On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Burlington County, Docket No. L-1694-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 20, 2011 -
Before Judges Messano and Kennedy.
Following a non-jury trial, the judge entered final judgment in favor of plaintiff, DMS Farm LLC, against defendant Patrick Nelson in the amount of $89,495.33. Defendant appeals and we affirm.
On May 15, 2009, plaintiff filed its complaint alleging that defendant breached a contract entered into for the boarding of defendant's horses at plaintiff's facility. Plaintiff alleged defendant owed more than $29,000 at the time the complaint was filed and reserved the right to add additional charges that might accrue until trial or defendant's vacation of the premises.
Defendant filed a pro se answer. Although specifically not pleading a counterclaim, defendant alleged that he fed and supplied services to plaintiff and its horses, and plaintiff's failure to repair the property resulted in "harm and health problems" to defendant's animals.
The following evidence was adduced at trial held on September 27, 2010. Plaintiff breeds, trains and boards horses at its farm in Jobstown, New Jersey. The business is owned and operated by Dominick Schina. On May 15, 2007, plaintiff entered into a lease with defendant whereby he agreed to rent grazing ground and stable space at a monthly price of $100 per female horse ("broodmare"). According to Schina, the parties also orally agreed to individual rates of $150 and $200 per month for a pair of male horses ("stallions"), and $100 per month for additional yearlings and two-year-old horses from time to time. The written agreement provided that the month-to-month lease could be terminated by either party upon thirty days notice, and it did not provide for late fees or interest charges.
The parties operated under this agreement until July 25, 2008, when they executed a second, hand-written agreement. Pursuant to its terms, defendant agreed to pay $9000 in accumulated unpaid rental fees, late charges and repair costs in five weekly installments of $1800, terminating on August 19. Schina testified that $9000 was considered a settlement for all previous debts owed by defendant. The agreement contained no express provisions for payment after August 19, 2008.
Defendant made a total of $4100 in payments during August, leaving a balance of $4900. Schina testified that he then added back all "the late fees, interest, and . . . expenses" that defendant owed and which plaintiff waived under the August agreement. Schina further explained that plaintiff assessed a ten percent late fee whenever defendant failed to pay his rent in a timely fashion. Thereafter, rental fees, interest charges, and late fees accumulated over the following months until the parties attempted another settlement in December 2008.
Plaintiff agreed to waive approximately $3,500 in late fees and charges in exchange for defendant's payment by January 31, 2009 of a reduced sum -- $12,600 on a $12,948.16 balance. Defendant failed to make the payment, and Schina reinstated the charges and continued to bill defendant thereafter until trial. Schina testified that defendant presently owed $98,586.50 and had not made any payments during the previous year. He identified from detailed billing statements how the amount was calculated.
Defendant testified regarding the physical conditions of the premises, including poor fencing, a leaky roof, and harmful weeds in the grazing pasture. During cross-examination, Schina acknowledged much of this was true. Defendant also disputed the number of horses for which he was billed under the lease. He testified, for example, that he never kept thirty horses on the premises as claimed by plaintiff. Defendant disputed the accuracy of an investigative report prepared by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture (DOA), dated August 28, 2008, that stated he was the owner of thirty-one horses on the premises. Defendant claimed that the original 2007 agreement permitted him to board only fourteen broodmares, and he should be billed for only that number of horses.
Defendant further testified that plaintiff refused to permit him to remove his horses, even though "there was toxin in the field," a claim he said was supported by the DOA report. As a result, defendant believed he was entitled to a $28,000 credit for feed he was required to purchase to keep his animals healthy.
Lastly, defendant contended that any agreement was invalid because Schina and the police forbade him from removing the animals at a time when he was not in arrears. Defendant claimed that he ...