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Aragie Wolde-Meskel v. Peter Klausz; Christopher M. Fenimore; Phillip Clark

April 17, 2012


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Essex County, Docket No. L-3691-06.

Per curiam.


Submitted February 14, 2012

Before Judges Grall and Alvarez.

Plaintiff Aragie Wolde-Meskel rented a house in South Orange to six college students: Peter Klausz, Christopher M. Fenimore, Phillip Clark, Erik Lugashi, Jonathan Baige, and William Reilly. After their eviction, plaintiff filed an action against the six, in addition to Christopher Fenimore's father, Dario A. Fenimore, who also signed the lease, to compel payment of back rent and for alleged damages to the premises. A directed verdict was entered in favor of all the defendants except one, Peter Klausz, at the close of plaintiff's case. Plaintiff appeals.

Pre-trial, plaintiff obtained a default judgment against Klausz. Post-trial, Klausz claims when he learned about the directed verdict as well as the default judgment entered against him, he filed a motion seeking to vacate the default and dismiss the proceeding, on the basis that the precise facts warranting dismissal of plaintiff's cause of action applied to him. That motion was denied, and Klausz appeals.

We consolidate the two appeals for the purpose of rendering a decision. We deny plaintiff's appeal and affirm the judgment granting defendants a directed verdict. We vacate the default judgment entered against Klausz, and dismiss the proceeding against him because we affirm the trial judge's award of a directed verdict.

Before discussing plaintiff's appeal, we note that his brief does not conform to the requirements of Rule 2:6-2(a)(5), which states that an appellant's brief must contain legal arguments, divided into appropriate point headings. Plaintiff's legal argument repeats the procedural history virtually word-for-word, simply adding underlining and bold type for emphasis, and citations to the transcript. Plaintiff does not raise any claims of legal error, or cite statutes or case law. He merely directs our attention to portions of the testimony, including the comments of counsel and the judge's questions.

Plaintiff contends that the directed verdict must be reversed and offers in support of the proposition four factual disputes, all of which were resolved against him. Plaintiff also complains that the court dismissed the jury in an untimely fashion, that the audio system was broken by the secretary, that the judge lost crucial exhibits over a weekend during the trial, and that defendants have "unclean hands" because they presented an altered lease to the court.

Plaintiff's brief's lack of compliance with rules, and general unintelligibility, make it tempting to dismiss the appeal outright. See, e.g., Mid-Atl. Solar Energy Indus. Assoc. v. Christie, 418 N.J. Super. 499, 508 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 207 N.J. 190 (2011); see also DeSoto v. Smith, 383 N.J. Super. 384, 395, n.1 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 187 N.J. 81 (2006). Because of the related Klausz appeal, however, we elect to review the trial judge's decision on the merits.


On May 9, 2006, plaintiff filed his complaint against Klausz, Fenimore, Clark, Lugashi, Baige, Reilly, Dr. Fenimore, and John Doe 1-7, for unpaid rent and damages. On July 18, 2006, Reilly filed an answer, defenses, and cross-claim. In his brief, the attorney for defendants Fenimore, Dr. Fenimore, Clark, Baige, and Reilly claims that this answer was actually filed on their behalf as well but somehow incorrectly entered as only being entered for Reilly. The answer is not included in plaintiff's appendix. Clark filed a separate answer, defenses, and crossclaims on August 2, 2007.

Mandatory arbitration was ordered for July 26, 2007. For reasons we cannot discern from the record, defendants did not appear. As a result default was entered against Fenimore, Klausz, Clark, Baige, and Dr. Fenimore.*fn3

Again, for reasons we cannot discern from the record, the complaint was dismissed as to Lugashi, and on September 7, 2007, Judge Walter Koprowski, Jr., denied an application to vacate the dismissal. In seeming contradiction to Lugashi's status as a dismissed party, he ordered Lugashi to "identify" interrogatories and "request[ed] [p]laintiff to answer within seven days[,]" and directed plaintiff to file a motion to vacate dismissal within thirty days. On October 2, 2007, Lugashi filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint for failing to comply with the order of September 7, but two days later, on October 4, plaintiff filed a motion to vacate the dismissal. The Law Division heard the matter on November 16, 2007, and plaintiff finally answered Lugashi's interrogatories on November 23, 2007.

Plaintiff's answers were deficient, however, and he did not supplement them until December 10, 2007. Finally, on January 14, 2008, to add to the confusion, the court denied Lugashi's motion to dismiss, and granted plaintiff's motion to vacate the dismissal. All the information about this confused procedural history between Lugashi and plaintiff we glean from a January 14, 2008 letter written by Judge Koprowski to plaintiff and Lugashi's lawyer.

On May 4, 2009, the parties were unable to reach a settlement at a conference conducted by Judge Sebastian P. Lombardi, who ultimately tried the matter. He denied defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint on July 30, 2009.

Trial was held on August 5, 6, and 10, 2009. On August 10, 2009, the court dismissed the jury after plaintiff rested, and granted a directed verdict in favor of defendants. The actual order for directed verdict was signed on September 24, 2009.

The one-year lease between plaintiff and the tenants began July 1, 2003, and ended June 30, 2004. At trial, plaintiff and the defendants who participated disagreed about the lease terms. Plaintiff claimed the lease called for a $6000 security deposit and monthly rent of $4000, while defendants claimed the lease provided for a $3000 security deposit and monthly rent of $3000. The lease named Klausz, Fenimore, Clark, Lugashi, Baige, and Reilly as tenants. Dr. Fenimore was sued because, as Fenimore's father, he had co-signed the lease.

A South Orange township ordinance requires "certificates of habitability" for all rental properties. South Orange, N.J., Ordinance § 117-12 (Mar. 22, 1999). The certificate, requiring the signature of the landlord, the tenant, and an inspector, is filed with the code enforcement office. The signatories acknowledge that the unit has been found to be in compliance with applicable health and housing standards, and that the maximum allowable occupancy is six persons. That indication appears on the face of the document in accord with another township ordinance, which requires such certificates to state the premises comply with the municipal code as to the "maximum number of persons that may lawfully occupy the premises . . . ." South Orange, N.J., Ordinance § 117-15 (Mar. 22, 1999).

A senior code enforcement officer, Inspector Lillian Black, testified that her office received two leases. Plaintiff submitted one on June 20, 2003, the date he applied for the certificate of habitability. That lease called for a $6000 security deposit and monthly rent of $4000. The second lease was submitted by Reilly on May 17, 2004. The second lease was altered and had different figures.

At trial, plaintiff initially testified that he alone signed the certificate of habitability. He later claimed, in a colloquy with the court, the contrary. In any event, the certificate clearly stated that the maximum allowable occupancy was six persons. Defendants claimed eleven people actually ...

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