On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Middlesex County, LT-9556-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 22, 2008
Before Judges Sabatino and Simonelli.
Plaintiff, South Plainfield Senior Residence ("the landlord"), attempted to evict defendant Verneter Craig, a senior citizen, from its housing complex. The attempted eviction was premised upon N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(p), a statutory provision that authorizes eviction where a landlord proves by a preponderance of the evidence that a tenant has made terroristic threats against it or one of its employees. See N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(p). The landlord brought the present action against defendant after she had made disparaging and hostile comments about the building's superintendent in private discussions with her friend and fellow tenant.
After a two-day trial in the Special Civil Part, Judge Melvin Gelade found that the landlord had not proven the requisite statutory elements of a terroristic threat against an employee of a landlord and dismissed the action. The landlord now appeals, and we affirm.
The underlying dispute arises out of the discovery of some syringes by the superintendent, Orel Eliot, while he was removing trash from a garbage chute in the summer of 2007. That discovery caused the landlord to post a notice on the premises warning tenants, some of whom take insulin, not to discard syringes in the trash. These events became a topic of conversation during two private discussions between defendant, who has resided on the premises since 2002, and another tenant, Joyce Turner, who was a friend of defendant.
The first conversation occurred in Turner's apartment a short time after Eliot had found the syringes. According to Turner, she asked defendant, "did you hear that Orel [Eliot] almost got stuck with a syringe?" Defendant allegedly replied, "yeah, and I wish he hadda [sic] gotten stuck, and I wish it had been full of the [sic] AIDS." As Turner recalled it, defendant then added, "I know people that have it, and I can have that done." Defendant did not identify who she knew that was infected with AIDS, or how she would have obtained their bodily fluids and passed them onto Eliot.
In a second conversation between the two women, this time a telephone call initiated by Turner, defendant allegedly stated that Eliot "should have gotten stuck, or [I] wish he had got stuck."
On or about August 21, 2007, Turner informed Eliot about her second conversation with defendant. According to Turner, she told Eliot that defendant "had said that when we found the syringes, that she had wished he had got [sic] stuck with one of them, and that it was full of AIDS and he would die."
Eliot's recollection of his discussion with Turner differed. According to Eliot, Turner told him that defendant "plans to throw - to throw a couple of needles, HIV needles in the compactor for - for [him] to get stuck with it."
Following Turner's disclosure, Eliot told his supervisor, Evelyn Delgado, that defendant had planned to put HIV-infected needles in the compactor so that he would be stuck by them.
Delgado called the police and relayed what she had been told. On that same day, a police officer interviewed Eliot, Turner and defendant. Defendant denied making the alleged threat. No arrest, criminal charges or other police action ensued.
Following the police investigation, defendant called Turner and Turner's husband to express her displeasure. Defendant was particularly upset that Turner had repeated to others what she had said about Eliot in private. This precipitated a series of heated telephone exchanges between the Turners and defendant. Turner then complained to the landlord's management. This led Delgado to send letters ...