November 14, 2011
PRONY NARCISSE, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
MIDDLESEX MANAGEMENT, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Union County, Docket No. SC-1914-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 25, 2011
Before Judges Carchman and Nugent.
Defendant Middlesex Management appeals from a judgment of $740 awarded by the Special Civil Part in favor of defendant's tenant, plaintiff Prony Narcisse. The judgment resulted from a complaint filed by plaintiff, seeking the return of his security deposit of $1190. In response, defendant, the landlord, counterclaimed for $1590, representing the rent that was due when plaintiff filed the complaint. The trial judge concluded that plaintiff failed to give proper notice of the termination of the lease, defendant constructively evicted plaintiff, and defendant failed to notify plaintiff of appropriate deductions from the security deposit. After calculating various adjustments and the payment of rent, the judge concluded that defendant owed plaintiff $740 and entered judgment accordingly. We now reverse and remand for a new trial.
These are the facts adduced at the trial. On May 19, 2010, plaintiff and Kings Manor Joint Venture*fn1 entered into a one-year lease for the premises located at 452-K Jefferson Ave., Elizabeth. The stated rent was $770 per month. Defendant acknowledged the receipt of a security deposit of $1155. In addition, plaintiff paid $35, which represented a deposit for a mailbox key. In his complaint, plaintiff sought the return of these two fees, for a total of $1190. Plaintiff alleged, "My security has been denied by Middlesex Management.*fn2 I do have pictures of dead mice, door locks jammed, no smoke [illegible]."
On September 13, 2010, defendant received notice that plaintiff was terminating his lease and would be vacating the apartment on September 30, 2010. In response, defendant sent plaintiff a letter noting, among other things, that plaintiff would be responsible for rent until the end of the term, as well as $400 in liquidated damages, pursuant to the terms of the lease. In its responding papers, defendant filed a counterclaim for the accumulated rent that was due since the time when plaintiff vacated the premises.
At trial, in response to the judge's leading question, plaintiff indicated that on August 28, 2010, when he exited the shower, he encountered "a female Haitian intruder." The woman identified herself as a previous tenant who intended to "sabotage" the apartment because defendant would not return her security deposit. In addition, plaintiff responded in the affirmative to the judge's statement, "So you're living there and in your complaint you said some bad things happened." Finally, plaintiff again responded affirmatively when the judge stated, "Also in the complaint you make other allegations that the apartment was devastated, that there was [sic] all kinds of problems there. So you decided that you were going to move out on September the 30th." Other than this brief colloquy, no further mention was made of the condition of the premises.
Plaintiff paid the September rent of $770 but nothing thereafter. Defendant conceded that it did not send plaintiff a letter regarding deductions from the security deposit because the lease was still in effect. Moreover, it claimed a management fee and sought to enforce a liquidated damage provision, which would entitle defendant to $400.
As we have noted, plaintiff's testimony consisted essentially of yes or no answers to leading questions propounded by the judge. The judge did not afford either party the opportunity to cross-examine; no additional proofs were presented addressing the merits of the parties' various contentions.
In his decision, the judge deducted $770 from the $1190 security deposit for October rent, as well as an additional $50 for a "management fee." He then made the following findings, which we quote in their entirety: "I'm going to find that it was a constructive eviction. However, you still had to give him notice of these things and since you didn't, I'm going to double the [$]370. So you owe him [$]740. End of case."
Defendant appeals, asserting that there was no evidence of uninhabitable conditions sufficient to sustain a finding of constructive eviction and that the judge erred in doubling the security deposit.
We first note that where findings of fact are made by a trial judge, we will not disturb those findings when they are supported by adequate and credible evidence. Seidman v. Clifton Sav. Bank, S.L.A., 205 N.J. 150, 169 (2011) (citations omitted); Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). However, our deferential standard is tempered by a trial court's obligation to adhere to the requirements of Rule 1:7-4 (requiring the court to make findings of fact and state its conclusions of law in all actions tried without a jury); Borough of Sayreville v. 35 Club, LLC, 416 N.J. Super. 315, 323 (App. Div. 2010); Esposito v. Esposito, 158 N.J. Super. 285, 291 (1978) (noting that a judge is obligated to make findings of fact to inform both the litigants and a reviewing court of the judge's rationale for the decision).
Here the judge made no finding other than concluding that plaintiff was constructively evicted. The judge offered neither factual support for his conclusion nor analysis of the elements necessary to reach such a conclusion. We have observed that conclusory determinations and generalities will not survive appellate scrutiny when they are not supported by articulated reasons grounded in the evidence. Goldklang v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 130 N.J. Super. 307, 310 (App. Div. 1974).
Moreover, the way in which the judge conducted the trial left much to be desired. The bulk of the questioning was conducted by the judge, who asked leading questions that required little explanation by the parties and provided no factual basis for the underlying claims. In addition, the proofs hardly established the conclusion that there was a constructive eviction.
New Jersey courts have long recognized that a residential lease contains an implied warranty of habitability and an implied covenant of quiet enjoyment, pursuant to which a landlord owes a tenant a duty of warranting that the leased property "is fit for that purpose at the inception of the term and will remain so during the entire term. . . . [I]t [is] implied that he has further agreed to repair damage to vital facilities caused by ordinary wear and tear during said term." Marini v. Ireland, 56 N.J. 130, 144 (1970). In Reste Realty Corp. v. Cooper, 53 N.J. 444, 454 (1969), the Court observed, "[L]atent defects remediable by the landlord, either within the demised premises or outside the demised premises, require imposition on him of an implied warranty against such defects." "[A]ny act or omission of the landlord or anyone acting under his authority which renders the premises substantially unsuitable for the purpose for which they are leased, or which seriously interferes with the beneficial enjoyment of the premises, is a breach of that covenant . . . ." Gottdiener v. Mailhot, 179 N.J. Super. 286, 290-91 (App. Div. 1981) (citing Reste Realty, supra, 53 N.J. at 457). Failure to maintain the property or to otherwise abide by the covenant of quiet enjoyment constitutes a constructive eviction. Marini, supra, 56 N.J. at 145; Gottdiener, supra, 179 N.J. Super. at 291. Constructive eviction justifies a tenant's decision to vacate the demised premises. Reste Realty, supra, 53 N.J. at 461.
Forgiveness of rent payments can only occur if the tenant abandons the leased premises. Harel Assocs. v. Cooper Healthcare Prof'l Servs., Inc., 271 N.J. Super. 405, 408 (App. Div. 1994). In order to assert the defense of constructive eviction, a tenant must vacate the premises within a reasonable amount of time after the landlord's breach. Reste Realty, supra, 53 N.J. at 461. Otherwise, [a] tenant's right to claim a constructive eviction will be lost . . . . What constitutes a reasonable time depends upon the circumstances of each case. In considering the problem, courts must be sympathetic toward the tenant's plight.
Vacation of the premises is a drastic course and must be taken at his peril. [Ibid. (citations omitted).]
Constructive eviction is unavailable to tenants once the problem has been cured. JS Properties, L.L.C. v. Brown and Filson, Inc., 389 N.J. Super. 542, 547-48 (App. Div. 2006).
On this record, plaintiff failed to establish the elements of constructive eviction. The only complaints that appear in the record are the reference to the intruder as well as the reference to the apartment being "devastated" and mention that there were "all kinds of problems there." This is insufficient to warrant a conclusion that there was constructive eviction.
Based on the record before us, we reject plaintiff's claim that he was constructively evicted. Moreover, the judge's doubling of that portion of the security deposit that was owed to plaintiff cannot stand. On the remand for a new trial, plaintiff may attempt to prove constructive eviction, and if he is successful, the trial judge shall then determine when the lease was terminated. See Mitchell v. First Real Estate Equities, Inc., 287 N.J. Super. 546, 550 (App. Div. 1996) (holding that "[t]he date of the reletting determines the date of the 'termination' of the breached lease"). That determination shall impact the issues of whether and when defendant improperly withheld the security deposit, or any portion thereof, and whether plaintiff is entitled to recover double the amount of the withheld funds. See N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1.
We recognize that matters heard in the Small Claims Division of the Special Civil Part involve primarily pro se litigants. We also recognize that such matters must be resolved expeditiously and, in many instances, with limited proofs and evidence. Nevertheless, these conditions do not relieve the judge from conducting a hearing that affords both parties an opportunity to present their evidence fully and "in their words," rather than through leading questions evoking a yes or no response and little more. In addition, both parties are entitled to an opportunity to cross-examine adverse witnesses. None of this was done here.
We conclude that, under the totality of the circumstances, this matter should be remanded for a new trial on all issues to afford the parties an opportunity to present and defend their cases fully and appropriately.
Reversed and remanded for a new trial. We do not retain jurisdiction.