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Patel v. Mathews

September 22, 2008


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Docket No. L-1489-06.

Per curiam.


Submitted September 10, 2008

Before Judges Fisher and C.L. Miniman.

In this appeal we consider, among other things, the defendant-landlord's contention that the rent leveling board's determination, which declared the landlord had imposed an excessive and illegal rent on the plaintiff-tenant, bars the plaintiff-tenant's consumer fraud claim based on that finding. Because the goals of the Consumer Fraud Act (CFA), N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 to -20, are not inconsistent with those of the rent leveling board in these circumstances, and because the rent leveling board's enforcement provisions are not nearly as extensive or effective as the CFA's, we affirm the summary judgment, which granted monetary relief in favor of the plaintiff-tenant based upon the rent overcharge.

The following facts are undisputed. In early 1999, plaintiff Vidhya Patel (the tenant) rented an apartment in North Bergen owned by defendant Dan Mathews (the landlord) at the monthly rate of $600. Upon taking possession, the tenant also tendered a $900 security deposit. Soon thereafter, the landlord increased the rent to $680 per month.

The tenant later complained to the North Bergen Rent Leveling Board (the board), which, on October 17, 2005, adopted a resolution based upon the municipality's rent control ordinance. The resolution declared the landlord "illegally collected rent" from the tenant in the amount of $4,240. The board ordered in its resolution that the landlord refund the overpayment and authorized the tenant to "deduct from her monthly rental payments until the amount is fully repaid." The resolution also stated that if the parties' relationship ended before tenant had been fully reimbursed, then "the entire balance shall be due and owing immediately." Lastly, the resolution indicated that if the landlord failed to comply, a municipal complaint would issue.

The tenant moved from the property soon after the adoption of the resolution. Her security deposit was not returned.

The tenant filed a two-count complaint in the Law Division on March 10, 2006. In the first count, the tenant alleged the circumstances outlined above and sought a recovery of the rent overcharge, plus treble damages, attorneys' fees and costs, pursuant to the CFA; in the second count, she sought a recovery of double the unreturned security deposit and attorneys' fees, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1.

On October 13, 2006, the tenant moved for the entry of default judgment. The landlord responded that he had not been served with process. On the return date, the judge suggested that the tenant hand the summons and complaint to the landlord and that the landlord acknowledge its receipt in open court. With that, the judge vacated the prior default and denied the motion for default judgment; the landlord was given twenty days to answer the complaint.

The landlord filed an answer and the matter was assigned to a case management track that provided the parties with 150 days of discovery. The clerk apparently miscalculated this discovery period by deeming it to have commenced on September 1, 2006; accordingly, the discovery end date was set at January 29, 2007. At that time, neither party asserted that a mistake had been made.

After passage of the discovery end date, the tenant moved for summary judgment on both counts of the complaint. The landlord opposed that motion and cross-moved for both a correction of the discovery end date and leave to amend his answer to include a counterclaim. His proposed counterclaim alleged that the tenant had damaged the leased premises and failed to pay rent that had become due well over one year earlier.

The trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of the tenant in the amount of $12,720 on the consumer fraud claim, but denied summary judgment on the security deposit claim. The judge also denied the landlord's requests for the correction of the discovery end date and for leave to file an amended pleading.

On the scheduled trial date of May 30, 2007, the parties agreed to voluntarily dismiss the security deposit claim, and the judge entered an order that stated the dismissal was without prejudice. In a later order, the judge quantified the total damages caused by the landlord's CFA violation in the total ...

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