On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Essex County, Docket No. SC-4230-10.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted November 30, 2011
Before Judges Graves and Koblitz.
Plaintiff Qiong Jin appeals from a December 15, 2010 trial court order dismissing her complaint, which sought the return of $1390 in residential security deposit and $568 in rent from her former landlords, defendants Luping Sun and Erdong Hu. Plaintiff sought double the security deposit due her plus interest pursuant to N.J.S.A. 46:9-21.1. After reviewing the record, we conclude that the trial judge found facts not supported by the evidence. We therefore reverse and remand for a new trial.
After plaintiff's initial lease term of defendants' apartment ran out at the end of 2007, plaintiff and her family were month-to-month tenants. They moved out on September 19, 2010, after giving thirty-two days notice by phone.
Defendants sent a check to plaintiff dated October 18, 2010, in the amount of $1449.23. The amount returned represented the $1390 security deposit plus a pro-rated return of September's $1420 rent, minus the expense of "[u]tilities $88.77, cleaning stove $70, cleaning carpets $100, repair hardwood floor $250." The check misspelled plaintiff's husband's name by one letter. Defendants sent an e-mail to plaintiff on October 27, 2010, asking her to return the check if she could not cash it due to the misspelling. Plaintiff did not return the check. Defendants also sent plaintiff receipts for the cleaning performed in the apartment.
At trial, defendants presented photographs taken of the hardwood floor after plaintiff left, which showed scratches. No evidence was presented as to the condition of the floors when plaintiff moved into the apartment. The receipts for the cleaning services were also presented in court.
The trial judge found that plaintiff failed to give written notice to quit thirty days in advance of vacating the apartment and, as a result, additional rent was due. The judge further found appropriate the deduction of $250 for the wood floor repair and determined the utility bill and stove cleaning charges were reasonable. However, the court disallowed the carpet cleaning bill. The judge concluded that the balance of the security deposit including interest, even if doubled, was less than the rent due.
Plaintiff raises the following issues on appeal:
I. THE TRIAL JUDGE ERRED IN HOLDING THAT THE APPELLANT OWES BACK RENT AND WAS NOT ENTITLED TO THE RETURN OF THE DEPOSIT. THE TRIAL JUDGE ALSO ERRED IN DETERMIN[ING] THAT THE RESPONDENTS ARE NOT SUBJECTED TO PENALTIES MANDATED BY THE STATUTE.
II. THE TRIAL JUDGE ERRED IN DETERMINING THAT THE STATUTE N.J.S.A. 46:9-21.1 IS NOT TRIGGERED. THE RESPONDENTS VIOLATED THE STATUTE FOR FAILING TO RETURN ANY PORTION OF THE SECURITY DEPOSIT WITHIN THE REQUIRED PERIOD. THE APPELLANT IS ENTITLED TO AN AWARD OF DOUBLE THE AMOUNT OF THE SECURITY DEPOSIT, PLUS INTEREST THEREON, TOGETHER WITH COSTS.
III. THE TRIAL JUDGE FAILED TO REQUEST THE RESPONDENTS TO PROVIDE EVIDENCE TO PROVE THEIR DEDUCTION CLAIMS. THE [TRIAL] JUDGE ERRED IN HOLDING THAT APPELLANT IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE FEES FOR CLEANING THE STOVE AND THE FEES TO REPAIR THE HARDWOOD FLOOR.
As the Supreme Court recently noted in State v. NunezValdez, 200 N.J. 129, 141 (2009), "[a] reviewing court is required to affirm the findings of the trial court if they could reasonably have been reached on sufficient credible evidence in the record." The Court added, "[a]n appellate court should give deference to those findings of the trial judge which are substantially influenced by his opportunity to hear and see the witnesses and to have the feel of the case, which a reviewing court cannot enjoy." Ibid. (quoting State v. Elders, 192 N.J. 224, 244 (2007) (quoting State v. Johnson, 42 N.J. 146, 161 (1964))) (internal quotations omitted). Thus, we must defer to the trial court's credibility findings. State v. Locurto, 157 N.J. 463, 470 (1999); State v. Cerefice, 335 N.J. Super. 375, 383 (App. Div. 2000). However, "[a] trial ...