On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County, Docket No. L-6106-07.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Graves and St. John.
Plaintiffs Louis and Barbara Esposito appeal from a May 19, 2010 order, and a supplemental order of judgment. We affirm.
In October 2005, the Espositos entered into a contract to purchase a home in Freehold, New Jersey, located in an adult active community known as The Riviera at Freehold. On July 31, 2006, the Espositos closed on their home. Prior to closing, the Espositos decided to replace the front door of the home. Louis was advised that he could not change the front door without first submitting the necessary application and obtaining prior written approval from the Board of The Riviera at Freehold Homeowners Association, Inc. (the Association) or the Association's designee, the Architectural Review Committee (ARC).
The Association is a non-profit corporation organized pursuant to the New Jersey Nonprofit Corporation Act, N.J.S.A. 15A:1-1, for the purpose of governing the community and is subject to the New Jersey Planned Real Estate Full Disclosure Act, N.J.S.A. 45:15-16.27 (PREFDA). The Association acts through an elected Board of Trustees. The Espositos, as a result of their home ownership, are members of the Association. A declaration of covenants, easements and restrictions (Declaration) was recorded, and an initial set of Rules and Regulations, dated 2005, (Rules) was adopted. Both the Declaration and the Rules provide that any exterior modification to a home must receive prior approval from the Board.
When the community was constructed in 2005, the developer offered the homeowner the option of four different Colonial-style front doors. Without any written approval from the Association, the Espositos replaced their existing Colonial-style door with a Gothic-style door. Subsequent to the installation, Louis submitted an application seeking permission to install the new door. Louis asserts that prior to changing the door, he obtained consent from Christine Maldonado, an employee of the property management company for the Association.
On August 24, 2006, after the door was replaced, the ARC reviewed the Esposito's application and denied the request. The ARC unanimously found that the requested door did not blend with the architecture of the community. The Espositos subsequently requested a hearing pursuant to the Association's alternate dispute resolution procedures. The Espositos argued that the verbal approval from Ms. Maldonado was sufficient to grant permission to install the new door. Their request was denied, and on October 6, 2007, a letter of notification of denial was sent to the Espositos advising them that fines would be imposed commencing forty-five days from the date of the letter. The fines were $25 for each day that the offending Gothic-style door remained on their home.
The Espositos filed a complaint against the Association, and an order to show cause without temporary constraints was entered on January 7, 2008. They requested injunctive relief restraining the Association from requiring them to remove and replace their front door. The Association agreed to assess no further fines as of January 1, 2008. Thereafter, the Association filed an answer and counterclaim, which asserted a breach of the Declaration, and sought its enforcement through compelling payment of fines and an award of attorneys' fees. The parties then undertook discovery.
A bench trial was held before Judge Daniel M. Waldman on May 8, 2009 and June 1, 2009. The trial judge entered an order of judgment, granting dismissal of the Espositos' complaint and entering a judgment in favor of the Association against the Espositos. The judgment directed the removal of the door, and a replacement with a door approved in advance, in writing, by the ARC, in accordance with the Association's governing documents. The trial judge issued a comprehensive opinion setting forth his findings of facts and conclusions of law. The judge reserved on the issue of payment of the Association's attorneys' fees, fines and costs of services for the Association's engineering firm. The trial court entered a supplemental order of judgment, on the reserved decision, awarding fines, and attorneys' fees andcosts, in an aggregate amount of $23,588.32, consisting of $20,503.32 in legal fees and costs through trial, $2,150 in fines, and $935 in legal fees and costs post-trial. The trial judge denied the request for the costs of the Association's engineering firm. The supplemental order was accompanied by a detailed opinion determining the amount of the judgment for the Association's counterclaim for all outstanding fines, attorney's fees and costs.
The Espositos appeal the orders of judgment. They contend that the trial court erred by requiring replacement of the door and by awarding attorney's fees to the Association. We disagree and affirm.
A judgment shall not be overturned except where, after a careful review of the record and weighing of the evidence, we determine 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 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 No. Bergen, 78 N.J. Super. 154, 155 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 40 N.J. 221 (1963)). Consequently, "the appellate court should exercise its original fact finding jurisdiction sparingly and in none but a clear case where there is no doubt about the matter." Ibid. "'That the case may be a close one or that the trial court decided all evidence or inference conflicts in favor of one side has no special effect.'" Czoch v. Freeman, 317 N.J. Super. 273, 283 (App. Div.) (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 162 (1964)), certif. denied, 161 N.J. 149 (1999).
The rationale underlying this limited scope of appellate review is that "a trial judge's findings are substantially influenced by his or her opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to get a 'feel' for the case that the reviewing court [cannot] enjoy." Twp. of W. Windsor v. Nierenberg, 150 N.J. 111, 132 (1997) (citing State v. Whitaker, 79 N.J. 503, 515 (1979)). For this reason, credibility determinations are entitled to particular deference, because the trial judge has a superior perspective "in evaluating the veracity of witnesses." Id. at 133. However, the same level ...