March 27, 2012
KERIN ST. CLAIR, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
EVA HOLIDAY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. LT-5611-11.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted March 6, 2012
Before Judges Payne and Accurso.
Plaintiff-landlord Kerin St. Clair appeals from a judgment of possession issued in his favor following a landlord/tenant trial conditioned upon his making a relocation assistance payment of $10,350 to defendant pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1h. We affirm.
Defendant-tenant Eva Holiday began renting from plaintiff in August 2000 with Section 8 assistance. Defendant rented the second floor of a two-family house in Maplewood. Plaintiff lived with his family in the first floor. In September 2007, plaintiff moved his family into a new home. Defendant testified that she moved from the second floor apartment into the first floor apartment in October 2007, at a rent of $1,325 per month. Sometime thereafter, plaintiff began renting out the basement to defendant's two sons for $400 per month and an agreement that they would cut the grass, shovel snow and keep an eye on the boiler. Defendant would collect the $400 from her sons and include it with her monthly payment to plaintiff in a single money order.
In his trial testimony, plaintiff disputed that he had entered into a separate lease agreement with defendant's sons. Testifying in response to a question from the court, he stated:
Yes, Your Honor, and I was, you know, getting right up and say that's - that's incorrect because I know the renting of a basement in the State of New Jersey is definitely illegal and if you will look at the information that Miss Holiday ha[s] right here it's one lease agreement which is through extra living space and the use of the washer and dryer.
There's no lease that specifically [provides] for the rental of a basement.
Miss Holiday, you know, wanted to live in the same manner that my wife and I [were] living, to have full access of the . . . house, from the first floor to the basement, again, which included a washer and a dryer, an additional bathroom, an additional toilet and storage space.
Whatever Miss Holiday had going on in the basement, I'm not aware of it. Miss Holiday knew the deal.
Plaintiff admitted, however, again in response to a question by the court, that defendant's sons were cutting the grass, shoveling snow and tending the boiler pursuant to "the addendum to the lease."
In March 2010, the basement flooded and the fire department responded. Shortly thereafter, the parties got a notice from the Township of Maplewood warning them of the illegal apartment and advising that the living quarters in the basement would have to be vacated immediately. Defendant's sons moved out of the basement and stopped paying rent in October 2010. Plaintiff continued to pay plaintiff her agreed upon rent of $1,325 every month. Notwithstanding these payments, plaintiff, contending that the first floor and basement constituted one unit, sued defendant in landlord/tenant court for the $400 monthly shortfall.
Plaintiff and defendant were the only witnesses to testify at trial. After hearing all of the evidence, the trial judge found on the basis of plaintiff's testimony that the monthly rent for the combined premises was $1,725. She further found that both parties were aware that the basement was an illegal apartment for which plaintiff was receiving the $400 per month, specifically rejecting plaintiff's testimony to the contrary. Because, however, a portion of the premises had been illegally occupied, in violation of local zoning, the court awarded judgment for possession to plaintiff subject to payment of $10,350 in relocation assistance to defendant pursuant to Miah v. Ahmed, 179 N.J. 511 (2004).
On appeal, plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in finding that the first floor and basement were constituent parts of a unified lease and further erred in including the rent paid for the first floor in its calculation of relocation assistance as the first floor was not subject to an illegal occupancy. These arguments are patently without merit. In addition to the deference we owe to the factual findings of the trial court, In re Taylor, 158 N.J. 644, 656-57 (1999), plaintiff is requesting that we reject his own trial testimony that he leased the first floor and basement to defendant for $1,725 per month. We decline the invitation.
Plaintiff sued to evict defendant from the entire premises because she was paying only $1,325 monthly and not $1,725 as plaintiff testified the parties had agreed. As there is sufficient, credible evidence in the record to support the trial court's finding that plaintiff rented the entire premises for $1,725 per month, we cannot find that the $10,350 relocation payment was erroneously calculated. Miah v. Ahmed, supra, 179 N.J. at 522-23 (tenants who are evicted from an illegal apartment are entitled to a lump-sum payment calculated at six times the monthly rent).
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