On appeal from the Department of Community Affairs, Bureau of Housing Inspection, Docket No. BHI 146-08.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Grall and LeWinn.
Appellant, Victor Camilo, is the owner of a nineteen-unit apartment building at 317 Lafayette Avenue, Passaic, New Jersey. He appeals from the August 20, 2009 final decision of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) imposing a fine of $205,000, plus inspection costs, for his failure to abate housing violations in that building from 2003 through 2007. We affirm.
On February 13, 2008, appellant received by certified mail a notice from the Bureau of Housing Inspection within DCA that he had been assessed $205,000 in penalties for continuing unabated violations; the notice set a compliance date of March 6, 2008.
At appellant's request, DCA transmitted this matter as a contested case to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) on March 17, 2008. On May 13, 2008, the OAL sent appellant a notice of a hearing date before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) on May 27, 2008.
On the scheduled hearing date, counsel appeared on behalf of appellant and, for the first time, requested an adjournment because appellant had been continuously out of the country since prior to the May 13, 2008 notice. Counsel acknowledged, however, that appellant was aware of the hearing date and, in fact, had specifically requested counsel to appear on his behalf. Further, counsel sought "a very short adjournment, even . . . a day or . . . a two-day adjournment just to get [appellant] back here." Counsel, however, provided no explanation as to why appellant had failed to return in time for the scheduled hearing date. DCA objected to the adjournment request noting that "this [is] an habitual offender case. . . . The issue here at this time is that these are fire and life safety issues that have perpetuated now for approximately five years."
In denying the adjournment request, the ALJ stated:
This is an eleventh-hour request, and I find it unacceptable that someone who has taken on the responsibility of property ownership -- and knowing when it's a multi-dwelling, he left someone in charge. . .
So, I deny the request for an adjournment, . . . the record is open, we will move forward. At any time, after my decision -- I will keep it open for a brief period, so the parties may appeal the order of the denial. . . . [O]therwise, we have to move forward on this because of the safety matters that are at risk. People's lives may be at risk, and that's what I'm hearing, and we don't want to jeopardize that, nor do we want to second guess that if that is a fact.
Housing Inspector Miguel Miqueli conducted an initial inspection of appellant's building on August 29, 2003, and noticed "a lot of . . . open violations that had to be abated." Miqueli personally conducted four re-inspections of the building on February 27 and July 21, 2004; January 12, 2006; and May 16, 2007.
Violations existed around the exterior of the building, in common areas, and in seventeen of the apartment units. Miqueli testified that he was unable to gain "any admittance" into two apartment units during his inspections.
Miqueli testified at length as to the violations he personally observed and noted in his reports of his successive re-inspections. These violations included by way of example, missing fire alarms and smoke detector systems; broken windows; inadequate fire-retardant construction in hallways and stairwells; pest infestation; ...