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Rampersaud v. Hollingsworth

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

November 1, 2018

DEXTER RAMPERSAUD and SELEEMA RAMPERSAUD, Plaintiffs-Respondents,
v.
RONALD A. HOLLINGSWORTH Defendant-Appellant, and CARLOS CRAYTON, Defendant.

          Argued October 2, 2018

          On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Special Civil Part, Hudson County, Docket No. LT-015717-16.

          Vincent J. D'Elia argued the cause for appellant.

          Thomas J. Major argued the cause for respondents (The Major Law Firm LLC, attorneys; Thomas J. Major, on the brief).

          Before Judges Fisher, Geiger and Firko.

          OPINION

          FISHER, P.J.A.D.

         In this appeal, a now-evicted tenant of a residential apartment, which he sublet to another, argues that only the subtenant, whose conduct generated the tenancy action, could be evicted. In affirming a judgment of possession, we reject the tenant's strained interpretation of the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(c), and conclude that an act of one permits the eviction of all.

         Under the Anti-Eviction Act, one of the ways in which a landlord may regain possession of leased premises is by proof of willful or grossly negligent conduct that "caused or allowed destruction, damage or injury to the premises." N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(c). Starting in 1981, a landlord leased a rent-controlled Jersey City apartment, on a month-to-month basis, to defendant Ronald A. Hollingsworth ("the tenant"); that tenancy continued after plaintiffs Dexter and Seleema Rampersaud (collectively, "the landlord") became the owners of the premises.

         For an approximate six-month period in 2016, the tenant allowed defendant Carlos Crayton to occupy the premises.[1] In October 2016, Crayton damaged the apartment's rear door, dislodging it from its frame and ruining the surrounding molding. The landlord served a notice to quit and demand for possession; invoking statutory language, the landlord declared that the tenant "willfully or by reason of gross negligence caused or allowed destruction, damage or injury to the premises." N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(c). Two weeks later, the landlord commenced this suit for possession.

         After a one-day trial at which the landlord, the tenant, and Crayton testified, the judge rendered a decision in which he concluded the damage was significant, the landlord was entitled to possession, and both tenant and Crayton were to be evicted. A warrant of removal issued, and the tenant failed to obtain a stay.[2] The tenant and Crayton vacated the premises, which have since been relet to another.

         In appealing, the tenant argues that N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(c) cannot support a judgment against him in these circumstances and that the notice to quit was not sufficiently specific. We find no merit in either argument.[3] The landlord also contends that because the premises have since been leased to another the appeal should be dismissed as moot; we reject this contention because our disposition of the tenant's novel interpretation of the Act is a matter of sufficient public importance and the issue is likely to reoccur yet evade review because of the rapidity with which removal normally follows a judgment of possession. See Zirger v. Gen. Acc. Ins. Co., 144 N.J. 327, 330 (1996); John F. Kennedy Mem'l Hosp. v. Heston, 58 N.J. 576, 579 (1971); see also Sudersan v. Royal, 386 N.J.Super. 246, 251 (App. Div. 2005); Ctr. Ave. Realty, Inc. v. Smith, 264 N.J.Super. 344, 347 (App. Div. 1993).

         The relevant facts are undisputed. The tenant does not argue the damage to the premises was too insubstantial to warrant eviction. And there is no dispute that Crayton's conduct was the actual cause of the damage. The question we must decide is purely legal: whether eviction must be limited to the tenant that caused the damage. The tenant would have us respond in the affirmative, but he is mistaken.

         The opening phrases of the Anti-Eviction Act (what we will refer to as "the preamble") express a general prohibition on residential evictions in broad, sweeping language: "No lessee or tenant or the assigns, under-tenants or legal representatives of such lessee or tenant may be removed. . . ." N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1. The Act then provides eighteen exceptions to its general ban on evictions; in each of these exceptions, the Legislature labeled the one who triggers the prohibited event as "the person." So, if we put aside the irrelevant provisions falling between the preamble and subsection (c), we are asked to interpret a statute that declares:

No lessee or tenant or the assigns, under-tenants or legal representatives of such lessee or tenant may be removed by the Superior Court [from their residence] except upon establishment of ...

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