as well as a receipt showing that he had purchased the carpeting for $900, which was installed shortly before the tenant took possession. Accordingly, the landlord sought credit against the security deposit in the sums of $350 for damage to the carpet, $400 for the "water bill," and $800 for September's rent.

The landlord admitted that he did not return the security deposit to the tenant or send notice to the tenant itemizing the deductions within thirty days of the tenant's vacating the bungalow in accordance with N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1. He also acknowledged he had not deposited the tenant's security deposit in a separate interest- bearing account at a financial institution, as required by N.J.S.A. 46:8-19. However, according to the landlord, on the date the tenant vacated the premises, the tenant told the landlord he could retain the $1,200 security deposit.

The judge dismissed the complaint at the close of the landlord's "testimony" concluding as a matter of law that because the landlord had not complied with the bank deposit and security deposit statutes, N.J.S.A. 46:8-19, -21.1, the tenant was entitled to return of the security deposit. As a result, the judge made no findings of fact or conclusions of law with respect to the landlord's claims that he was entitled to deduct one month's rent from the security deposit and $400 for the outstanding water bill, which, if accepted, would have exhausted the security deposit, thus eliminating his obligation under N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1. As for his claim for damages on account of the "ruined" carpet, the judge concluded that because the Macy's receipt was inadmissible hearsay and because the landlord failed to present proof that he "fixed" the carpet, he was not entitled to damages on that claim.

We have carefully reviewed the record and conclude the judge erred in granting a directed verdict to the tenant. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

The standard for a directed verdict at the close of the plaintiff's case is found in R. 4:37-2(b). "The court must accept as true all the evidence which supports the position of the party defending against the motion and must accord him [or her] the benefit of all legitimate inferences which can be deduced therefrom, and if reasonable minds could differ, the motion must be denied." Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 535 (1995). It is only when a disagreement between the parties "is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law" that such a motion should be granted. Id. at 533.

N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1 provides in relevant part:

Within 30 days after the termination of the tenant's lease or licensee's agreement, the owner or lessee 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 ...

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