On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 359 N.J. Super. 151 (2003).
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
The Court must determine how the amount of relocation assistance should be calculated in an illegaloccupancy eviction under the Anti-Eviction Act, specifically, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1h (section h), and whether that amount is subject to setoff for unpaid rent and other claims the landlord may have against the tenant.
Shiraj Ahmed (tenant) and his wife rented an attic apartment in Paterson for $450 per month from Kona Miah (landlord). The Ahmeds lived in the apartment for about seven or eight years when the City of Paterson determined that the dwelling violated a local zoning ordinance. After learning that the apartment was illegal, the landlord notified the tenant in November 2001, informing the tenant that the premises had to be vacated by March 2002 and that he was entitled to relocation assistance.
At some point, the tenant stopped paying rent but continued to live in the apartment. In response, the landlord filed a complaint in Special Civil Part against the tenant for unjust enrichment based on the tenant's failure to pay rent. When the tenant had not vacated the apartment by March 2002, the landlord filed a separate eviction complaint seeking the tenant's removal. The trial court apparently stayed the disposition of the Special Civil Part matter pending resolution of the eviction action. An eviction trial was held on April 4 and 5, 2002. Neither the tenant nor his wife appeared on April 4th. On April 5, 2002, Mrs. Ahmed, the tenant's wife, appeared without counsel and testified that she was suffering from lung cancer, causing her not to be able to appear in court on April 4th. She stated that after learning the apartment was illegal, she located three available apartments but lost the chance to rent any of them because the landlord failed to provide her with relocation assistance.
Interpreting section h to require a lump-sum payment equal to six times the monthly rent, the trial court ordered the landlord to deposit $2700 with the court as a condition precedent to the entry of a Warrant of Removal. The landlord complied with that order and a Warrant of Removal was issued with a lockout date of May 2, 2002. On May 2nd, the tenant filed an order to show cause seeking a stay of eviction because he had not received the relocation-assistance funds. At the show cause hearing, the tenant informed the court that his wife had died the week before and that he was unaware that the funds had been on deposit with the court since April. The trial court ordered the immediate dispersal of the funds and gave the tenant an additional ten days to vacate the apartment. The court denied the landlord's request for a stay pending a hearing to determine the tenant's actual relocation expenses and pending resolution of the unjust enrichment claim. The trial court interpreted section h to require a fixed payment equal to six times the monthly rent; therefore, it determined that an actual-expense hearing was unnecessary. The court also held that holding the relocation funds for a separate hearing on unpaid rent would violate the purpose of the statute.
On May 3, 2002, a $2700 check was issued to the tenant. That same day, the landlord filed a motion for emergent relief to the Appellate Division, which was granted. The Appellate Division entered an order staying the turnover of the relocation funds pending determination of the landlord's appeal. By the time the order was entered, however, the tenant had cashed the check. On May 10, 2002, the Warrant of Removal was executed but the tenant had already vacated the apartment.
On May 28, 2002, the tenant filed a motion with the Appellate Division, requesting the court vacate its May 3rd order staying the dispersal of the relocation-assistance funds. The Appellate Division denied that request on June 19,2002 and referred the matter back to the trial court to effectuate restoration of the funds pending appeal. The trial court entered an order for restoration of those funds but then stayed that order so that the tenant could appeal.
The Appellate Division reversed the decision of the trial court, finding that section h limited the landlord's obligation to relocation expenses actually incurred by the tenant up to, but not exceeding, six months of rent. The court also found error in the trial court's refusal to allow the landlord to offset the relocation-assistance payment by the amount of past due rent owed by the tenant. The matter was remanded to a different trial judge to determine the actual costs of the tenant's relocation.
Because of the substantial public importance of the questions presented, the Supreme Court granted certification.
HELD: N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1h requires a landlord to provide tenants who are evicted as a result of a zoning ordinance violation for an illegal occupancy with a fixed amount of relocation-assistance benefits based on six times the monthly rent. That sum must be paid five days prior to eviction. In addition, a landlord cannot reduce the relocation-assistance obligation by the amount of past-due rent or other damages owed by the tenant.
1. Canons of statutory construction require that the statutory language be given its plain and ordinary meaning. Under section h, a residential tenant displaced because of an illegal occupancy is entitled to "reimbursement for relocation expenses... in an amount equal to six times the monthly rental..." The phrase "in the amount equal to siX times the monthly rental..." demonstrates that the Legislature sought to establish a defined sum that would not be subject to the trial court's discretion and would not depend on the tenant's out-of-pocket costs. The term "equal to" is an explicit and unambiguous expression of the legislative intent to fix a precise amount. The plain language of section h guarantees the displaced tenant will receive a predetermined amount of benefits (a lump-sum payment calculated at six times the monthly rent) five days prior to eviction. (Pp. 8-13)
2. The legislative history of section h, the Department of Community Affairs' interpretation of the statute, the remedial goals of the section's statutory scheme, and considerations of public policy are consistent with the Court's reading of the statutory text. A reading of section h that would entitle displaced tenants to a lump-sum payment equal to six times the monthly rent, as opposed to payment for actual expenses incurred, is faithful to the mandate of the Anti-Eviction Act. A prepayment of a fixed amount enables a low-income tenant to relocate and obtain housing prior to the lockout date. Thus, the Appellate Division erred when it held that the landlord is only liable for an amount "up to," rather than "equal to," six months of rent. (Pp. 13-19)
3. General principles governing setoff indicate that it should not be permitted here. Section h is silent on the issue; therefore, whether setoff is permitted depends on the circumstances and equities presented. Allowing a setoff would delay issuance of the relocation-assistance funds, reduce the amount available to the displaced tenant, and extend the length of the eviction proceeding. That, in turn, would delay the tenant's relocation and prolong the landlord's noncompliance with new zoning laws in direct conflict with legislative policies underlying section h. Thus, public policy dictates that the landlord should not be allowed to deduct past-due rent and other charges owed by the tenant from the relocation-assistance payment. The landlord has the ability to advance any additional claim against the tenant in an independent plenary action. (Pp. 19-21)
Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the trial court's order directing payment of $2700 to the tenant is REINSTATED. The Court also VACATES the stay of the landlord's Special Civil Part action against the tenant and that matter is REMANDED for further proceedings.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LONG, VERNIERO, LaVECCHIA, ALBIN and WALLACE join in JUSTICE ZAZZALI'S opinion.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Zazzali
In this case a landlord evicted his tenant from an attic apartment after the municipality in which the apartment was located determined that the unit violated a local zoning ordinance. Because the eviction resulted from zoning-ordinance enforcement for an illegal apartment, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1h required the landlord to provide the displaced tenant with relocation-assistance benefits five days prior to removal. We granted certification to determine how the amount of relocation assistance should be calculated and whether that amount is subject to setoff for unpaid rent and other claims that the landlord might have against the tenant. 177 N.J. 493 (2003).
In view of the unambiguous statutory language, we conclude that N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1h entitles displaced tenants to relocation assistance in an amount equal to six times the tenant's monthly rent. We also hold that the public-policy objectives reflected in N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1h preclude reductions or setoffs for unpaid rent or other damages claims.
At the outset, we note that the incomplete factual record in this appeal obscures an already complex procedural history. Nonetheless, the following summary presents ...