April 6, 2011
HOUSING AUTHORITY OF THE CITY OF CAMDEN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
LISA WILLIAMS, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Camden County, Docket No. LT-8492-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued December 6, 2010
Before Judges Sabatino and Alvarez.
Plaintiff Housing Authority of the City of Camden (the Housing Authority) sought to evict defendant Lisa Williams because on August 8, 2009, while in the lobby of a Housing Authority apartment building, Williams threatened a security guard with a knife. The Housing Authority's complaint was dismissed after trial. For the reasons that follow, we reverse, reinstate the complaint, and direct that the eviction be reconsidered given that the Housing Authority adequately proved Williams's unresolved conduct and in light of Williams's demand for a reasonable accommodation of her disability pursuant to federal and state law.
After the August 2008 incident, the Housing Authority sent Williams a notice of proposed termination dated August 15, 2008. Attached to the Housing Authority's verified complaint is a "Certification of Landlord (Lease Violation)," which refers to Williams's violation of certain enumerated provisions of the lease. Those paragraphs in the lease, or the lease itself for that matter, were not supplied to the trial court. We therefore do not have a copy of the relevant paragraphs. Nonetheless, Williams does not dispute that if the conduct was proven, a violation of the lease terms would have been established. As permitted under the applicable rules and regulations, Williams requested an administrative hearing, conducted on November 19, 2008, and June 19, 2009.*fn1
By letter dated September 29, 2008, Williams for the first time advised the Housing Authority of her mental health conditions and requested a reasonable accommodation of her disability; specifically, waiver of the Housing Authority's "one strike and you're out policy" implicated by her conduct towards the security guard. In a letter dated July 7, 2009, the hearing officer upheld the Housing Authority's determination. Accordingly, on August 22, 2009, the Housing Authority formally notified Williams of the termination of her lease and on October 21, 2009, filed a verified complaint for eviction. An amended complaint was subsequently filed on December 1, 2009.
At trial, Williams introduced a note from a doctor of osteopathy dated November 9, 2008, stating that she "has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder with extreme mood swings and explosive anger that can sometimes lead to violent behavior. She is currently undergoing therapy." Williams testified that she had completed an anger management course, was in treatment for her mental health conditions, and was compliant with her medication. Despite the treatment, Williams became so disruptive before the trial actually commenced that the trial judge called a recess, during which he requested Williams's attorney caution her that if she did not quiet down, she would be ejected from the courtroom. Specifically, while counsel and the court were discussing whether the matter was ready to proceed, Williams said:
[DEFENDANT]: Why don't you just evict me, man. Leave me the f*ck alone, 'cause I don't like what they doin especially with the Camden Housing Authority. And this judge is going to evict me anyway. So just evict me, man, just evict me. Sh*t, I'm tired of it. It's conspiracy of the Camden Housing Authority -- no you -- you not even representing me right. You not even representing me right. They not going to listen -- this judge hasn't listened to you the whole time you was representing me. I should been representing myself.
[DEFENDANT]: Not nobody been cut or nothing. I ain't cut nobody with nobody threaten nothin. The only reason I pled guilty to cause I didn't want to go to trial. I wish I would have went to trial. Cause, I'm mad, I've been going through this for a whole year and I ain't cut nobody or do nothing to nobody.
THE COURT: Okay, [defense counsel], now you know I have a lot of patience.
[DEFENDANT]: He don't even like me.
You guys snubbed me from the time I been in here, sir.
Williams insisted on cross-examination that she did not "want to hear about questions." Although she did not deny having entered guilty pleas to charges of terroristic threats resulting from the confrontation with the security guard, she claimed she could not recall the precise nature of the offenses, other than "all I know is I had ten years on each of three charges."
At the landlord-tenant trial, Janel Adams testified on behalf of the Housing Authority, and Williams testified on her own behalf. Although a police report about the incident was introduced, the Housing Authority did not produce either the lease or a certified judgment of conviction resulting from the entry of Williams's guilty pleas. Adams, whose position with the Housing Authority is not clear from the record,*fn2 testified his office notified Williams she would be evicted after the Housing Authority received the police report. Adams also participated in one day of the administrative hearing and heard Williams admit to pleading guilty to terroristic threats, although he did not know whether she meant in the Municipal Court or Superior Court. Adams explained that Williams had been recertified once as an eligible tenant subsequent to the August 2008 incident but now that eviction proceedings were pending would not be recertified again. He also acknowledged that the tenancy continued on a month-to-month basis after the expiration of Williams's lease.
The court dismissed the Housing Authority's eviction complaint because no certified copy of Williams's judgment of conviction was produced. The judge said that in the absence of such documentation, there's absolutely no proof, based upon a preponderance of the believable evidence that this woman committed a criminal offense and what it was. It would be simple to bring the certified copy of the offense here. That would be the end of the case.
It could rest after introduction of the record. I've heard nothing. I can't find against the defendant. I'm going to rule against the plaintiff.
On appeal, the Housing Authority contends no certified document is necessary. It asserts Williams's admission that she entered a guilty plea to making terroristic threats, as well as Adams's testimony that he previously heard her admit to entering a guilty plea, sufficed as proof that Williams threatened the health and safety of the Housing Authority's employees in violation of an essential term of her tenancy agreement. 42 U.S.C.A. § 3604(f)(9) provides that a public housing authority need not retain a tenant who poses "a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals." Presumably the lease provisions referred to in the verified complaint mirror that statutory language, but since the lease was not introduced at the hearing, we do not know if that is the case. Again, Williams does not appear to dispute that her conduct, if properly proven and if not subject to reasonable accommodation, would constitute grounds for eviction.
Williams responds that not only was the trial court correct in requiring the Housing Authority to produce a certified judgment of conviction, but that in any event the Housing Authority failed to make a reasonable accommodation for her disability as required by law, and that dismissal of the complaint is therefore warranted on those separate grounds. Williams raises other issues that she claims bar the Housing Authority from obtaining relief; however, because they were not brought to the attention of the trial court, we will not consider those arguments here. See County of Essex v. First Union, 186 N.J. 46, 51 (2006); Nieder v. Royal Indem. Ins. Co., 62 N.J. 229, 234 (1973).
As to the missing judgment of conviction, we owe no particular deference to the trial court's rulings on the law, and review such decisions de novo. See Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995); Finderne Mgmt. Co. v. Barrett, 402 N.J. Super. 546, 573 (App. Div. 2008), certif. denied, 199 N.J. 542 (2009).
We do not agree that a certified judgment was necessary for the Housing Authority to prove Williams's convictions. At the eviction hearing, Williams readily acknowledged entering guilty pleas on three charges of terroristic threats and in fact claimed she faced up to ten years imprisonment on the offenses.
Moreover, Adams testified he had previously heard Williams acknowledge that she had entered guilty pleas as a result of her threats to the Housing Authority security guard. Under these circumstances, Williams's acknowledgments sufficed. No rule or case has been brought to our attention which supports the proposition that a plaintiff must produce a certified judgment of conviction where the tenant admits the convictions resulting from her conduct. And again, although we do not have the benefit of the lease, it is undisputed that her conduct, not necessarily a conviction, is the essential fact triggering eviction.
It is also true that a public housing tenancy may be terminated where:
[t]he person has been convicted of or pleaded guilty to, or if a juvenile, has been adjudicated delinquent, on the basis of an act which if committed by an adult would constitute an offense under N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1 or N.J.S.A. 2C:12-3, involving assault, or terroristic threats against the landlord, a member of the landlord's family, or an employee of the landlord[.] [N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(o).]
In the absence of the lease, we do not know if its terms referred to Williams's obligations under federal or state law, or both. We note only that her conduct appears to have violated both.
Certainly, a trial judge has the discretion to admit or reject evidence and such decisions are reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. See, e.g., Benevenga v. Digregorio, 325 N.J. Super. 27, 32 (App. Div. 1999), certif. denied, 163 N.J. 79 (2000). But it is not reasonable to require production of a certified judgment of conviction where the tenant does not dispute commission of highly relevant criminal offenses. Accordingly, we reverse as to this issue and reinstate the complaint. But once reinstated, the court must then revisit the issue of whether, pursuant to federal and state law, a reasonable accommodation should or can be made of defendant's disability.
As we have said, Williams acknowledges that 42 U.S.C.A. § 3604(f)(9) states that no public housing authority is required to provide a dwelling to individuals who pose "a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals"; however, Williams maintains there is precedent for requiring the Housing Authority to explore the feasibility of granting her an exception to the "one strike and you're out" policy. In this regard, Williams cites to Boston Housing Authority v. Bridgewater, 898 N.E.2d 848 (Mass. 2009). There, a mentally disabled public housing tenant assaulted a fellow resident and was evicted. Id. at 850. The tenant prevailed; the Massachusetts Supreme Court found federal law required the public housing authority to demonstrate no possible accommodation would minimize the risk the tenant posed to others on the premises. Id. at 855-56.
Although Williams raised the question of reasonable accommodation, the trial court did not reach it, perhaps because of the incident at the start of the trial as a result of which a recess was taken. Since the court dismissed the matter solely on the grounds of plaintiff's failure to provide certified judgments of convictions, however, once the matter is reinstated, Williams should be afforded the opportunity to address the issue, and the Housing Authority the opportunity to rebut the proofs. Therefore, although the complaint is reinstated, and the Housing Authority found to have proven Williams violated her lease, no eviction will be ordered. Further proceedings are to be conducted to allow Williams to present her defense that she is entitled to a reasonable accommodation for her disability.
Reversed and remanded.