NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued November 14, 2012
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. LT-8261-11.
Sonia Bell argued the cause for appellants (South Jersey Legal Services, Inc., attorneys; Ms. Bell, on the brief).
Tracey Goldstein argued the cause for respondent (Feinstein, Raiss, Kelin & Booker, attorneys; Ms. Goldstein, on the brief).
Before Judges Lihotz, Ostrer and Kennedy.
Defendants appeal from an order of the Special Civil Part granting judgment of possession to plaintiff, their landlord, on its complaint for eviction under N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(i), which alleged defendants "refus[ed] to accept reasonable changes in the terms of [their] lease at lease renewal." We reverse and remand.
On September 1, 2005, defendants began their occupancy of a residential apartment at the Fairways apartment complex in the Blackwood area of Gloucester Township, pursuant to a written lease. Thereafter, they continued to reside at that complex without interruption and, except for rent increases approved by the municipal Rent Control Board, the terms of their written lease, which was renewed yearly, never changed. Plaintiff acquired the property in 2007.
On June 20, 2011, plaintiff delivered to defendants a notice to quit and vacate the apartment on August 31, 2011 – the date of the expiration of their lease. The notice stated, however, that plaintiff was offering defendants a "renewal term" and that "[a]s a condition of renewal, all residents are required to sign a new lease, which is enclosed with this letter. Automatic renewal of your prior lease is not an option. If you wish to renew, you must sign this letter and the lease and return both documents to the office by 7/26/2011." Enclosed with the notice was the new lease, an insurance addendum, a "bedbug" addendum, a "Resident Safety Awareness" form with lines for tenant signatures, and a notice that tenants, if they chose, could secure "personal liability insurance" required by the lease, through a program arranged by plaintiff.
Defendants engaged counsel who forwarded correspondence to plaintiff on July 25, 2011, explaining defendants would sign the lease, but "had some objection to terms in the [new] lease." Plaintiff's counsel responded on July 28, 2011, by sending defendants a "Notice to Quit and Demand for Possession" terminating their lease as of August 31, 2011, for "failure to accept reasonable changes in terms of lease at lease renewal[, ]" pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(i).
On September 6, 2011, plaintiff filed a two-count complaint for eviction against defendants. The complaint recited the facts set forth above and stated, "[d]efendant[s] failed to renew the lease or give notice to vacate by the expiration of the lease term" and "expressed an unwillingness to accept reasonable changes to the lease terms." Plaintiff demanded judgment of possession.
The first trial date was adjourned by the judge to allow the parties to try to settle their differences. When the parties could not reach agreement, the case was called for trial on October 6, 2011. A property manager for plaintiff testified briefly about the sequence of events and the judge received into evidence the old lease, the proposed new lease and the notice to quit. Defendant Alvaro Albuquerque also testified and stated his objections ...