October 8, 2013
NAKIA ADAMS, Plaintiff-Respondent,
FRANK RUBANO, Defendant-Appellant
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 1, 2013
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Docket No. DC-000363-12.
Cherami Law Firm, LLC, attorneys for appellant (Nicholas J. Cherami, on the brief).
Respondent has not filed a brief.
Before Judges Koblitz and O'Connor.
A judgment in the amount of $6, 700 was entered in favor of plaintiff, Nakia Adams, and against defendant, Frank Rubano, following a bench trial in the Special Civil Part. Defendant appeals the judgment, contending that the trial court erred by (1) allowing inadmissible hearsay to be introduced into evidence; (2) asking leading questions of defendant during his direct examination; and (3) rendering a verdict that was against the weight of the evidence.
Following our review of the transcript of the trial, the arguments presented by defendant and the applicable legal principles, we affirm.
Plaintiff rented an apartment from defendant in May 2011. It is not disputed that on December 14, 2011, defendant locked plaintiff out of the apartment. Plaintiff filed a complaint in the Special Civil Part alleging defendant wrongfully locked him out of his apartment and kept his personal property. In his complaint plaintiff sought $6, 700, the claimed value of the items removed from the premises.
At trial plaintiff testified that after he had been locked out, he reported the incident to the police and filed an emergent application in the Special Civil Part. On December 22, 2011, the court entered an order directing defendant to give plaintiff access to the apartment. When plaintiff returned home, he discovered that most of his property had been removed.
Plaintiff testified as to the value of his property, most of which had been acquired after he rented the apartment. For example, after May 2011, plaintiff purchased two television sets for $3, 000; a kitchen table and chairs for $749; a living room set for $700; and Christmas gifts worth $2, 500. Plaintiff mentioned that he did not have any receipts or other documentary proof demonstrating the value of any of the property, as such documents had been in the drawers of the furniture removed by defendant. The total value of all of the items removed was over $9, 300.
Defendant testified that plaintiff stopped paying the rent in October or November of 2011. Defendant claimed that, on December 7, 2011, he told plaintiff that he had to vacate the apartment. According to defendant, plaintiff agreed to move out the following week; therefore, on December 14, 2011, defendant changed the locks. Defendant further claimed that, thereafter, plaintiff requested access to the apartment to remove his property. Defendant testified that not only did he give plaintiff access to the apartment, but also arranged to have one of his employees help plaintiff move his property out and even loaned plaintiff the use of his vehicle.
On the issue of liability, the trial court found plaintiff credible and defendant "unbelievable." The judge also observed that the conduct of plaintiff at the time of the incident, as evidenced by his seeking emergent relief from the court and reporting the incident to the police, corroborated plaintiff's version. The court concluded that defendant wrongfully locked plaintiff out of the premises and removed his property, in violation of N.J.S.A. 2A:39-1 to -8.
On the issue of damages, the court also found plaintiff's testimony concerning the value of the removed items to be credible. Defendant contends that plaintiff failed to introduce into evidence any documentary proof to substantiate the value of the property, claiming plaintiff's opinion of the value of the personalty was insufficient. We disagree.
First, defendant removed all documentary proof from plaintiff's possession. Second, the owner of personal property is competent to give an opinion of the value of such property. Lane v. Oil Delivery, 216 N.J.Super. 413, 420 (App. Div. 1987). Further, "[p]roof of damages need not be done with exactitude, particularly when dealing with household furnishings and wearing apparel." Ibid. Thus, it is of no moment plaintiff did not — and could not because of defendant's conduct — introduce any documentary evidence corroborating the value of is property. Plaintiff's testimonial evidence alone was sufficient to prove damages.
Our review of a trial court's fact-finding in a non-jury case is limited. Seidman v. Clifton Sav. Bank, S.L.A., 205 N.J. 150, 169 (2011). "'The general rule is that findings by the trial court are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence. Deference is especially appropriate when the evidence is largely testimonial and involves questions of credibility.'" Ibid. (quoting Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998)).
Once the trial court determined that plaintiff was credible, the court had a sufficient basis to find that defendant violated N.J.S.A. 2A:39-1 to -8. Defendant violated N.J.S.A. 2A:39-1 and N.J.S.A. 2A:39-2 by locking plaintiff out of his apartment and removing his personalty without either plaintiff's permission or the benefit of legal process. N.J.S.A. 2A:39-8 provides that a party who recovers a judgment in an action for unlawful entry and detainer is entitled to all damages caused by such conduct.
Defendant maintains the trial court permitted inadmissible hearsay to be introduced into evidence. Specifically, defendant complains that plaintiff was allowed to testify about statements he made to plaintiff. We reject defendant's position. A statement by a party opponent is not excluded by the hearsay rule. See N.J.R.E. 803(b); State v. Covell, 157 N.J. 554, 572 (1999).
Defendant also argues that the court erred when it asked leading questions of defendant during his direct examination. This contention is without merit. The few questions the court posed merely required defendant to repeat some very limited testimony he had already provided in response to his own counsel's questions.
Finally, we reject defendant's contention that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence. There was sufficient evidence to support the findings of the trial court on both the issue of liability and damages. The evidence was largely testimonial and involved questions of credibility. Plaintiff was found to be credible, and his testimony established that not only did defendant wrongfully lock plaintiff out of his apartment, but also defendant removed and kept his property. Once liability was found, plaintiff was entitled to recover the damages allowed under N.J.S.A. 2A:39-8. There was sufficient proof in the record to substantiate that plaintiff's damages were at least $6, 700.