May 5, 2011
VISHAL GUPTA, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
EMIL MICHAELS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. SC-210-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted February 16, 2011
Before Judges Gilroy and Nugent.
Defendant Emil Michaels appeals from the April 13, 2010 judgment that was entered against him in the amount of $3,000, together with court costs. We reverse and remand.
In this landlord-tenant action, plaintiff Vishal Gupta filed a complaint in the Special Civil Part, Small Claims Section, seeking to recover unpaid rent and real property damages from defendant. On April 13, 2010, the parties tried the matter pro se. At the conclusion of the trial, the court entered an order supported by an oral decision entering judgment in favor of plaintiff.
We discern the following facts from the transcript of the trial proceedings. Plaintiff and Mamta Gupta are the owners of a single-family residence located in the Township of Old Bridge (the premises). In November 2008, they entered into a lease agreement as landlords to rent the premises to defendant for a term of twelve months commencing December 1, 2008, and ending November 30, 2009, with rent fixed at $2,400 per month, plus utilities. Pursuant to the terms of the lease, defendant paid to plaintiff a $3,600 security deposit on November 8, 2008. In March 2009, because plaintiff failed to repair or replace what defendant described as an old leaking refrigerator, defendant purchased a new refrigerator for the premises at a cost of $1,050 and deducted that amount from the March rent over plaintiff's objection.
Because defendant continued to complain of unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, in June 2009, plaintiff offered to terminate the lease and to allow defendant to vacate the premises. In August 2009, defendant advised plaintiff that he had found another home to purchase and would vacate the premises at the end of September 2009. Believing that plaintiff would not return the full amount of his security deposit, defendant did not pay one-half of the rent for the month of August 2009, and no rent for the month of September 2009. Because of a delay in closing on his new home, defendant continued in possession of the premises through October 2009. Defendant did pay the October rent timely.
After defendant failed to vacate the premises as originally promised in September 2009, plaintiff filed an action in the Landlord-Tenant Division of the Special Civil Part, seeking to evict defendant for non-payment of rent. On October 21, 2009, the return date of the eviction action, the parties settled the matter by entering into a consent to enter judgment that provided, among other things: 1) acknowledgement by defendant of his failure to pay one and one-half months rent for August and September 2009; 2) immediate entry of judgment for possession in favor of plaintiff; 3) defendant was not to pay any additional rent to plaintiff; and 4) plaintiff would stay the eviction until November 1, 2009, at 5:00 p.m. The parties executed an amendment to the lease agreement, changing the termination date of the lease from December 1, 2009 to November 1, 2009.
Defendant vacated the premises on November 1, 2009, as agreed upon by the parties. In mid-November 2009, plaintiff's wife and children re-entered and occupied the premises for their own use. After doing so, plaintiff's wife obtained estimates for what plaintiff claims were damages to the property caused by defendant and his family. Plaintiff estimated the cost of repairs at $2,500.
Following the trial, the court entered judgment in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $3,000, together with court costs. In so doing, the court determined that defendant owed plaintiff $7,050 in unpaid rent for 2009: $1,050 for the month of March; $1,200 for the month of August; $2,400 for the month of September; and $2,400 for the month of November. After giving defendant credit for the $3,600 security deposit, the court determined that defendant owed plaintiff $3,400 in unpaid rent. Concluding that the jurisdictional limit of the Small Claims Section of the Special Civil Part is $3,000, see R. 6:1-2(a)(2), the court did not address plaintiff's claim for real property damages, determining plaintiff had waived any excess over the stated jurisdictional amount. R. 6:1-2(c).
On appeal, defendant argues that the trial court erred in entering judgment in excess of $2,859.19, the amount demanded by plaintiff in his complaint; the court erroneously failed to credit defendant $1,050 for the purchase of the new refrigerator that was left with the premises; the court erred in awarding plaintiff rent for the month of November 2009 because plaintiff had not demanded the November rent in his complaint, plaintiff agreed to allow defendant out of the lease provided he vacated by November 1, 2009, and plaintiff's family reoccupied the premises in November 2009. Defendant also asserts the trial court erred in determining that he could not raise Marini*fn1
habitability issues in defense of the rent claim, and in failing to consider his testimony that plaintiff's real estate agent inspected the premises on November 1, 2009, and found the same in an acceptable condition.
A judgment shall not be overturned except where, after a careful review of the record and weighing of the evidence, the appellate court determines that "'continued viability of the judgment would constitute a manifest denial of justice.'" In re Adoption of a Child by P.F.R., 308 N.J. Super. 250, 255 (App. Div. 1998) (quoting Baxter v. Fairmont Food Co., 74 N.J. 588, 597-98 (1977)). We will not disturb the factual findings and legal conclusions of a trial court unless they are "'so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice.'" Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974) (quoting Fagliarone v. Twp. of N. Bergen, 78 N.J. Super. 154, 155 (App. Div. 1963)). However, the same level of deference is not required when we are reviewing a legal conclusion. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).
We agree with defendant's primary argument that the trial court erroneously awarded plaintiff $2,400 in unpaid rent for November 2009. The trial court's determination that defendant was obligated to pay the November rent pursuant to the terms of the lease agreement is not supported by the credible evidence in the record. The record contains an "Amendment to Lease Contract" signed by both parties, changing the date of lease termination from December 1 to November 1, 2009. We assume this was executed after defendant was delayed in closing title on his new home, the parties having originally agreed that plaintiff would vacate the premises by September 30, 2009. The "consent to enter judgment" entered in the Landlord-Tenant Division on October 21, 2009, indicated that the parties agreed that if defendant vacated the premises on or before November 1, 2009, that no additional rent would be owing. Plaintiff's complaint in the Small Claims Section did not include a demand for the November rent. Additionally, before the trial court raised the issue of the November rent, when questioned by the court as to what months plaintiff's claim for unpaid rent included, plaintiff stated: "[u]npaid rent for the month of March, in which he paid me only [$]1350, the rent was [$]2,400 for that month. So it was $1050 short. Unpaid rent for the month of August where he only paid me $1,200. Unpaid rent for the month of September." Lastly, plaintiff's own action in reoccupying the premises in November 2009, after defendant vacated the premises pursuant to the parties' agreement, is inconsistent with a claim for the November rent. Accordingly, we conclude the trial court erroneously awarded plaintiff $2,400 in unpaid rent for November 2009.
Plaintiff next argues that the trial court erroneously failed to give him credit of $1,050 against the unpaid rent for the cost of purchasing a new refrigerator after plaintiff failed to repair or replace the old refrigerator. Defendant asserts that the new refrigerator, as well as the old refrigerator, were left in the premises, and thus, the landlord received the benefit of the purchase.
The trial court, after viewing photographs of what plaintiff asserted were unsafe and unsanitary conditions of the premises, concluded that none of the items claimed "would cause this [c]court to find that there should be a rent abatement." However, we cannot determine from the record whether the court considered the issue of defendant's purchase of the new refrigerator or only other unrelated conditions concerning the cleanliness of the premises. If, in fact, defendant had informed plaintiff of an ongoing problem concerning the operation of the original refrigerator and defendant had failed to repair or replace the same, defendant may have been entitled to make the repair if able, or to purchase a new refrigerator, and deduct the cost from the rent. Marini, supra, 56 N.J. at 146. A tenant is not required to vacate the premises and claim constructive eviction before seeking a rent abatement. Ibid. He or she is permitted to make the repairs or purchase new equipment and then obtain the abatement. Ibid. Because we cannot determine whether the trial court considered the issue whether defendant was entitled to a rent abatement because of his purchase of the new refrigerator, we remand for the court to address the issue in the first instance.
We reverse that part of the judgment awarding plaintiff $2,400 in unpaid rent for the month of November 2009. We remand for the trial court to address the issue whether defendant is entitled to an abatement of the unpaid rent for the month of March 2009 as a result of his purchase of the new refrigerator, which was left with the premises. On the trial court resolving the latter issue, the court shall enter an amended judgment in accordance with its findings and this opinion.
Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.