December 16, 2009
ROBERT C. OLIVIERI, JR., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
JOHN JORDAN AND SHERRI WILLIAMSON, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Cape May County, Docket No. DC-002432-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 7, 2009
Before Judges Baxter and Coburn.
Plaintiff Robert C. Olivieri, Jr. sued his residential tenants John Jordan and Sherri Williamson for $6,974.53, contending that defendants owed him several months of back rent, failed to pay the water and sewer charges for which they were responsible under the lease, and had caused excessive damage to the premises. Defendants counterclaimed, asserting that after they vacated the leased premises, plaintiff wrongfully withheld the entire $1,300 security deposit.*fn1 The judge awarded the landlord only $563.28. We affirm.
Williamson testified that when she and Jordan rented the property in Lower Township from plaintiff in 2003 it was in deplorable condition. "The foundation was old, rotting away. Windows were horrible and there were breaks in the windows and cracks. No screens in the windows." She also testified that the kitchen countertop was marred by numerous cigarette burns and the bathroom floor was "soft" due to water leaking from around the bathtub. In fact, Jordan's foot once went through the bathroom floor because the sub-flooring was rotted and deteriorated. Williamson also testified that many of the ceiling tiles had fallen and were lying on the floor. She also explained that the thermostat that controlled the furnace had been removed from the wall and only its wires remained. Whenever she and Jordan needed to adjust the heat, they were forced to "lift up the grate" on the floor and turn the furnace on and off. Even though the property was in extremely poor condition, she and Jordan rented it because it was inexpensive and they were desperate for a place to live.
At the conclusion of the two-day trial, Judge Daryl Todd made extensive findings of fact. He began his findings with the observation that "[i]t is disappointing that [plaintiff] is not here to hear the judgment of the Court. I made a note yesterday to remind myself to tell [him] when I made the decision in this case that he is the type of landlord that gives landlords a bad name." The judge found that plaintiff had owned the property for decades, and charged the "modest rental price of $675 a month" only "because the property was in deplorable shape." Judge Todd observed that plaintiff "was in a position to take advantage of people who were on hard times," and had availed himself of that opportunity by never inspecting the property before defendants moved in and never making the slightest effort to determine if the premises were in habitable condition. The judge also referred to the eight notices of fire code violations issued by Lower Township in 2007.
In the course of rendering his decision, Judge Todd assessed the parties' credibility. He accepted the testimony of the tenants, particularly Williamson, who "showed a specific candor with the court and honesty with the court in her testimony and the court appreciates it." In contrast, Judge Todd expressly found the landlord's testimony not to be credible, and rejected the landlord's testimony that the repairs to the property were caused by the tenants' conduct. Instead, the judge concluded that the repairs the landlord described were attributable to conditions existing long before Jordan and Williamson moved in.
Ultimately, Judge Todd awarded the landlord $675 for the unpaid January 2008 rent, but rejected the landlord's claim that additional rent remained unpaid. The judge also awarded the landlord $1,324 as reimbursement for his payment of water and sewer bills for which the tenants were responsible, and $33.75 as a late fee for the January 2008 rent, for a total of $2,033. From that sum, the judge deducted the withheld security deposit of $1,470,*fn2 after finding that the landlord was not entitled to retain any portion of it because the tenants had caused no damage to the premises. Once all offsets were considered, the net judgment to plaintiff was $563.28.
On appeal, plaintiff maintains the judge erred by: 1) entering judgment for only one month's rent, even though defendants allegedly failed to pay their rent in April 2004, March 2005, November 2007, February 2008, and March 2008; and 2) refusing to award judgment in his favor in the amount of $10,000 for repairs that were the result of damage defendants caused to the property.
Our review of a trial judge's factual findings is limited. Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). If the trial judge's findings of fact are supported by "adequate, substantial and credible evidence" in the record, those findings are binding upon us. Ibid. We are required to give particular deference to a trial judge's credibility determinations because it is the trial judge who has the opportunity to see and hear the witnesses as they testify and determine whose testimony is worthy of belief and whose should be rejected. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 474 (1999) (requiring appellate courts to defer a trial courts' credibility findings that "are often influenced by . . . observations of the character and demeanor of witnesses and common human experience that are not transmitted by the record").
Plaintiff has presented no basis, meritorious or otherwise, to cause us to reject the comprehensive and well-reasoned oral decision rendered by Judge Todd. His findings of fact and conclusions of law are unassailable.