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College Towers Apartments, Section One, Inc. v. Golden

A-105-03T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2004) (Unpublished)

PUBLIC HOUSING; COOPERATIVES—Even though the relationship between a public housing cooperative and its members may not be exactly that of a landlord and tenant, it is proper for a court to apply landlord-tenant principles when a dispute is housing related.

A public cooperative housing corporation had an occupancy agreement allowing it to terminate a member’s occupancy for failing “to bring about for himself and his co-members a high standard in home and community conditions.” The agreement set forth instances in which the corporation could terminate an occupancy agreement with one of its members. In this case, the cooperative corporation found one member in violation of one such rule that allowed termination if “[a] member shall default in the performance of any of his obligations under this Agreement.” Specifically, the corporation offered into evidence a file it had accumulated over the years relating to the member’s allegedly destructive son and his allegedly abusive father, each of whom lived with the member. Police had been summoned several times to the unit and complaints had been filed against both individuals continually over the course of the membership. However, the lower court refused to admit the file into evidence because it considered it hearsay. Furthermore, the court held that the occupancy agreement was fatally ambiguous, and that the incidents proved at trial did not warrant the relief sought. Accordingly, it granted the tenant’s motion to dismiss.

On appeal, the Appellate Division rejected the cooperative housing corporation’s argument that the lower court erred by referring to principles articulated in the context of a landlord-tenant relationship. Even though the relationship between the corporation and its member was not that of landlord and tenant, the Court held that it was entirely appropriate to use the body of law developed in a landlord-tenant context when confronted with disputes between a housing corporation and one of its members.

Additionally, the Court disagreed with the lower court’s decision that the occupancy agreement was “fatally ambiguous.” It held that the cooperative corporation, for the benefit of all the residents, must have the authority to enforce the covenant obligating members to do nothing that would obstruct or interfere with the rights of other residents. Furthermore, the Court disagreed with the lower court that the incidents complained about were no more than regular incidents of housing in an urban environment. It felt that domestic violence was not acceptable, no matter where it occurs. Repeated incidents requiring the presence of the police should not be considered the usual course of events.

The Court concluded, though, that the proof submitted by the cooperative housing corporation was not enough to demonstrate a repeated, consistent defiant conduct on the part of its member. It noted that the property manager had limited personal knowledge of what had occurred, and none of the security guards who were allegedly involved in the incidents were called to testify. Additionally, none of the cooperative corporation’s board members testified as to the factors that went into the decision to finally seek to terminate the member’s possession. Therefore, despite employing a different analysis, the Appellate Division affirmed the lower court’s decision and dismissed the cooperative housing corporation’s complaint against its member.

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