January 21, 2011
EDWIN EVANS AND MASHAWN*FN1 VENABLE, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
MELVIN MCDANIEL, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Essex County, Docket No. SC-3567-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 1, 2010
Before Judges R. B. Coleman and Lihotz.
Defendant-landlord Melvin McDaniel appeals from a Special Civil Part judgment, entered following a bench trial, awarding plaintiffs Edwin Evans and Mashawn Venable return of their security deposit. We affirm.
The parties entered into a written lease agreement for the period August 1, 2009 to July 31, 2010. Plaintiffs agreed to pay the monthly rental of $1,050. Plaintiffs remitted a security deposit of $1,575 and paid the first month's rent.
Plaintiffs stated they were given the keys to the premises, but never moved in due to various problems needing remediation. Initially, plaintiffs complained that the toilet was inoperable, there was a hole in the kitchen wall and the prior occupant had left trash in the premises. Plaintiffs requested, and defendant agreed, to repair these items and stated he would address any other concerns plaintiffs raised.
Plaintiffs arranged for cable and telephone services, moving a television and telephone into the leasehold for hookup. Additionally, they purchased a refrigerator, which was connected in the kitchen, and replaced the stove. Thereafter, plaintiffs determined the electricity and plumbing functioned poorly and the kitchen drawers were filled with "mouse feces and dead roaches." Defendant attributed the infestation to the first-floor tenant.
At trial, plaintiffs played an August 26, 2009 voicemail message left on their answering machine from defendant that stated he did not want them as tenants. Defendant agreed to retain August's rental payment, end the lease, "waive the thirty-day notice" and return their security deposit.
Plaintiffs assert they had never moved into the apartment and claimed they did not agree defendant could retain the rent paid. Plaintiffs filed this action seeking return of all monies remitted for the security deposit and rent.
Defendant testified that one week before the lease was signed, both plaintiffs had viewed the apartment. Plaintiffs told defendant they had one month remaining on their current lease and tried to adjust the start date to September 1, 2009. Defendant explained they could wait if they wanted, but he had other prospective tenants who may lease immediately. The parties executed the lease on July 31, 2009 to commence the tenancy the next day.
One week later, plaintiffs began lodging complaints. Defendant asserted he addressed each issue. For example, he maintained the plumbing worked fine, but he merely needed to install a new flush handle on the toilet; the trash remnants resulted from a new carpet installation and he admitted there were a few mouse droppings in the kitchen drawer and agreed to engage an exterminator. The following week, plaintiffs complained the electrical outlet in the bedroom was inoperable and later, the electricity for the building was completely disrupted when plaintiffs plugged in an air conditioner. Defendant hired an electrician to correct the problem and told plaintiffs everything was fixed. Nevertheless, plaintiffs continued to call defendant with complaints regarding the premises.
Defendant offered photographs of plaintiffs' personal property in the premises to establish they had moved-in. The pictures did not reflect food, furniture and furnishings were placed in the apartment, they showed only the items described by plaintiffs installed in anticipation of a move.
Defendant admitted that, in frustration, he left the August 26, 2009 voicemail message telling plaintiffs he thought "maybe they would be problem tenants" and maybe they should leave and he would return their security deposit. After calming down, he consulted an attorney, who advised the lease was binding and he called plaintiffs to explain he would continue to honor the lease. He suggested if plaintiffs wanted to leave, he would allow them to break the lease but he would retain their security deposit. Defendant asserted plaintiffs failed to return the keys and he had not re-let the premises.
The trial judge determined plaintiffs had not taken possession of the premises at the time defendant suggested they should find alternative accommodations and he would return their security deposit. The court found the refrigerator, stove, window blinds and television were in the apartment, but evinced an "attempt to take possession if certain conditions prece[dent] were satisfied and if certain things that they anticipated [defendant] would do were to take place . . . . It shows an anticipatory possession if certain conditions pr[e]ceding [possession] were satisfied, but obviously there was no meeting of the minds." Defendant's reaction of telling plaintiffs they could "get out of here" and he would return their security deposit further showed possession was not taken.
The court awarded plaintiffs damages in the amount of the security deposit, $1575, plus the $22 filing fee. On appeal, defendant challenges that order, arguing he should not be required to return plaintiffs' security deposit because they merely changed their minds after signing the lease.
The scope of our review of a trial judge's findings following a bench trial is a limited one. Fagliarone v. Twp. of N. Bergen, 78 N.J. Super. 154, 155 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 40 N.J. 221 (1963). We will not "'engage in an independent assessment of the evidence as if [we] were the court of first instance,'" N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. Z.P.R., 351 N.J. Super. 427, 433 (App. Div. 2002) (quoting State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 471 (1999)), and will reverse only if we are convinced the trial judge's factual findings and legal conclusions "are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice." Fagliarone, supra, 78 N.J. Super. at 155. We must defer to the trial judge's findings of fact if supported by substantial credible evidence in the record. Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 483-84 (1974). This is particularly so when, as in this case, the significant evidence is largely testimonial. Bonnco Petrol, Inc. v. Epstein, 115 N.J. 599, 607 (1989).
However, our review of questions of law is plenary. Connell v. Diehl, 397 N.J. Super. 477, 490-491 (App. Div. 2008). "A trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference." Manalapan Realty v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).
"Under New Jersey law a lease is like any other written contract." Ringwood Assocs., Ltd. v. Jack's of Route 23, Inc., 153 N.J. Super. 294, 309 (Law Div. 1977). See also Gamble v. Connolly, 399 N.J. Super. 130, 140 (Law Div. 2007) (stating courts "construe landlord-tenant law in accordance with . . . principles of contract law"). Additionally, a binding contract requires that "the proposition of one party must be met by an acceptance of the other, which corresponds with it entirely and adequately[.]" Trustees of First Presbyterian Church v. Howard Co. Jewelers, 12 N.J. 410, 413 (1953).
With these standards in mind, we review defendant's challenge to the finding that plaintiffs did not take possession of the premises. Defendant suggests plaintiffs' execution of the lease document, acceptance of the keys, installation of appliances and utility services, and placement of some possessions in the leasehold amply shows they took possession of the leasehold. We are not persuaded.
The evidence relied upon by the trial judge showed that prior to execution of the lease, plaintiffs viewed the premises and voiced concerns regarding conditions impinging upon habitability, which defendant agreed to mitigate. After the lease was executed, additional issues were discovered regarding the electric service and rodent and bug infestation which were not readily apparent during the prior inspection. Defendant conceded the problems and promised to remedy said unsatisfactory conditions. However, when plaintiffs' complaints continued, defendant offered to end the lease term and return their security deposit. Plaintiffs accepted. The trial court concluded that the series of events obviated any meeting of the minds under the written lease agreement.
There is no challenge to the court's finding that the lease would not take effect if plaintiffs did not take possession. Therefore, we accept the trial judge's finding, which we cannot confirm because the lease is not included in the record. The testimonial evidence submitted by plaintiffs that they only placed necessary items to commence living in the premises and did not move in was verified by the photographs offered by defendant. The court's findings on this issue were supported by substantial credible evidence. Rova Farms, supra, 65 N.J. at 484.
We conclude plaintiffs were entitled to rely upon that agreement which was defendant's proposal to remedy what both parties found to be unsatisfactory. Therefore, the originally executed lease did not take effect. Under these circumstances, returning plaintiffs' security deposit and relieving them of further liability under the lease, except for the one month of their anticipated occupancy, comports with their verbal understanding.