On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Docket No. DC-6928-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Carchman and Parrillo.
Defendants Alma-GPNJ LLC., Minas Styponias, Metropolis Towers Apartment Corporation and Alma-GPNJ LLC C/O State Capital Title and Abstract Company (Alma-GPNJ), appeal from a judgment of the Special Civil Part in favor of plaintiff Yaron Asher in the amount of $14,057.60. Defendants raise the following issues:
I. DEFENDANTS WERE ENTITLED TO A TRIAL BY JURY AS PER THE COURT RULES.
II. THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN FINDING NEGLIGENCE AGAINST DEFENDANTS SINCE NEGLIGENCE WAS NOT FILED BY THE PLAINTIFF AGAINST THE DEFENDANTS HAD NO REASON OF KNOWING THAT THE GOODS IN QUESTION BELONGED TO PLAINTIFF.
III. IN THE EVENT THAT THE TRIAL COURT IS AFFIRMED AS TO ITS HOLDING, THE TRIAL COURT'S ASSESSMENT OF DAMAGES WAS EXCESSIVE AND ARBITRARY.
IV. APPELLANT LANDLORD OWED NO DUTY TO RESPONDENT AS THERE IS NO CONTRACTUAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE PARTIES AND WAS NOT EVEN AWARE OR ON NOTICE THAT RESPONDENT MAY HAVE RESIDED IN UNIT 8N, HAVING ALREADY LEASED THE PREMISES IMMEDIATELY AFTER EXPIRATION OF THE PREVIOUS LEASE.
We have considered the arguments presented in light of the record and the applicable law, and we affirm.
Some background is in order. Plaintiff occupied an apartment/condominium owned and managed by defendant Alma-GPNJ during the month of March 2008. Plaintiff was subletting the unit from Tenant A, whose lease was to expire that month. Tenant B was to begin a lease for the apartment in April. Plaintiff entered into an arrangement with both these tenants that allowed him to occupy the unit for the months of March, April and May 2008. Under the terms of the separate leases signed by Tenant A and Tenant B, however, assigning the lease or subletting the unit was prohibited without the consent of the landlord.*fn1 No arrangement existed between plaintiff and Alma-GPNJ and rent was paid by plaintiff directly to the tenants.
On April 1, 2008, while preparing for the transition between tenants, defendants' employees entered the apartment and removed plaintiff's personal property, apparently mistakenly believing the items to have been abandoned by Tenant A. According to plaintiff, in the process of cleaning out the apartment, many of his belongings, including personal documents, checkbooks and a Social Security card, were discarded or destroyed by defendants' agents. This, despite the fact that throughout his brief occupancy of the apartment, plaintiff interacted with a doorman, security guard and the building superintendent, who visited the apartment, with plaintiff present, to repair a plumbing problem. Moreover, according to plaintiff, prior to cleaning the apartment, the outgoing tenants met with building management and instructed that nothing in the apartment was to be disturbed during its inspection. In fact, after plaintiff's property was removed, the building manager apologized for the mistake, acknowledging that "the apartment shouldn't have been on the cleaning list."*fn2 In the ensuing days, plaintiff cancelled his credit cards, closed bank accounts and arranged for hotel lodgings, causing him to miss work.
On March 16, 2009, plaintiff pro se filed a complaint against defendants in the Special Civil Part, alleging burglary, theft, vandalism, destruction of property and "identity info theft." Defendants filed an answer, affirmative defenses and counterclaims, which included a demand for a jury trial. On April 23, 2009, the Special Civil Part issued notice of Jury Trial for June 3, 2009. Defendants filed an amended answer and counterclaim on June 1, 2009, which again included a demand for trial by jury. According to plaintiff, on July 22, 2009, at defendants' request that the matter proceed expeditiously, the case was assigned to a judge and tried as a bench trial. At the time of trial, defendants did not request a jury trial.
At trial, plaintiff provided an itemized list, enumerating his claimed losses and expenses. Supporting documents were also provided, detailing "the cost of those items if you [would] need to purchase them" and "receipts of the items and [the] expenses [that plaintiff] incurred."*fn3 Related expenses included the cost of hotel accommodations after plaintiff was forced to leave the apartment, lost wages for the days in which plaintiff was arranging his affairs following the ...