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Victoria v. Schuler

June 19, 2008


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Essex County, Docket No. LT-11473-07.

Per curiam.


Argued April 2, 2008

Before Judges Wefing, R. B. Coleman and Lyons.

This is a summary disposses action brought by plaintiff landlord against defendant tenant whose residential tenancy is federally subsidized. The trial judge entered a judgment of possession against tenant for causing damage and destruction to landlord's property through gross negligence or an intentional act. Tenant has appealed. After reviewing the entire record in this matter, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

The relevant facts and procedural history are as follows. Tenant resides at Villa Victoria, a federally subsidized multi-family complex. Tenant has suffered from bipolar disorder since 1999 when she was twenty-five years old. In 2004, tenant was found by the Social Security Administration to be disabled by reason of her mental condition and entitled to Social Security disability benefits.

In March 2005, landlord leased an apartment in Villa Victoria to tenant in her own name. Prior to that, she had been living with her mother who also had an apartment in the same complex. Tenant qualified for the apartment based on her disability and other income.

In July 2003, tenant began treatment with Dr. Young, a psychiatrist in Newark. Dr. Young placed tenant on various medications and tenant attended therapy with a psychotherapist on a weekly basis. In July 2005, tenant's visits to her psychotherapist were reduced from once weekly to once every other week, and her visits to her psychiatrist were reduced from once a month to once every eight weeks. In October 2006, tenant's psychotropic medicines were reduced and modified.

Sometime in December 2006, tenant's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. In late January 2007, tenant was told by her doctor that she may have glaucoma and could eventually become blind. In February 2007, tenant's close friend died of a stroke at the age of forty. Shortly thereafter, tenant terminated her relationship with her then-boyfriend.

On February 17, 2007, tenant was in her apartment. She was depressed and alone. She consumed "a couple glasses of wine." The chair on which she was sitting had been broken by her former boyfriend. Tenant noticed that her Christmas tree was still in the living room, even though it was two months past Christmas. She "then decided to throw the broken chair, which reminded [her] of [her] boyfriend at the Christmas tree. The chair struck the tree and the window behind the tree." The glass broke. Tenant then called her mother for help. Tenant's mother called emergency medical services which arrived and transported tenant to the hospital.

At the hospital, tenant was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and mixed episodic alcohol abuse. She was given an anti-depressant and released. On March 1, 2007, tenant visited Dr. Young who, after learning of the incident, increased tenant's psychotropic medicines.

On March 15, 2007, landlord served tenant with a Notice to Quit, terminating her tenancy as of April 1, 2007, for violating N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(c), "willfully or by reason of gross negligence causing or allowing destruction, damage or injury to premises." On April 10, 2007, tenant and her attorney, at the request of tenant, met with landlord's property manager and its attorney to discuss the Notice to Quit. Tenant explained that her mental illness, combined with the events that occurred prior to the incident, had made her severely depressed. She explained to the property manager that on February 17, 2007, this depression caused her to throw the chair toward the Christmas tree which hit the window. She argued that she did not intend to cause any damage to the window and offered to pay for the repairs. Tenant claimed that because her offending conduct was precipitated by her mental illness that the landlord should withdraw the Notice to Quit and enter into a settlement agreement as a reasonable accommodation.

Tenant offered the following terms as a reasonable accommodation to her disability and to settle the matter: (1) she would refrain from throwing objects in the apartment; (2) her tenancy would be placed on probation for one year; (3) she would visit her therapist more frequently to better control her impulses; and (4) she would reimburse her landlord for damages to the window, which were estimated at $63.80.

The landlord rejected the request, but offered tenant a short hardship stay, conditioned on her willingness to vacate. The landlord and tenant exchanged correspondence through counsel. Tenant's counsel again sought a settlement and reasonable accommodation while the landlord declined to withdraw the eviction action and tenant's request for a reasonable ...

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