On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County, Docket No. L-1497-01.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Skillman, Graves and Grall.
Plaintiff Vincent Gamba is the owner of a residential lot located in the Township of Brick. Purporting to act under the authority of N.J.S.A. 40:48-2.3 to -2.12, the Township demolished the house on that lot to eliminate conditions dangerous or detrimental to health or safety or inimical to the welfare of the Township's residents. N.J.S.A. 40:48-2.3. In response, Gamba filed a complaint in which he sought damages for alleged violations of his statutory right to notice and a hearing prior to the demolition and his federal and state constitutional rights to due process.*fn1 On a prior appeal, we concluded that the Township did not comply, or substantially comply, with its obligation to afford Gamba the opportunity to contest the need for the demolition or, if unsuccessful, to make his own arrangements for removal of the structure. Gamba v. Twp. of Brick, 395 N.J. Super. 143, 148-55 (App. Div. 2007). Accordingly, the case was remanded for a trial to assess damages for injuries Gamba sustained as a consequence of the Township's actions, which was to be conducted in accordance with Hepner v. Twp. Comm. of Lawrence, 115 N.J. Super. 155, 161-64 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 59 N.J. 270 (1971), and for further proceedings on his claim for relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983.
Prior to that trial on damages, the court dismissed Gamba's claim under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983. The court concluded that Section 1983 did not apply because a post-deprivation trial on damages would adequately address any violation of the Due Process Clause. See Rivkin v. Dover Twp. Rent Leveling Bd., 143 N.J. 352, 373-74, cert. denied, 519 U.S. 911, 117 S.Ct. 275, 136 L.Ed. 2d 198 (1996). The question of damages was tried to a jury, and the jurors awarded Gamba $15,000. Gamba appeals from that final judgment.
Gamba has owned the property in Brick since the 1970s. In 1981, he moved from that house to a home in a nearby community, but he retained ownership of this property. When he moved, Gamba left behind furniture, appliances, canned food, cleaning products, books, records and other personal belongings, including some antiques, depression era glassware, silver flatware, a crystal chandelier, artwork, a World War II Japanese bayonet and an above-ground swimming pool. Although he has not lived in Brick since 1981, Gamba visited his house and stayed there overnight on rare occasions prior to its demolition.
The Township demolished the house on January 20, 1999. In 1991, the assessed value of the improvements on Gamba's property was $41,000, but Gamba acknowledged that the house fell into disrepair after he moved. The roof had holes, its broken windows had been boarded, the lock on the door did not work, the steps were in need of repair and the yard was overgrown. By Gamba's estimate, the roof and windows had been in need of replacement for about ten years before the demolition. He had placed a tarp on the roof of the house at one point, but the tarp had also deteriorated with time. A neighbor saw a raccoon leave the house through a hole in the roof. All utility service to the house was discontinued in 1993 and was never restored. The house was burglarized and vandalized on "numerous" occasions, and unregistered vehicles Gamba left on the property were set afire. Weeds, flowers and a tree had taken root inside the house and a tree was growing in the above-ground pool. In addition to the furniture and other belongings kept in the house, there were newspapers and bags that appeared to hold trash. A ceiling had either collapsed or been removed.
Before the house was bulldozed, the Township's agents were instructed to remove anything with apparent value. The objects that were removed were placed in a forty-foot container, which the Township stored for an unspecified period of time before discarding the contents. If an inventory was prepared, it was not introduced at trial.
Gamba acknowledged that he knew the Township had stored his personal property and that he had inquired about his belongings. Beyond that inquiry, and a subsequent one made by his attorney at a later date not specified, Gamba did not make any effort to regain possession of that property.
At trial, Gamba testified about the value of the various items of personal property left in the house. He described the process he used to compile the inventory and estimate the value of the individual items. With the assistance of his ex-wife, who had not been in the home on more than one occasion since 1989, Gamba prepared a list of what they recalled leaving in the house. The belongings were acquired during the 1970s and '80s. Based on their recollection of what was paid at the time of acquisition and Gamba's recent visits to stores and shops "to price what some of these things would be worth at the present time," Gamba stated a value for each item on his list. The total value he derived was $122,998.
After the demolition, the Township placed a lien on the property in the amount of $23,578.78, which was the cost of demolition, asbestos removal, labor and per-ton charges for disposal of concrete and debris. Gamba paid the amount due.
The jurors awarded Gamba $15,000 of the $23,578.78 he paid the Township to discharge the demolition lien, but no damages for the ...