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Meadows Foundation, Inc. v. Williamson

April 30, 2004


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Somerset County, Special Civil Part, Docket No. LT-873-03.

Before Judges A. A. Rodriguez *fn1, Payne and Landau.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Landau, J.A.D., (retired and temporarily assigned on recall).


Argued March 30, 2004

This is an appeal from a final Judgment of Possession entered by the Law Division, Special Civil Part, Somerset County, in favor of plaintiff, The Meadows Foundation, Inc. and against defendants, Thomas Williamson and Kathleen Williamson.

In 1995, The Meadows Foundation, Inc., (Foundation), a non-profit entity, entered into a"Sublease Agreement" effective for a one-year term beginning on January 1, 1996, with the two defendants, Kathleen Bennett (now Williamson) and Thomas Williamson, each of whom separately signed as a tenant, but were together referred to as"tenant" in the agreement. The agreement provided for possession and use of an apartment in the"Hageman Farmhouse," part of a group of historic structures leased by Franklin Township to the Foundation. It delineated the rooms reserved for their exclusive use and shared use, and set forth defendants' special responsibilities as"Resident Caretaker." Those responsibilities included housekeeping and maintenance of the entire Farmhouse and grounds, and"keeping the walks and driveway free of debris, garbage, snow or ice." It was also required that"the condition and appearance of the kitchen and first floor should be one of order and cleanliness, at all times, to represent the property well in the event that a prospective renter inspects the facility prior to rental for an event."

Defendants' rent was fixed at $550 per month. The lease stated that its provisions were to survive expiration of the one-year term, pending preparation of a new lease. No further leases were executed.

The Foundation provides stewardship for public use and visitation at the historic Hageman site, and undertakes its upkeep and preservation as well as efforts to secure rehabilitation funding. Rentals of the site for weddings and other private functions provide a source for operational funds, together with the modest rent paid by the caretaker/tenants. The 1-1/2 acre tract of land upon which the buildings are located is owned by the State of New Jersey and is leased to the Township.*fn2

It is of some interest that, in 1985, another sub-lease was entered into between Thomas Williamson and the Foundation. It provided much less residence space than the 1996 lease, and was made subject to the requirement that he share in"regular and normal maintenance of the house and grounds" with the Foundation. Yearly rental was fixed at $3,000.

The Williamsons were married after execution of the 1996 lease. Each had been a long standing member of the Foundation's Board and was active in its efforts at the historic Hageman Farm.

In time, the Board and its Property Committee were constrained to express dissatisfaction with the extent, method, and use by defendants of extensive non-leased space in the Farmhouse attic and basement, and in the carriage house, for personal storage of household goods. The goods appear to have been the contents of Ms. Williamson's former home, stored by her following an earlier divorce. Serious concerns were also expressed about cleanliness of the leased apartment, the grounds and outbuildings, and about conditions negatively affecting the attractiveness for public use and private rental of the property that arose by reason of the large number of pets kept by defendants on the grounds and in the house. Other housekeeping and maintenance inadequacies were brought to defendants' attention.

Although defendants were initially able to forestall removal by exercise of their two votes on the Board, concerns about their conflict of interest prompted by-law changes. They elected to resign from the Board in order to remain in the house as caretakers. However, after expiration of a designated period to cure, defendants were discharged as caretakers, and given a Notice to Quit and Demand for Possession on October 9, 2002. Possession was demanded effective January 31, 2003. When defendants declined to leave, the present action was initiated.

The bench trial of plaintiff's action primarily focused upon whether its demand for possession should be granted in light of the statutory exceptions to the broad protection generally afforded to residential lessees by the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 to -61.12. Those exceptions include: (1) N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1e(1), which provides that"the person has continued, after written notice to cease, to substantially violate or breach any of the covenants or agreements contained in the lease for the premises where a right of re-entry is reserved to the landlord in the lease for a violation of such covenant or agreement"; and (2) N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(m), which states that"the landlord or owner conditioned the tenancy upon and in consideration for the tenant's employment by the landlord or owner as superintendent, janitor or in some other capacity and such employment is being terminated."

Although the proofs implicated both exceptions, the tenor of the trial was largely directed to the defendants' status ...

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