On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. DC-20638-10. Walter Parrish, III, appellant pro se. Respondent has not filed a brief.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted: May 23, 2012 -
Before Judges Axelrad and Ostrer.
Defendant Walter Parrish, III, appeals from a money judgment entered against him following a bench trial in the Special Civil Part. The damages were for clothing and other personal items belonging to plaintiff that Parrish retained or disposed of when he locked plaintiff out of the apartment she rented from him. We affirm.
The parties testified at trial, and plaintiff presented the testimony of two police officers who attempted to assist her in obtaining her belongings from the apartment. Judge Mathias E. Rodriguez credited the testimony of plaintiff and the officers and found the following facts. The parties met in June 2010, when Parrish, a limousine driver, picked plaintiff, a Swedish citizen, up at Newark Airport, and she learned the hotel she was heading for in the Bronx was non-existent. Parrish permitted plaintiff to stay at his office apartment in Edison that had another female tenant who was not currently there. On July 7, 2010, Parrish entered into a written sublease with plaintiff whereby she would pay him $450 per week and reimburse him for groceries.
Plaintiff moved out around July 30, 2010, after which Parrish improperly locked her out of the apartment contrary to New Jersey law, claiming she owed him money. Parrish would not permit plaintiff access to the apartment to obtain her belongings, even in the presence of one of the testifying officers, and even after she paid Parrish the $302 balance, also in the presence of the other testifying officer. Plaintiff submitted the $302 money order receipt into evidence and the officers provided corroborating testimony. The judge expressly found the sublease did not obligate plaintiff to pay Parrish for utilities and he had been paid in full for plaintiff's rental of the apartment.
Plaintiff detailed and submitted photographs of the items retained by Parrish, and converted their value from Swedish crowns, seeking approximately $2240 in damages. The judge credited plaintiff's testimony that those were the items she left behind in the apartment, calculated the resale value of the clothing under the Goodwill Industries' valuation guidelines, declined to include some items, and entered judgment in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $313 plus costs.
Parrish had apparently filed a counterclaim for items of his that he claimed were missing from the apartment -- a Burberry scarf, which he testified "had a value of approximately $400 before tax" and a shovel "that had a retail value of about $20." The court dismissed Parrish's counterclaim. This appeal ensued.
On appeal, Parrish challenges the court's credibility findings, complaining that plaintiff overstayed her welcome, removed all of her personal items from the apartment, and failed to substantiate her damages. As to his counterclaim, Parrish argues he enclosed a copy of the original receipt for the Burberry scarf in his notice of appeal (not contained in the appellate record), purchased in the winter of 2010 and never worn, which he claimed he did not notice was missing until the fall of 2010. According to Parrish, as he mentioned at trial, plaintiff "commingled her clothes with those of a woman who had been staying at the apartment before her" so he believed she "[a]pparently" also "rummaged through [his] belongings and helped herself to some things." Contrary to his testimony at trial, Parrish now claimed the original cost of the scarf was $199 plus tax.
Our scope of review of a judgment in a non-jury case is extremely limited. The general rule is that findings by the trial court are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial and credible evidence in the record. Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974). We accord due deference to the credibility findings and the "feel of the case" by the trial judge who has heard and observed the witnesses. Fritsche v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 55 N.J. 322, 330 (1970). An appellate court should not second-guess factual findings and legal conclusions of the trial judge unless "they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice." Rova Farms, supra, 65 N.J. at 484.
From our review of the record we are satisfied the trial judge carefully assessed the testimony and evidence in making his factual findings and legal conclusions, and that such findings and conclusions are amply supported by the record and based upon the applicable law. Judge Rodriguez credited plaintiff's testimony as to her items Parrish retained when he unlawfully locked her out of the apartment and significantly reduced her damages request. As to the counterclaim, plaintiff testified that when she arrived at the apartment there were bags of women's clothing, shoes, empty boxes, and paper bags with newspapers and bottles of soda strewn all over, and Parrish conceded it was "messy." Parrish presented no competent evidence at trial that his new Burberry scarf and shovel were among the mess, that plaintiff took those items, or, if she did, what would be their value. Accordingly, we discern no basis to disturb the judgment on appeal.