September 3, 2013
EMMANUEL ODI, Plaintiff-Respondent,
JULES ALCIDE, Defendant-Appellant.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted August 28, 2013
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Essex County, Docket No. SC-1673-11.
Richard Kotkin, attorney for appellant.
Emmanuel Odi, respondent pro se.
Before Judges Waugh and Haas.
Defendant Jules Alcide appeals the Special Civil Part's November 7, 2011 judgment in favor of plaintiff Emmanuel Odi. We affirm.
Alcide is the owner of an apartment building on Voorhees Street in Newark. He leased one of the apartments in that building to Odi in November 2010. According to Odi, Alcide agreed to make certain repairs and gave Odi a discounted rent for the first three months of the tenancy. Despite Odi's written and oral requests, conveyed to Alcide through his agent Joel Oyekumd, the repairs were not made. Consequently, according to Odi, he stopped paying rent and eventually moved out of the apartment on February 28, 2011.
On February 18, 2011, Alcide filed a tenancy action against Odi, seeking his eviction for non-payment of rent. According to Odi, he was not served with that complaint because he had vacated the apartment shortly after the filing of the complaint. As a result, Alcide obtained a default judgment for eviction.
After Alcide failed to return the security deposit, Odi filed the present action on May 24, 2011. Alcide answered and filed a counterclaim for back rent and damages based on breach of contract.
The matter was tried on November 7, 2011. The judge took testimony from the two parties and Oyekumd. In two oral decisions, the judge determined that a city inspector had found that the apartment was not habitable shortly before Odi moved in, that Odi paid rent through January, and that he left when the promised repairs were not made and the period of reduced rent was ending. Based on these findings, the judge ordered the return of the $1200 security deposit. She also dismissed Alcide's counterclaim, finding that he was not entitled to any recovery under the circumstances. This appeal followed.
On appeal, Alcide argues that the judge's decision was against the weight of the evidence. We disagree.
When reviewing a decision resulting from a bench trial, "[t]he general rule is that [factual] findings by the trial court are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence." Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998) (citing Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974)). We do not disturb the factual findings of the trial judge unless we are "convinced that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice." Id. at 412 (quoting Rova Farms, supra, 65 N.J. at 484) (internal quotation mark omitted); see also Beck v. Beck, 86 N.J. 480, 496 (1981). It is also well-established that our review of a judge's conclusions of law is plenary. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995) ("A trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference.").
Having reviewed the record on appeal in light of the applicable law, we conclude that the decision reached by the judge was amply supported in the record. The fact that Odi did not raise a habitability defense in the tenancy action did not preclude him from doing so in this action. As the judge found, he left the apartment for his own reasons on February 28, which was shortly after the tenancy action was filed. Even assuming he had been served with the complaint, he had no reason to contest the termination of his tenancy sought by Alcide. The habitability issue became relevant when Alcide opposed the return of the security deposit and sought additional damages by way of unpaid rent. We will not disturb the judge's decision based on her factual findings following a bench trial.