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Hahn v. Stevens Institute of Technology

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


October 8, 2010

PHILIP E. HAHN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
THE STEVENS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Hudson County, Docket No. DC-017133-09.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued September 28, 2010

Before Judges Parrillo and Yannotti.

Plaintiff Philip E. Hahn appeals from a judgment for defendant Stevens Institute of Technology (Stevens) that was entered in this action by the Law Division on October 28, 2009. We affirm.

On July 6, 2009, plaintiff filed a complaint against defendant Stevens Institute of Technology (Stevens) in the Special Civil Part. In his complaint, plaintiff alleged that Stevens wrongfully evicted him from certain premises at 804 Castle Point Terrace in Hoboken, New Jersey. Plaintiff additionally alleged that Stevens wrongfully trespassed on the premises. On August 3, 2009, Stevens filed an answer in which it denied liability.

On October 28, 2009, the matter was tried by the court, sitting without a jury. The court heard testimony from plaintiff; Kenneth Nilsen (Nilsen), Stevens's Dean of Student Life; Timothy J. Griffin (Griffin), Stevens's Chief of Police and Director of Public Safety; and Thomas J. Maggi (Maggi), a captain on the Stevens police force.

Plaintiff testified that he had been residing at the Chi Psi fraternity house at 804 Castle Point Terrace in Hoboken. Plaintiff said that he had an oral agreement with the fraternity which allowed him to stay in the library. Plaintiff stated that, on June 30, 2009, the Stevens campus police came to the fraternity house and told him to leave.

Nilsen testified that one of his responsibilities is to oversee the fraternity and sorority properties and ensure their compliance with university, state and local polices and procedures. Nilsen stated that Chi Psi owns its fraternity house and operates under a charter that Stevens issued. Nilsen said that Stevens has a duty to safeguard the faculty and students on campus and in the "satellite fraternities." Nilsen also stated that plaintiff had been a student at Stevens in the 1980's.

Griffin testified that when he and other officers went to the Chi Psi fraternity house on June 30, 2009, certain fraternity members allowed them to enter. Plaintiff was in a small study area that was furnished with a desk and chair. Griffin did not observe a bed in the room. Griffin asked plaintiff whether he had a written agreement with the fraternity that allowed him to stay there. Plaintiff replied that he did not have a written agreement with the fraternity.

Griffin further testified that the campus police had previously told plaintiff not to come near Stevens because they suspected that plaintiff had written certain letters of a harassing and threatening nature to a faculty member. Griffin told plaintiff to leave the fraternity house. The police offered plaintiff a ride and money to stay elsewhere if he did not have any place to go. Plaintiff declined the offers and left.

Maggi testified that in 2008, he and another campus police officer went to plaintiff's home in Bergen County because they believed that plaintiff had written certain harassing and threatening letters to one of Stevens's professors. Plaintiff denied sending the letters to the professor but made statements which suggested he had written the letters. The police told plaintiff not to return to Stevens.

Maggi additionally testified that his next "interaction" with plaintiff occurred on June 30, 2009, when plaintiff was seen around the Chi Psi fraternity house. Maggi stated that the area is "a basically patrolled Stevens area." Maggi and other officers went to the fraternity house and "one of the frat members" opened the door. The officers proceeded to the library area and told plaintiff to leave. Plaintiff complied voluntarily.

After hearing further testimony from Nilsen and rebuttal testimony from plaintiff, the court placed its decision on the record. The court determined that the evidence indicated that, rather than a claim for trespass, plaintiff actually was asserting a claim for tortious interference with a contract. The court accordingly amended the pleadings pursuant to Rule 4:9-2 to conform to the evidence.

The court also denied plaintiff's application to amend the pleadings to include a negligence claim. The court found that there was no basis for such a claim. The court further found that the evidence did not support plaintiff's claim for wrongful eviction because there was no landlord/tenant relationship between plaintiff and Stevens.

The court additionally found that plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence to support his claim of tortious interference with a contract. The court observed that it did not have sufficient evidence to determine whether the Stevens police reasonably believed that plaintiff posed a danger to anyone on the campus. Even so, the court noted that plaintiff had been told that he was not permitted to return to the campus.

The court made the following additional findings:

The elements of an unlawful interference claim are first proof of . . . the existence of an agreement under which [plaintiff] had a right to stay in the fraternity house with the agreement with the fraternity.

Assuming for the sake of this ruling that there was evidence that . . . was sufficient to establish such an agreement, the second element is that the defendant . . . had knowledge of the existence of the agreement. There is no evidence either from [plaintiff] or from any of the Stevens witnesses that anyone at Stevens knew of the agreement that he claims to have had with the fraternity that he would be allowed to stay there for $80 a week. [Plaintiff] denied that he had any agreement with the fraternity when he was asked by Chief Griffin when the police arrived at the scene, so the evidence presented here is not enough to establish that Stevens had knowledge of the agreement with which it . . . [interfered] without justification. And for that reason the substantive elements of an interference claim have not been proven.

In addition, even if the other elements of an interference claim had been proven to the point where an award of damages would be appropriate, there was no evidence presented as to what [plaintiff's] damages were, the only evidence as to money in terms of the testimony came from the testimony of both Chief Griffin and Captain Maggi that they offered [plaintiff] money and had offered him transportation to wherever he wanted to go and he denied that. Although [plaintiff] mentioned in his opening [statement] the expenses that he claims to have incurred because of Stevens' interference with his agreement with the fraternity, there was no evidence presented to prove what his damages were.

The court accordingly entered a judgment dated October 28, 2009, dismissing plaintiff's complaint with prejudice. Plaintiff thereafter filed motions to amend the judgment and for a new trial. The trial court entered orders on December 4, 2009, denying the motions. This appeal followed.

On appeal, plaintiff argues that: the Stevens police trespassed upon his constitutional rights; he had a valid rental agreement with the Chi Psi fraternity and the Stevens police trespassed upon his "legally obtained place of abode"; the court erred by amending the pleadings to include a claim for intentional interference with a contract when the claim here was a claim of trespass; the court erred by finding that he had not proved damages; the court erred by refusing to allow him to amend his complaint to add a negligence claim; and the Stevens police "could only act on probable cause" because the fraternity house is private property.

We have thoroughly reviewed the record and conclude that these arguments are "without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion." R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E). We accordingly affirm the judgment entered for Stevens substantially for the reasons stated by the trial court in its decision from the bench on October 28, 2009. We add the following additional comments.

Plaintiff's trespass claim is clearly without merit. Although plaintiff asserted that he had an oral agreement with Chi Psi that allowed him to reside in the fraternity house, there is no evidence that he had a lease which gave him the exclusive right to occupy any particular portion of the premises. Moreover, when the Stevens campus police arrived at the fraternity house on June 30, 2009, members of the fraternity permitted them to enter the premises. Thus, there is no factual basis for plaintiff's trespass claim.

Plaintiff's claim of tortious interference with his alleged contract also is without merit. To prevail on such a claim, plaintiff was required to prove: "(1) actual interference with a contract; (2) that the interference was inflicted intentionally by a defendant who is not a party to the contract; (3) that the interference was without justification; and (4) that the interference caused damage." Dello Russo v. Nagel, 358 N.J. Super. 254, 268 (App. Div. 2003) (citations omitted). "Interference with a contract is intentional 'if the actor desires to bring it about or if he knows that the interference is certain or substantially certain to occur as a result of his action.'" Ibid. (quoting Restatement (Second) Torts, § 766A comment e (1977)).

Here, the trial court correctly found that plaintiff did not present sufficient evidence to support this claim. The evidence established that when the Stevens campus police went to the Chi Psi fraternity house on June 30, 2009 and told plaintiff to leave, they were not aware of any agreement that plaintiff may have had with the fraternity that allowed him to reside on the premises. In fact, Griffin testified that plaintiff told him there was no written agreement and plaintiff did not inform the police that he had an oral agreement with the fraternity.

Furthermore, the evidence failed to establish that the Stevens police intentionally interfered with any such agreement. The record shows that the Stevens police were justified in asking plaintiff to leave the fraternity house because he had previously been told not to return to the campus area. In our judgment, the actions of the Stevens police did not rise to the level of malice required to support a claim for tortious interference with a contract.

Affirmed.

20101008

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