NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 17, 2013
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Union County, Docket No. DC-020804-11.
Payton & Payton, LLP, attorneys for appellant (Queen E. Payton, on the brief).
Lawrence S. Reynolds, attorney for respondent.
Before Judges Messano and Sabatino.
This appeal involves a claim by a tenant that her landlord wrongfully failed to return her security deposit, and a counterclaim by the landlord contending that the tenant had caused damage to the apartment to an extent exceeding the security deposit. After a two-day trial in the Special Civil Part, the judge found that the landlord's testimony was more credible than the tenant's on most of the issues, and awarded the landlord a net judgment of $3858. The tenant now appeals. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the trial court's decision in favor of the landlord, but modify the judgment amount to $1036.40.
The record shows that the tenant, plaintiff Fairlynn Barnes, had to locate temporary housing when her family home in Elizabeth was damaged in a fire. She found a rental unit about eight houses away in a recently constructed two-family home owned by the landlord, defendant-counterclaimant Donna DeLaura.
The parties entered into a six-month written lease, which ran from April 1, 2011 through September 30, 2011. The lease was later extended an additional month to October 31, 2011. The tenant agreed to pay $2300 per month in rent. The security deposit was 1½ times the monthly rent, or $3450. The parties stipulated at trial that the tenant did pay the $3450 security deposit.
The landlord claimed that the premises were in clean and "brand new" condition when the tenant arrived in April 2011. The landlord had received a certificate of occupancy that same month from the City of Elizabeth. The tenant, on the other hand, contended that the apartment was in poor condition when she moved in. For example, she contended that the baseboards were not properly finished, certain doors were warped and would not close, there was no grout in the bathroom tiles, the bathroom sink was not connected to the wall, and there were problems with the dishwasher. The tenant did not demand any action by the landlord to rectify these initial problems, allegedly because she was only considering this to be a short-term tenancy until her prior home became ready for re-occupancy.
When the tenant notified the landlord in late October 2011 that she was moving out, she requested a walk-through of the premises. At that point, the landlord and the tenant started having disputes about the condition of the premises. The dispute became so heated that the tenant filed a report about the landlord with the police, although no criminal complaint was issued.
The landlord retained the full $3450 security deposit, based on her contention that the tenant had caused damage to the apartment in a sum greater than the deposit amount. The landlord mainly contended that the tenant had caused extensive damage to the carpet, which had been newly installed that spring. According to the landlord's carpet installer, Isam Ghanim, the carpet damage was too great to repair or patch and the carpeting throughout the entire unit would have to be replaced. Ghanim estimated that the carpet replacement, including materials and labor, would cost $4708. In addition, the landlord claimed damages in the amount of $156.25 for replacement of two sets of locks, kitchen cabinet repair totaling $900, and paint and wall repairs totaling $1700.
Both parties were represented by counsel at the trial. The tenant testified on her own behalf, along with her husband. The landlord similarly took the stand on her own behalf. The landlord also presented testimony from Ghanim. During the course of his expert testimony, Ghanim described in detail ...