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Maglies v. Estate of Guy

December 12, 2007

ROBERT MAGLIES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
ESTATE OF BERTHA GUY, DEFENDANT, AND SHERRI JENNINGS, INTERVENOR-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 386 N.J. Super. 449 (2006).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(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).

In this appeal, the Court addresses whether New Jersey's Anti-Eviction Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 to -61.12, allows the causeless eviction of a daughter, after the death of her mother, where the landlord consented to the daughter's residence and where the daughter's income factored into the family contribution and federal voucher subsidy paid to the landlord under the federal Section 8 program.

Prior to her death in 2005, Bertha Guy resided for approximately thirty years in a New Brunswick apartment owned by Robert Maglies. In 1991, she qualified for a voucher issued through the Section 8 program. Maglies entered into a Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) contract with the State Department of Community Affairs, pursuant to which the program paid a portion of the monthly rent directly to Maglies, and Guy paid the remainder.

In 2001, Guy's adult daughter, Sherri Jennings, moved into her mother's apartment. Jennings has a mental disability for which she receives Social Security benefits. Maglies consented to a new lease agreement that continued to list Guy as the tenant and recognized Jennings only under the designation "Members of Household." Concurrently, Maglies also entered into a new HAP contract that, as required under the Section 8 program, took into account Jennings's social security income as contributing to the household's income. The new HAP contract also listed Guy as the tenant and Jennings under the heading of "Household."

Guy died on March 30, 2005. Jennings sought and received independent qualification for a Section 8 voucher based solely on her available income. Maglies nevertheless refused to accept the Section 8 voucher and Jennings's contribution to April's rent because she was not the named tenant to whom he had rented the apartment. Maglies asserted other reasons for refusing to accept rent from Jennings, but was willing to have Jennings apply for a new tenancy. Jennings refused to apply as a new tenant.

Maglies initiated a summary dispossess action against the Estate of Bertha Guy. Jennings intervened in the action. The trial court held that Jennings could remain in possession of the apartment and ordered Maglies to accept rental payments from her. The court found that "Ms. Jennings was a bona fide remaining member of the tenant family at the time Ms. Guy died" and that "a remaining family member's occupancy rights are not terminated by the death of any member."

The Appellate Division reversed, noting that the Section 8 program allows landlords to choose their tenants and contains no authorization for occupants to succeed to the tenancy of another. The panel further determined that the protections of New Jersey's Anti-Eviction Act did not apply to Jennings because she was not an assignee, under-tenant, or legal representative of her mother. The panel concluded that Jennings could be evicted without cause, but also recognized that certain circumstances may support a policy argument in favor of extending the Anti-Eviction Act protections to a tenant's surviving occupant family members.

The Supreme Court granted Jennings's petition for certification. The Court also permitted Legal Services of New Jersey and the New Jersey Apartment Association to participate as amici curiae.

HELD: A functional co-tenant -- one who can show that she has been continuously in residence; that she has been a substantial contributor toward satisfaction of the tenancy's financial obligations; and that her contribution has been acknowledged and acquiesced to by her landlord -- is entitled to invoke the protections of the Anti-Eviction Act.

1. This case presents two issues of first impression: Whether either the federal law governing the Section 8 program or the Anti-Eviction Act should prevent Jennings's landlord from successfully evicting her through a summary dispossess action. The issue here is not quite one of a landlord considering the inception of a rental relationship with a potential Section 8 recipient, but whether a consented-to financially contributing family-member occupant of a Section 8 household has any right to the continued possession of the leased premises after the death of the named tenant. This Court does not read Section 8's broad definition of "families" to compel a state to reject application of the policies and principles of its landlord-tenant law. Once a Section 8 tenant and family enter into a lease with a landlord, state law generally determines any issue about a continued right to possession. (Pp. 8-14)

2. Under New Jersey's common law, upon a tenant's death, the tenancy passes to her estate. New Jersey's legislature, however, substantially altered landlord-tenant common law and prior statutory law in respect of residential tenants with the enactment of the Anti-Eviction Act. Our Court never before has addressed whether, when the named tenant of a Section 8 household dies, the Act's protections extend to a financially contributing household member, who has been in continuous residence in the tenancy with the landlord's acquiescence and consent. The instant case has forced the issue. (Pp. 14-17)

3. Although it is true that the Anti-Eviction Act does not explicitly include occupant family members in the broad group of lessees, tenants, assigns, under-tenants, and legal representatives that may not be evicted without good cause, we are not persuaded that the landlord's self-serving labeling of Jennings as an "occupant" is controlling in this analysis. The courts in this state long have recognized the need to look beyond labels in order to explore the true character of a transaction or relationship. The Court must turn to settled rules of statutory construction to determine whether the Legislature's use of the term "tenant" should be applied to encompass tenants-in-fact and thereby extend to such individuals the Act's protections. The Legislature intended the Act to protect blameless residential tenants, especially those vulnerable to homelessness, family disruption, and becoming a strain on the community's resources. For an entire family to be eligible for a Section 8 voucher, each household member must be low income or very low income. As such, each member of a Section 8 household is vulnerable to homelessness and family disruption if he or she cannot obtain affordable housing. It would not be consistent with the Act's purposes to treat differently a surviving Section 8 family member, who may be -- in substance if not in form -- the functional equivalent of a co-tenant. The Act's purpose is to keep residential tenants in intact homes and avoid the imposition of personal dislocation so long as the tenancy's financial and other responsibilities are met. If Jennings indeed presents a circumstance where she was the substantial equivalent of a contributing residential co-tenant in this publicly supported unit, then we hold that the Act will not countenance her eviction merely because her mother passed away. Some valid for-cause reason will be required. Our conclusion is premised on Jennings's ability to show that she was continuously in residence; that she was a contributor to the financial obligations of the tenancy; and that Maglies knew about her role and acquiesced. Nothing in this opinion should be viewed as a commentary on how Jennings's case should turn out. Our point is only that nothing in the Act, fairly read, denies her the right to try to show that she was the functional equivalent of a co-tenant. (Pp. 17-26)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

JUSTICE HOENS filed a separate, DISSENTING opinion, in which JUSTICE ALBIN joins, stating that the majority strays far from the obvious intent of the Legislature and has effectively both created life-long possessory rights akin to ownership interests and then extended those rights to a new class of persons who were never intended to be the beneficiaries of the Anti-Eviction Act.

JUSTICES LONG, WALLACE and RIVERA-SOTO join in JUSTICE LaVECCHIA's opinion. JUSTICE HOENS filed a separate, dissenting opinion, in which JUSTICE ALBIN joins.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice LaVECCHIA

Argued February 13, 2007

In this appeal, we address whether New Jersey's Anti-Eviction Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 to -61.12, allows the causeless eviction of a daughter, after the death of her mother, where the landlord consented to the daughter's residence and where the daughter's income factored into the family contribution and federal voucher subsidy paid to the landlord. See 42 U.S.C.A. § 1437f(o) (Section 8 program). The Section 8 program enables surviving family members of low-income households to be re-qualified for ongoing assistance quickly so that personal dislocations do not result from the oft-sudden and devastating loss occasioned by the death of a household family member. In this particular matter, Section 8 rental assistance will continue to support the daughter, who before had been denominated by the landlord and by the Section 8 program as a "member" of this voucher-supported tenancy. However, because the daughter was not the "tenant," the landlord has refused to accept either rent or the Section 8 voucher presently payable in the daughter's name.

Federal law governing the Section 8 program does not answer whether a surviving resident in a Section 8 household has any continued entitlement to possession of the premises. Rather, this is a matter controlled by state law and state policies. We conclude that New Jersey's anti-eviction law protects the surviving resident of this household from eviction without cause, notwithstanding her label as a family-member occupant, provided she can show that she was the functional equivalent of a co-tenant. The record at present suggests that she continuously lived in the apartment for years with the landlord's consent and that her income provided financial support toward the household's satisfaction of the rental obligation. If, in fact, she bore a substantial portion of responsibility for the rental obligation of this tenancy, in which the landlord acknowledged and accepted her residence, then she is a tenant-equivalent and is entitled to the protections of the Anti-Eviction Act.

I.

Prior to her death in 2005, Bertha Guy resided for approximately thirty years in a New Brunswick apartment owned by Robert Maglies. In 1991, she qualified for a voucher issued through the federal Section 8 program. Maglies entered into a Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) contract with the State Department of Community Affairs, pursuant to which the program paid a portion of the monthly rent directly to Maglies, and Guy paid the remainder. See 42 U.S.C.A. § 1437f(c)(3); 24 C.F.R. §§ 982.311, 982.514 (2007).

In 2001, Guy's adult daughter, Sherri Jennings, moved into her mother's apartment. Jennings has a mental disability for which she receives Social Security benefits. Maglies consented to a new lease agreement that continued to list Guy as the tenant and recognized Jennings only under the designation, "Members of Household." The agreement contained a provision prohibiting anyone other than Guy and Jennings from "resid[ing] in the unit without prior written approval by the owner and the [Housing Authority]." The lease also stated that its initial term was for one year, after which, "the lease term shall renew automatically as follows: The term of this lease will continue [on] indefinite extension until terminated in accordance with this lease and in compliance with New Jersey law."

Concurrently, Maglies*fn1 also entered into a new HAP contract that, as required under the Section 8 program, took into account Jennings's social security income as contributing to the household's income. See 42 U.S.C.A. § 1437a(b)(4) (defining "income"); 24 C.F.R. § 982.516(e) (2007) (same). The new HAP contract also listed Guy as the tenant and Jennings under the heading of "Household." The HAP contract stated that no other persons could reside in the apartment without written approval. The agreed-upon monthly rent totaled $674, of which the government paid $441 and the household paid $233.*fn2 After the initial one-year term of the lease expired on March 31, 2002, and a month-to-month tenancy commenced, Guy and Jennings continued to live in the apartment for three more years.

Guy died on March 30, 2005. Jennings sought and received independent qualification for a Section 8 voucher based solely on her available income. Maglies nevertheless refused to accept the Section 8 voucher and Jennings's contribution to April's rent (which was tendered late) because she was not the named tenant to whom he had rented the apartment. In addition, Maglies asserted other reasons for refusing to accept rent from Jennings. According to Maglies, Jennings, at times, could be a disturbance and he believed that she was not capable of handling the responsibilities expected of a head of household. Maglies also objected to the presence of Jennings's daughter in the apartment after Guy's death. Despite those reservations, Maglies provided Jennings with an application for a new tenancy, which requires the applicant to consent to a credit check. Jennings refused to apply as a new tenant.

When Maglies attempted to lock Guy's apartment, Jennings obtained a restraining order enjoining her removal until an order for possession issued. Accordingly, Maglies initiated a summary dispossess action against the Estate of Bertha Guy based on non-payment of rent. Jennings intervened in the action, claiming that she had a right to possession of the premises and that Maglies could not refuse to accept her rental payments.

Before the trial court, Jennings contended that a surviving family member in a recognized Section 8 household is entitled to continued occupancy after the named tenant's death. Jennings argued that her right to continue in the tenancy did not terminate at her mother's death, that she had a right to possession of the premises, and that she was entitled to the protections of the Anti-Eviction Act. Maglies maintained that the death of a Section 8 tenant does not create a lifetime interest in the property that is transferable to adult family members. Furthermore, he argued that the Anti-Eviction Act does not apply to Jennings because Guy was the only tenant and Jennings did not succeed to her mother's tenancy.

The trial court held that Jennings could remain in possession of the apartment and ordered Maglies to accept rental payments from her. The court stated:

I find that since the lease agreement entered into between the plaintiff and Bertha Guy expired on March [31, 2002,] the relationship between the parties at the time of Ms. Guy's death was a month-to-month tenancy. Ms. Jennings was listed as a member of the household on the HAP contract. Plaintiff was accepting Section 8 subsidies based on her occupancy of the unit. Ms. Jennings had been living in the unit with plaintiff's knowledge and acceptance for over four years.

I therefore find that Ms. Jennings was a bona fide remaining member of the tenant family at the time Ms. Guy died. . . . I find that as a remaining member of the . . . tenant's family Ms. Jennings shall enjoy all occupancy rights to which she was entitled prior to her mother's death, since a remaining family member's occupancy rights are not terminated by the death of any member.

The Appellate Division reversed. Maglies v. Estate of Guy, 386 N.J. Super. 449 (App. Div. 2006). The court's decision began by noting that federal law governing the Section 8 program allows landlords to choose their tenants and contains no authorization for occupants to succeed to the tenancy of another. Id. at 454-55, 457. The panel rejected the argument that, as a "remaining member of a tenant family" under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1437a(b)(3), Jennings would be entitled to succeed to her mother's tenancy, although the panel noted that she may receive her mother's subsidy voucher. Id. at 455-57 (relying on Carter v. Meadowgreen Assocs., 597 S.E.2d 82 (Va. 2004), cert. denied, 544 U.S. 963, 125 S.Ct. 1727, 161 L.Ed. 2d 606 (2005), as support for distinguishing between right to voucher and right to tenancy). According to the panel, after Guy's death, Maglies was entitled to screen Jennings for creditworthiness and fitness as a tenant in order to determine whether he was willing to enter into a new lease with her as the named tenant. Id. at 457 (citing Franklin Tower One, L.L.C. v. N.M., 157 N.J. 602 (1999); Pasquince v. Brighton Arms Apts., 378 N.J. Super. 588 (App. Div. 2005)).

The panel further determined that the protections of New Jersey's Anti-Eviction Act did not apply to Jennings because she was not an assignee, under-tenant, or legal representative of her mother. Id. at 460. Thus, the panel concluded that Jennings could be evicted without cause, but recognized nonetheless that "policy arguments [may] support[] the view that the protections of the Anti-Eviction Act should be extended to occupant family members of a deceased tenant in some circumstances." Id. at 461.

We granted Jennings's petition for certification seeking reversal of the Appellate Division's judgment and reinstatement of the trial court's order. 188 N.J. 492 (2006). We also permitted Legal Services of New Jersey and the New Jersey Apartment Association to participate as amici curiae.

II.

This case presents two issues of first impression for this Court. The parties are at loggerheads over whether either the federal law governing the Section 8 program or the Anti-Eviction Act should prevent Jennings's landlord from successfully evicting her through a summary dispossess action. Because the issues raised herein require the interpretation of law, the lower courts' "interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference." Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995). We consider first whether Section 8 provides the answer to this dispute.

A. Section 8 Voucher Program

Congress created the Section 8 housing assistance program "[f]or the purpose of aiding low-income families in obtaining a decent place to live." 42 U.S.C.A. § 1437f(a); see also 24 C.F.R. § 982.1 (2007); Franklin Tower One, L.L.C. v. N.M., 157 N.J. 602, 608 (1999). Through the United States Department of Housing and the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, Division of Housing and Community Resources, eligible families may "select suitable housing," 42 U.S.C.A. § 1437f(f)(7), and receive rental assistance for that housing based on the "income of the family." 42 U.S.C.A. § 1437f(o)(2)(A); see also 24 C.F.R. §§ 982.1, 982.201 (2007); Pasquince v. Brighton Arms Apts., 378 N.J. Super. 588, 591 n.1 (App. Div. 2005). Generally stated, the tenant's contribution toward monthly rent is no more than thirty percent of his or her household income. 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 1437f(o)(2)(A), 1437f(o)(12)(B)(ii); 24 C.F.R. §§ 982.1, 982.503(d) (2007). Recertification of a family's income and make-up occurs annually for purposes of determining entitlement to and the amount of the subsidy. 42 U.S.C.A. § 1437f(c)(3); 24 C.F.R. § 982.516 (2007).

When a landlord enters into a HAP contract with the government for an eligible family, the landlord directly receives Section 8 rental assistance (the subsidy) from the government in an amount equaling the difference between the market rental rate of the premises and the family's contribution, which is derived from the family's income. 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 1437f(c)(3), 1437f(o)(2)(A), 1437f(o)(10)(D); 24 C.F.R. § 982.514. As the Appellate Division noted, the HAP contract specifically provides that "the screening and selection of families for [the] units shall be the function of the [landlord]." 42 U.S.C.A. § 1437f(o)(6)(B); see also 24 C.F.R. § 982.307 (2007). When screening a prospective renter, a landlord may consider the potential tenant's housekeeping habits and tendency to respect other tenants. See Franklin Tower One, supra, 157 N.J. at 611; see also Pasquince, supra, 378 N.J. Super. at 597 (recognizing that "landlords [also] may take into account the creditworthiness of Section 8 applicants" prior to entering into HAP contract).

The issue here is not quite one of a landlord considering the inception of a rental relationship with a potential Section 8 recipient. Rather, this landlord has consented to the addition of a financially contributing family member to the Section 8 household already leasing one of his units. The issue is whether a consented-to financially contributing family-member occupant of a Section 8 household has any right to the continued possession of the leased premises after the death of the named tenant. At least two other states' courts have concluded that because the federal law governing the Section 8 program does not answer the question, state law is dispositive of the issue.

In Morrisania II Associates v. Harvey, 527 N.Y.S.2d 954, 956 (Civ. Ct. 1988), a New York civil trial court faced with such a circumstance initially framed the question as whether "the Federal section 8 housing assistance law . . . preempt[s] or supersede[s] New York landlord-tenant law," and further whether "relatives of section 8 tenants have succession rights regardless of New York law." According to the Morrisania II court, "the section 8 program recognizes the entire family as the tenant, entitled to occupancy and assistance," and "encourages family cohesion and the care of the elderly and disabled in the home." Id. at 957. The court noted that the Section 8 statute uses the term, "family," and broadly includes in that reference a "remaining member of a tenant family."

Ibid. (quoting 42 U.S.C.A. § 1437a(b)(3)). The court concluded, therefore, that "all family members have occupancy rights which are not terminated by the death of any member." Ibid. Having held that "section 8 guarantees continued protection to every legitimate member of the family unit in occupancy," and that "no such family member should suffer eviction, dislocation and homelessness upon the death of the tenant of record," the court ordered a hearing to determine whether the party in issue was a bona fide occupant. Id. at 958, 961-62. Subsequently, however, the trial court's analysis was called into question.

Eleven years later, the New York Court of Appeals clarified that "whether [a person] is entitled to continued possession of the premises" is distinct from "whether [a person] is entitled to the continuation of a subsidy." Evans v. Franco, 710 N.E.2d 261, 262 (N.Y. 1999). The Court of Appeals held that the former was governed by state law, while the latter was governed by federal law.*fn3 Ibid. That holding is in keeping with the view of the Supreme Court of Virginia, which similarly determined that the question of a Section 8 household member's continued right to possession of premises upon the death of the named tenant is not a matter of federal law, but rather of state law. See Carter v. Meadowgreen Assocs., 597 S.E.2d 82, 84 (Va. 2004), cert. denied, 544 U.S. 963, 125 S.Ct. 1727, 161 L.Ed. 2d 606 (2005).

In Carter, an occupant son in a Section 8 household asserted that Section 8 allowed him to succeed to the tenancy of his mother because the definition of "families" for purposes of the federal housing assistance program included a "remaining member of a tenant family." Id. at 83-84. Rejecting that argument, the Virginia Supreme Court explained that Section 8's "definition of 'families' sets forth the classes of persons intended to be benefited by the statutory scheme." Id. at 84. It noted that, with that definition, "Congress did not, however, undertake a total re-writing of state landlord-tenant law as it may apply to 'Section 8 housing.'" Ibid. Rather, the court concluded that "where the federal law is silent, the intent of Congress was to leave the applicable state law undisturbed." Ibid. (citing three-part test for federal preemption of state law set forth in Ayers v. Philadelphia Housing Authority, 908 F.2d 1184, 1189 (3d Cir. 1990) cert. denied, 498 U.S. 1103, 111 S.Ct. 103, 112 L.Ed.2d 1086 (1991)). The court therefore applied Virginia landlord-tenant law to the controversy. Ibid.

Like the decisions of the highest courts in New York and Virginia that came before, we do not read Section 8's broad definition of "families" to compel a state to reject application of the policies and principles of its landlord-tenant law. The program's purpose is to provide funds and a mechanism to facilitate the disbursement of that funding to low-income families in search of housing. See 42 U.S.C.A. § 1437f(a); 24 C.F.R. § 982.1. The Section 8 statute contains no language requiring a state to permit a family household member to succeed to the premises in which he or she resides when that family member is not the named tenant on the lease and HAP contract and state law would not provide such protection. The preemption analysis performed by the Virginia Supreme Court persuasively reasoned to the conclusion that the federal statute did not intend to displace state law expectations. See Carter, supra, 597 S.E.2d at 84. Thus, once a Section 8 tenant and family enter into a ...


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