On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Docket No. LT-3675-06.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 23, 2008
Before Judges Parker and Yannotti.
Defendant Lina Reyes appeals from a judgment for possession entered by the trial court on April 23, 2007 in favor of plaintiff Hudson View Gardens, L.L.C. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
Defendant is a tenant in a multi-dwelling building in Weehawken. In 2004, 989 Blvd. East, L.L.C. owned the premises. Defendant's rent was $884 per month. In February 2005, the owner notified defendant that the rent would be increased from $884 to $919.36 per month, as of April 1, 2005. Plaintiff became owner of the property on October 3, 2005. On February 27, 2006, plaintiff provided written notice to defendant that the monthly rent would be increased to $956.13, as of April 1, 2006.
On February 28, 2006, plaintiff commenced a summary dispossess action in the Special Civil Part, seeking defendant's removal from the leased premises, on the ground of non-payment of rent from October 2005 to February 2006. The action was docketed as LT-3675-06. In its complaint, plaintiff alleged that rent in the amount of $1,090.24 per month was due and owing, along with late fees in the amount of $50 per month. Plaintiff also sought $500 for damage to the premises.
The matter was scheduled for trial on March 23, 2006; however, plaintiff requested a one-week adjournment and the matter was re-scheduled for March 30, 2006. Defendant did not appear on that date and a default judgment was entered for plaintiff. Thereafter, a warrant for defendant's removal from the premises was issued.
On May 8, 2006, defendant moved to vacate the default judgment and stay the eviction. Defendant's motion was heard on May 16, 2006. Although defendant had stated in her motion that her rent was $919.36 per month, defendant's attorney informed the court that, on July 13, 2004, the Weehawken Rent Leveling Board (WRLB) had reduced the rent to $442 as a result of a "diminishment of services."
Defendant's counsel argued that the rent had remained $442 per month because the former owner of the premises had never petitioned the WRLB to reinstate the full amount of the rent. Counsel noted, however, that the former owner had increased the rent to $919.36 per month as of April 1, 2005, and defendant had paid that amount. Counsel asserted that the landlord had "pressured" defendant to pay that amount and "the landlord -- that landlord . . . may owe [defendant] a refund[.]"
In response, plaintiff's attorney asserted that in 2005, the former owner had filed a statement with the WRLB which indicated that defendant's rent was $1,090.24 per month. Plaintiff's counsel also asserted that defendant had made a partial payment for October 2005, but no additional rental payments were made through May 2006.
The judge entered an order on May 16, 2006, which stayed all further proceedings in the matter and directed defendant to deposit $6,868.19 with plaintiff's attorney to be held in escrow. The deposit represented seven months of rent at $919.36 per month, plus the balance due for October 2005.
The judge suggested that plaintiff's counsel obtain a decision from the WRLB addressing the amount of rent due on the premises as of October 2005. The judge adjourned the matter to May 31, 2006. On that date, the judge vacated the default judgment and dismissed plaintiff's complaint. The judge did not issue an order regarding the $6,868.19 that plaintiff's attorney was holding in escrow.
On June 1, 2006, plaintiff filed a motion with the WRLB for a determination as to the amount of rent due for defendant's unit. On June 8, 2006, defendant filed a cross-motion seeking a reduction in rent due to the "diminishment of services." She alleged that there were certain deficiencies in the unit. She also alleged that parking had not been provided in the previous eight months.
The cross-motions were scheduled to be considered by the WRLB at its June 2006 meeting; however, the WRLB adjourned the motions to October 17, 2006. Defendant did not appear on the return date, and her application was dismissed for lack of prosecution. The WRLB did, however, consider plaintiff's motion.
In a resolution dated October 26, 2006, which memorialized its decision, the WRLB stated that in July 2004, it had reduced defendant's rent due to a "diminishment of services." The WRLB found that the basis for the prior rent abatement no longer existed, and the Board restored the rent to its full amount as of June 1, 2006. The Board found that "[t]he maximum monthly base rent as of that date, until the next annual rent increase, shall be $956.13."
On December 1, 2006, plaintiff filed a three-count complaint again seeking defendant's removal from the premises. This action was docketed as LT-18798-06. In count one of the complaint, plaintiff sought possession of the premises on the ground of non-payment of rent for the period after June 1, 2006. In count two, plaintiff asserted a claim for $500 for damage to the leased premises. In count three, plaintiff sought defendant's removal from the premises on the ground of habitual late payment of rent.
Another judge heard the matter on January 9, 2007. The judge filed a letter opinion dated February 21, 2007. The judge noted that plaintiff had withdrawn counts two and three of its complaint. Therefore, the action was limited to plaintiff's demand for possession on the ground of non-payment of rent in the period from June 2006 through February 2007.
The judge found that he was bound by the WRLB's October 2006 determination that rent for the subject premises was $956.13 per month as of June 1, 2006. The judge found that defendant owed rent in the amount of $8,605.17, less the security deposit of $947.47, for a total of $7,657.70. The judge did not award plaintiff late fees. The judge also denied plaintiff's application for an award of attorney's fees and court costs.
In his letter opinion, the judge stated that it was his understanding that plaintiff's counsel was holding $6,868.19 pursuant to the order entered in the first action on May 16, 2006. For that reason, the judge stated that he would dismiss the complaint. The judge added, however, that the parties should advise him if they are unable to agree upon the actual amount of rent due through February 2007.
By letter dated February 21, 2007, plaintiff's attorney advised the court that she was holding $6,868.19 in escrow pursuant to the court's May 16, 2006 order, and the monies were for the rent due in the period from October 2005 through May 2006. Counsel asserted ...