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Santi v. Hodulich


October 26, 2010


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Sussex County, Docket No. DC-4530-08.

Per curiam.


Submitted October 4, 2010

Before Judges Sabatino and Alvarez.

Plaintiff Frank Delli Santi appeals the Special Civil Part's dismissal of his complaint against defendants, Robert Hodulich and Edgemont Campground, in which he claimed that defendants had wrongfully evicted him from their premises and unlawfully damaged his personal property. In particular, plaintiff challenges the trial court's determination that defendants' actions were in accordance with the Campground Facilities Act, N.J.S.A. 5:16-1 to -7.

We need not comprehensively recite the facts that emerged at the two-day trial, at which plaintiff, Hodulich, and an employee of Edgemont Campground testified, and during which numerous documents, photographs, and other exhibits were presented. Briefly stated, plaintiff leased a portion of defendants' premises in Branchville beginning in November 2006, pursuant to a month-to-month oral arrangement. The monthly rental was $400. Plaintiff kept what he described as a "travel trailer" on the site. According to Hodulich's testimony, he has owned and operated the premises as a campground for approximately thirty years.

In September 2008, defendants served a written notice upon plaintiff that they were evicting him from the premises pursuant to N.J.S.A. 5:16-7. The eviction notice stated that plaintiff had violated certain rules of the campground, that plaintiff had engaged in threatening behavior directed at defendants' employee, and that plaintiff had previously been given verbal warnings about his conduct. The notice directed plaintiff to vacate the premises immediately. Plaintiff admittedly received the notice, but he did not promptly remove his possessions from the premises. Consequently, defendants disconnected the utilities to plaintiff's site, allegedly damaging plaintiff's property while they attempted to carry out the eviction process. Plaintiff ultimately vacated the premises after the police interceded.

Plaintiff subsequently filed the present action, claiming that he had been wrongfully evicted and seeking monetary compensation for the alleged damage to his personal items. Plaintiff's main argument was that defendants' premises are not a campground facility covered by the Campground Facilities Act, N.J.S.A. 5:16-1 to -7, but instead constitute a mobile home park that is subject to the enhanced protections afforded to residential tenants under the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 to -61.12. Plaintiff further argued that defendants violated the law by disconnecting his utilities and by damaging his possessions.

After considering the extensive trial proofs, the trial judge concluded that the Anti-Eviction Act does not apply to plaintiff's leasehold, and that the defendants' premises were not a mobile home park but rather a "campground facility" under the statutory definitions set forth at N.J.S.A. 5:16-2(f) and N.J.S.A. 46:8C-10(a). The judge did not find credible plaintiff's assertion that the premises were his "permanent residence," noting that plaintiff had a Montana driver's license, that plaintiff was absent from the campsite for lengthy periods of time, that plaintiff rented on a short-term, month-to-month basis, and that the vehicles on the site generally had the characteristics of camping trailers.

The judge concluded that defendants had the legal authority to evict plaintiff pursuant to the terms of the Campground Facilities Act, which allows a campground owner to remove occupants who are "in violation of the terms of the rental agreement" upon notice "request[ing] that they immediately leave," N.J.S.A. 5:16-7(a), following "a reasonable attempt [by the owner] to verbally warn the [tenant] to cease and desist the breach of quiet enjoyment or violation of the local, county or State laws, or rules of the campground facility . . . [.]" N.J.S.A. 5:16-7(b)(2). As to plaintiff's claims for damages, the judge determined that "the proofs submitted are insufficient to establish anything other than a nominal value for any property claimed to have been damaged by [defendants]."

In his corresponding order dated November 7, 2008, granting judgment to defendants, the judge stated that defendants are entitled to enforce a lien against plaintiff for unpaid rent and utility charges, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 5:16-3. The order barred plaintiff from returning to the premises, except to allow him to remove his dog and various other belongings. Plaintiff apparently complied with the order, and then filed the present appeal. He no longer wishes to occupy the property, but contends that he is entitled to monetary damages.

While his appeal was pending, plaintiff moved to supplement the appellate record with additional documents concerning defendants' premises that he had obtained after the trial pursuant to the Open Public Records Act ("OPRA"), N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1 to -13. Plaintiff contends that those additional documents show that the trial court erred under the law in treating defendants' premises as a "campground facility." We initially denied plaintiffs' motion to supplement without prejudice, temporarily remanding the case to the trial court to afford it the opportunity to consider whether the additional documents constituted newly-discovered evidence warranting relief under Rule 4:50-1. We also asked the trial court to consider whether the additional documents altered its analysis concerning the legal classification and use of the premises.

After reviewing each of the supplemental documents on remand, the trial judge concluded that they did not provide a basis for relief under Rule 4:50-1, and reaffirmed his original decision that plaintiff had been lawfully evicted under the Campground Facilities Act. Plaintiff then renewed his motion to supplement the appellate record, which we granted to include the additional documents that had been presented at the remand hearing.

On appeal, plaintiff repeats his fundamental contention that defendants' premises are not a campground facility and that he was improperly evicted. He also argues that defendants had illegally attempted to raise his rent.

Having fully considered plaintiff's arguments, we affirm the determinations of the trial court, essentially for the cogent reasons expressed by Judge Edward V. Gannon in his initial oral decision of November 7, 2008, and in his ensuing oral decision dated February 1, 2010 denying relief following the remand hearing.

The trial court's factual findings, including the court's credibility assessments, are reasonably supported by substantial evidence from the trial and thus should be upheld on appeal. See Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 483-84 (1974). In light of those factual findings, the trial judge's legal conclusions applying the pertinent statutory provisions are well reasoned and likewise should not be disturbed.

In addition, we sustain the trial judge's determination after the remand hearing that plaintiff had failed to demonstrate under Rule 4:50-1 that he could not have obtained earlier the supplemental documents that he belatedly tendered while this appeal was pending. As the judge observed, the supplemental documents date back as far as 2000, and it was plaintiff's burden to establish that he could not have obtained them sooner by the exercise of due diligence. See R. 4:50-1(b), see also DEG, L.L.C. v. Twp. of Fairfield, 198 N.J. 242, 264 (2009). It was incumbent upon plaintiff to marshal his proofs before, not after, the trial. Additionally, we note that before the trial judge rendered his decision, plaintiff did not move to leave the record open while he tried to obtain additional proofs through the OPRA process. From the record furnished to us, plaintiff did not even make his OPRA request until June 25, 2009, months after the trial court had entered final judgment in November 2008.

We further sustain the trial judge's item-by-item analysis of each of those documents, and his corresponding findings that the documents--although they contain some indications that defendants have not consistently maintained a campground license from the municipality and some documents describe the facility as a "mobile home park" or allude to the "permanent" occupancy of certain trailers on the site--nevertheless do not provide adequate and competent evidential support to alter the original judgment. In this regard, one of the supplemental documents that plaintiff has asked the court to consider is a letter dated July 2, 2009 from counsel to Frankford Township. Although it is not dispositive, that letter states in its concluding paragraph that "[r]egardless of the status of licensure [of defendants' premises], the Township has taken the position that the Edgemont Campground is in fact a campground . . . [.]" The record, when viewed as a whole, does not reflect that the trial judge misapplied his discretion in denying plaintiff post-trial relief under any other subsection of Rule 4:50-1. Morristown Hous. Auth. v. Little, 135 N.J. 274, 283-84 (1994) (instructing that, except for motions seeking relief from default judgment, motions under Rule 4:50-1 are "addressed to the sound discretion of the trial court," and rulings on such motions "will be left undisturbed unless it represents a clear abuse of discretion").

The remaining subsidiary points raised by plaintiff, to the extent that they were not discussed explicitly in the trial court's opinions, lack sufficient merit to warrant discussion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).



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