United States District Court, D. New Jersey
defendant, Hillside Village, filed two state court actions
against its elderly, disabled tenant, Sandra Smith: one for
damages, and one to evict her. It lost both, and the State
appellate court stated that it "expected" Hillside
to repair the apartment and restore her tenancy
"promptly." Hillside has not done so. Now, the
tenant sues under federal law to restore her tenancy, and for
damages. Because Ms. Smith did not have a full and fair
opportunity to litigate her federal claims in the prior
actions, and because the equities do not entitle Hillside to
repose, its motion to dismiss the tenant's federal court
complaint on res judicata grounds is denied.
Smith, 78 years old at the time of the events in suit,
occupied a rent-controlled apartment in Hillside's
building for some 51 years. She lived alone, and in her later
years developed a psychological disorder that caused her to
hoard materials, resulting in severe clutter. In addition,
structural damage to the apartment contributed to the
municipal authorities' declaring it to be unsanitary and
immediately filed an action under the wrong statute, New
Jersey's Unlawful Detainer Act (the Detainer Matter),
seeking eviction and possession on three days' notice.
Procedural confusion ensued. The judge, improvising, directed
Hillside to file a landlord-tenant action (the LT Matter), a
summary proceeding, in which possession issues would be
heard; he kept the Detainer Matter open for the purpose of
later hearing Hillside's claims for damages. Both cases
were tried. Ultimately, Hillside lost both. The Detainer
action failed at trial on the merits. On appeal from the LT
action, the Appellate Division reversed the judgment of
possession in Hillside's favor and stated that it
"expected" Hillside would repair the apartment and
restore Smith's tenancy "promptly."
did not repair the apartment or restore Smith's tenancy.
Shortly after the Appellate Division affirmance, Smith filed
this federal court action, seeking possession of the
premises. This action, under the Fair Housing Act Amendments,
is based on Hillside's refusal to accede to Smith's
August 2015 proposal for a reasonable accommodation of her
disability, consisting of mental health treatment and an
agreement for monitoring of her apartment by an outside
now invokes equity, in the form of res judicata.
This court, it says, must save it from Ms. Smith's
vexatious assertion of claims she should have pursued
earlier. Although the summary LT Action for possession would
not have permitted counterclaims, Hillside says, leave to
bring a counterclaim for possession could have been sought in
Hillside's unsuccessful Detainer action for damages.
The Detainer Matter, DC-10607-IS: Phase 1
to this federal litigation, on July 24, 2015, Hillside filed
in Special Civil Part, Bergen County, an action (the
"Detainer Matter") against Smith by Order to Show
Cause. (Hillside Village v. Sandra Smith, Docket no.
DC-10607-15 (N.J.Super. Ct, Law Div., Special Civil Part,
complaint in the Detainer Matter alleged that on July 17,
2015, an officer of the Ridgefield Bureau of Fire Prevention
went to inspect the apartment after receiving a report of an
odor of gas. Inspectors, code enforcement officials,
inspectors, and representatives of Hillside found appalling
conditions within. The complaint cites destruction of the
kitchen cabinets, holes in the ceiling, and likely insect and
rodent infestation. The inspectors "red-tagged" the
apartment as unfit for occupancy, and issued a letter and
order to correct to Hillside.
Smith was removed from the premises. Hillside had counsel
serve on Ms. Smith a 3-day Notice to Quit with demand for
Detainer Matter complaint sought a judgment of possession of
Smith's apartment pursuant to New Jersey's Unlawful
Detainer statute, N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:39-1 et
seq., and an injunction against Smith's returning to
the apartment except to recover personal property.
(See Detainer Cplt., passim.) On July 24,
2015, both parties, by counsel, appeared before the Hon.
Joseph R. Rosa, Jr., J.S.C. on an order to show cause in the
Detainer Matter. Ms. Smith's counsel argued, and Judge
Rosa agreed, that an action under the Unlawful Detainer
statute was not an appropriate shortcut; Smith, as a longtime
tenant, was entitled to the protections of the anti-eviction
provisions of New Jersey law.
was required, Judge Rosa said, was a landlord/tenant action
citing statutory grounds for eviction. [See Detainer
Tr. 5:4-10, 8:18-9:1) He told Hillside's counsel he would
have to file an eviction complaint. (Id.
12:25-13:18) Counsel for Hillside agreed to "go
downstairs and file this as an LT" (landlord/tenant)
action, based on the existing Notice to Quit. (Id.
for Hillside expressed concern that such an LT proceeding
would take too long. Judge Rosa reassured him that he had no
vacation plans for August and that "I'll just put
this on the DC calendar because it'll wind up being moved
by the time - we can have the tenancy done a long time before
this [i.e., the Detainer Matter] comes up."
(Detainer Tr. 12:23-13:3) Judge Rosa thus predicted that
"you'll have [Smith] evicted and locked out even
though she's out already" in the LT Matter, before
Smith was even required to file an answer in the Detainer
Matter. (Id. 16:8-12; 15:16-18)
Rosa's statement that Smith was "out already"
seemingly referred to the fact that the municipal officials
had "red-tagged" the unit as unfit for habitation
and removed her. The Judge stated that he would not let Ms.
Smith reenter the apartment while it was in that condition.
Counsel for Smith acknowledged that she was not immediately
seeking such relief. (Detainer Tr. 14:3-7)
Rosa volunteered further that "if I were the landlord, I
would be in no rush to clean that up. If [the municipal
authorities have] already said we'll give you another 30
days, why in the world would you want to clean it up and then
just have her try to come back in?" (Detainer Tr.
14:8-14) Counsel for Hillside stated that although the
municipality could fine his client for unsanitary conditions,
it was not his client's "responsibility to clean the
tenant's apartment." [Id. 14:17-18, 24-25)
Rosa and counsel, all talking over each other, seemingly came
to share an understanding that the Detainer Matter would stay
open so that Hillside's claim for "money
damages" could be adjudicated. Counsel for Ms. Smith stated
that the Detainer Matter should be dismissed outright. She
noted, correctly, that there was currently no such claim for
damages even alleged in the Detainer Complaint. (Detainer Tr.
15:23-25; see Detainer Cplt., passim.)
Rosa declined to sign Hillside's order to show cause for
emergent relief in the Detainer Matter. He found no
irreparable harm and stated that the issue of the tenancy
could be settled in the LT Matter. (See Id.
The State LT Matter, DC-5606-15
filed a handwritten complaint in the LT Matter the same day,
July 24, 2015. (Hillside Village v. Sandra Smith,
Docket no. DC-5606-15 (N.J.Super. Ct, Law Div., Special Civil
Part, Bergen Co.) As statutory grounds for removal, the
Complaint cited N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A: 18-61-1(c)
("The person has willfully or by reason of gross
negligence caused or allowed destruction, damage or injury to
the premises."). It incorporated by reference die
earlier Notice to Quit and sought a judgment of possession.
(LT Cplt. ¶ 10) An eviction action, it did not seek back
rent or damages. It alleged that Ms. Smith had willfully
damaged the apartment and had failed to vacate it as required
by the Notice to Quit. Trial was scheduled for August 6, 2015.
attaches an August 4, 2015, letter from Smith's counsel
in advance of the LT trial requesting an "interactive
dialogue for reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing
Amendments Act of 1988, 42 U.S.C. 3601, et seq. (hereafter:
FHAA), to enable Mrs. Smith to comply with her lease, in view
of her obsessive compulsive/hoarding disorder." (Cplt.
Ex. F, ECF no. 5-2 at 83) The letter cited the landlord's
duty under FHAA to accommodate the needs of disabled persons
and make reasonable accommodations before terminating a
tenancy. [Id.) Hillside's counsel emailed that
he would discuss it at the courthouse, but that Smith should
be prepared to try the case if an accommodation could not be
reached. [Id. at 84)
Matter was tried before Judge Rosa on August 6 and 18, 2015.
(ECF no. 5-2 at 20) Smith attempted to raise the FHAA, 42
U.S.C. §§ 3601-19 (at least as a defense if not as
a claim), but was not permitted to do so in this summary
action. [Id. at 21; see Hillside Village v.
Smith, 2017 WL 412803 at *6 n.3 (Jan. 31,
Rosa announced his decision on August 28, 2015, and on
September 2, 2015, entered judgment in favor of Hillside on
the claim that Smith had willfully or by gross negligence
damaged the apartment. (LT Judgment, as amended, ECF no. 5-2
at 97) Hillside was granted possession of the premises.
appealed to the New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate
Division. (Notice of Appeal, ECF no. 5-2 at 99) To look ahead
a bit, the Appellate Division ultimately reversed the LT
Judgment. See Section I.D, infra.
The Detainer Matter-Phase 2
Detainer Matter, as noted above, was left open so that
Hillside could pursue its claim for damages. The record of
what happened next in the Detainer Matter, at least as
presented by the parties, is sparse. In particular, the
papers seem to lack a copy of the judgment in the Detainer
Matter-the very judgment on which Hillside relies to
foreclose the current action.
much can be gathered. In the Detainer Matter, Hillside
pursued a claim for damages based on damage to the apartment
during Ms. Smith's tenancy. After a two-day trial
concluding on January 6, 2016, the Hon. James X. Sattely,
J.S.C., dismissed Hillside's case for failure of proof.
(See Decision of Judge Sattely regarding
attorneys' fees, dated Jan. 28, 2016, ECF no. 7-2 at 3)
Appeal of the LT Matter
noted above, Ms. Smith appealed from the judgment of eviction
in the LT Matter. The Appellate Division reversed Judge
Rosa's judgment awarding possession to Hillside.
Hillside Village v. Smith, 2017 WL 412803 (Jan. 31,
2017) (Copy of decision, ECF no. 5-2 at 61).
Notice to Quit, the Appellate Division held, was defective,
and did not create jurisdiction in the trial court. The
Notice cited hoarding and unsanitary conditions, but did not
specify any damage that Smith had caused to the apartment. In
particular, it did not specify the damage-structural damage,
broken faucets, collapsed cabinets, and so on-to which the
witnesses testified at trial. Nor did the trial court make the
necessary findings that the damage resulted from Ms.
Smith's willful or grossly negligent conduct. 2017 WL
412803 at *6.
Appellate Division vacated the judgment of possession and
remanded for entry of an order dismissing the LT Complaint
with prejudice. The court noted that Hillside had left the
apartment vacant and had not performed any repairs for more
than a year. It stated that "[s]ince the judgment of
possession has now been vacated, we expect that [Hillside]
will promptly make the necessary repairs and restore [Smith]
to possession of the apartment." 2017 WL 412803 at *6
n.7. That allegedly has not occurred, "promptly" or
The Complaint in this Federal Action
February 9, 2017, Ms. Smith filed the complaint in this
federal action. It asserts claims under the federal Fair
Housing Act ("FHA"), 42 U.S.C. § 3613(c), and
the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination
("NJLAD"), N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 10:5-4
et seq. ...