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920 Palisades Avenue Associates v. Truitt

A-1683-02T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2003) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT; EVICTION—It is within the discretion of a trial court to determine if truly extraordinary circumstances warrant vacating a writ of possession.

The owner of an apartment house sought to evict a tenant based on the tenant’s admitted failure to pay rents for September and October, 2002. The tenant obtained an adjournment for trial, but on the adjourned date a judgment for possession was entered. About a week later, the tenant obtained an order to show cause directing the landlord to show why the previously entered judgment should not be vacated. That order was obtained on the tenant’s certification “which stated that he lived alone” and that he had lost his job as a result of the attack on the World Trade Center. He alleged that “[o]n the day judgment entered I had a commitment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] to pay the rent. I now have the check which has been deposited in the Hudson County Legal Services Trust Account.” The landlord did not concede that its tenant lost his job, but it did not controvert the balance of the tenant’s statement. It also did not controvert testimony that it had not cooperated with the tenant’s FEMA application. The lower court would not vacate the judgment, but did grant a stay of the warrant of removal.

The Appellate Division pointed out that a lower court’s decision to deny a motion to vacate a judgment cannot be overturned “unless it represents a clear abuse of discretion.” Further, relief “is available only when ‘truly exceptional circumstances are present.’” The Appellate Division could not find those grounds. The tenant “himself admitted that he had been having trouble paying his rent for some time, a factor which the lower court was entitled to consider. Moreover, the attack on the World Trade Center preceded [the eviction] action by over a year.” Receipt of the FEMA money after the judgment could have been support for equitable relief, but the Appellate Division felt that it was for the lower court to make that determination and the lower court was not “clearly wrong.”

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