On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Morris County, Docket No. SC-1170-09.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Fisher and Nugent.
Plaintiff Jill Wyman commenced this small claims action for the return of the security deposit on residential premises she leased from defendant J&B Investments of New Jersey, Inc. After a non-jury trial at which both plaintiff and a representative of the landlord testified, the trial judge rendered an oral opinion, concluding that plaintiff was entitled to no relief.
Plaintiff appeals, arguing the judge erred in rejecting her claim for two reasons. Plaintiff first contends that the judge was mistaken in finding that she lacked standing because the security deposit had been provided by a social services agency. And, second, plaintiff argues the judge erred in finding the landlord's evidence of the damage to the premises was sufficient to support its retention of the entire security deposit.
We agree with plaintiff that she had standing to sue for the return of the security deposit. It may be true that any funds the landlord was obligated to return were ultimately due to the social services agency that had provided them. But, even if that were so, plaintiff, as the tenant, was entitled to commence the action even if her actions were solely for the benefit of the agency. This ground alone could not support the dismissal of the complaint.*fn1 Any concern the judge may have properly had about whether plaintiff or the social services agency was entitled to the security deposit could have been addressed at a later date; if plaintiff was found entitled to relief, the judge could have directed that any recovered funds be placed in escrow pending the social services agency being given notice and an opportunity to be heard about its right to those funds.
The dispute about plaintiff's standing to sue, however, has no bearing on our disposition of this appeal because we find no merit in plaintiff's second argument. A judge's non-jury findings are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence unless the findings are so baseless that their further application would constitute a manifest denial of justice. Seidman v. Clifton Sav. Bank, 205 N.J. 150, 169 (2011); Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). The judge heard the testimony and had the opportunity to assess the demeanor of the witnesses and found persuasive the landlord's evidence, which consisted of, among other things, a video of the condition of the leased premises after plaintiff departed. We are obligated to defer to the judge's findings and, therefore, must reject plaintiff's argument to the contrary.