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Baptiste v. Silvestri

May 26, 2010


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Essex County, Docket No. SC-3200-08.

Per curiam.


Submitted May 10, 2010

Before Judges Lisa and Alvarez.

Appellant, Rupert Baptiste, appeals from a Special Civil Part judgment in his favor of $700 plus $21 costs. The judgment was entered after a bench trial. Baptiste argues that the judgment was not supported by the evidence. We disagree and affirm.

Baptiste was a residential month-to-month tenant of defendant Carmela Silvestri. The monthly rent was $1200. Baptiste had posted with Silvestri a security deposit of $1800. After he moved out, Baptiste filed this action for the return of the security deposit. Although we have not been furnished with the pleadings, he apparently alleged that Silvestri failed to return the security deposit and sought double damages. A default judgment was entered for $3600 plus $22 costs. However, that judgment was vacated because of deficient service of process.

The case then went to trial. Both parties testified. Silvestri testified that when Baptiste moved out, he removed the stove, the dining room chandelier, and curtains from various rooms. She produced photographs to verify that these items were missing. She produced receipts verifying the cost of replacement items, as well as the amount she paid an electrician to install the replacement stove and chandelier.

Silvestri also testified that, after deducting these costs, she attempted to mail to Baptiste a check for $800, representing the balance of his security deposit. Because Baptiste did not provide her with a forwarding address, she mailed the check, certified mail, return receipt requested, to the address of the leased premises, apparently hoping it would be forwarded to Baptiste if he established a forwarding address with the postal authorities. The mailing was returned to Silvestri. She produced the returned, unclaimed envelope and check at trial.

Baptiste denied removing the stove or curtains, and he said there was never a chandelier in the dining room while he lived there. With respect to the chandelier, he produced documentary evidence of a home inspection, indicating the absence of a chandelier.

The judge credited Silvestri's testimony, as corroborated by the photographs, with respect to the stove and curtains. He found, however, that she did not carry her burden of proof with respect to the chandelier. Based upon the replacement costs of the stove ($700), the prorated cost of the electrician's services attributable to the installation of the stove ($200), and the replacement cost of the curtains ($200), the judge deducted $1100 from the $1800 security deposit, and entered judgment in favor of Baptiste for the $700 due to him. To that, the judge added $21 costs. Because Silvestri attempted to return the balance due to Baptiste in a timely manner after he vacated the premises, the judge did not award double damages.

In the face of an argument that the findings of a trial court sitting without a jury are not supported by the evidence, our standard of appellate review is very limited. Our Supreme Court has described that standard as follows:

Considering first the scope of our appellate review of judgment entered in a non-jury case, as here, we note that our courts have held that the findings on which it is based should not be disturbed unless "* * * they are so wholly insupportable as to result in a denial of justice," and that the appellate court should exercise its original fact finding jurisdiction sparingly and in none but a clear case where there is no doubt about the matter. That the finding reviewed is based on factual determinations in which matters of credibility are involved is not without significance. Findings by the trial judge are considered binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence. It has otherwise been stated that "our appellate function is a limited one: we do not disturb the factual findings and legal conclusions of the trial judge unless we are convinced that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice," and the appellate court therefore ponders whether, on the contrary, there is substantial evidence in support of the trial judge's findings and conclusions. [Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 483-84 (1974) (citations omitted).]

Applying this standard, we have no hesitancy in concluding that the judge's factual findings and conclusions are well supported by ...

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