On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Hudson County, Docket No. LT-12945-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges J. N. Harris and Fasciale.
Defendants David P. Fruchtman and Adina Fruchtman (collectively Fruchtman) appeal a judgment of possession entered by the Special Civil Part in a residential summary dispossess action. Plaintiff Veena Sinha sought the judgment of possession on the dual grounds of nonpayment of rent and her desire to personally occupy the dwelling unit.*fn1
Our recitation of the facts of this matter is hampered by the unusual circumstances that (1) no testimony was taken during the trial, (2) none of the documentary evidence considered by the trial judge was marked or identified, and (3) the entry of the judgment of possession was based solely upon the hearsay representations of plaintiff's attorney (in violation of Rule 1:6-6) and the unsworn statements of Mr. Fruchtman, acting pro se. Because of our lack of confidence in the decisional accuracy of the judgment of possession, which is engendered by our inability to effectively review the proceedings, we are constrained to reverse and remand the matter for a new trial.
The following is what we are able to cobble together from the fragmentary record. In 2004, Rohini Sinha and Vilma Sinha as landlords,*fn2 and Mr. Fruchtman, as tenant, entered into a one-year residential lease for the subject property located in Hoboken. The dwelling unit, variously described either as an apartment or a condominium unit, was devised to plaintiff after her mother died in early 2010, but the manner and means of the transfer are not illuminated by the record.*fn3 Because plaintiff did not testify at trial, and no documents were admitted into evidence, we do not know (1) the details of the transfer, (2) whether plaintiff owns other condominium or cooperative units, or (3) the amount of rent that was alleged to be due, unpaid, and owing by Fruchtman to plaintiff.
When the case was called for trial, the court engaged in a series of conversations with plaintiff's attorney and Mr. Fruchtman, acting pro se. The court administered an oath to plaintiff, who was present, but not to Mr. Fruchtman. However, plaintiff never uttered a word (besides stating her name) on the record during the entire proceeding.
During this informal process, which resembled a courtroom conference rather than a trial, documents were handed to the judge for her review, but the nature and details of those documents were not placed on the record. We note that Fruchtman's main argument in this appeal -- whether plaintiff properly complied with N.J.S.A. 46:8-28 (requiring a landlord of a residential unit to register the property with the municipality) -- may have been contained in a letter received by the judge on the day of trial, but was not mentioned during the trial by Fruchtman or the judge. Fruchtman's appendix contains the letter to the court, dated the same day as the trial, but we are unable to discern whether the trial judge considered these claims on the date of trial.
Fruchtman argues that plaintiff neglected to file an amended registration statement upon her taking title to the dwelling unit, as required by N.J.S.A. 46:8-28.2. Accordingly, he asserts that the trial court erred in granting the judgment of possession and in refusing to stay its operation for up to ninety days pursuant to N.J.S.A. 46:8-33.
After approximately thirty minutes of colloquy among the judge, counsel for plaintiff, and Mr. Fruchtman, the judge dismissed plaintiff's claim for nonpayment of rent on the grounds that "I will take notice of the fact that [Mr. Fruchtman has] the full amount of the rent. The issue is no longer a non payment action, I think I made that clear. It's not a non payment action anymore, this is that the landlord wants to live on the premises." Then, after briefly determining that plaintiff had complied with all required notices, the court ruled that plaintiff had satisfied the grounds for eviction pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(l)(1),*fn4 and entered a judgment of possession forthwith.
Shortly thereafter, Fruchtman moved for a stay, arguing hardship and that plaintiff had failed to file the landlord registration statement. The application for a stay was denied, and upon Fruchtman's application for emergent relief from this court, we also denied a stay. Fruchtman was forced to vacate the premises, and plaintiff apparently moved in.
On appeal, Fruchtman argues that the trial court erred (1) in its failure to give effect to N.J.S.A. 46:8-28 and -28.2; (2) by not taking testimony of plaintiff in order to satisfy the statutory requirements for a judgment of possession; and (3) by failing to recognize that Fruchtman was not personally served with a Notice to Quit and Demand for Possession. Because we agree that there was no competent evidence to support the trial court's findings due to the unconventional manner of conducting the trial, we ...