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Community Realty Management, Inc. v. Harris

155 N.J. 212, 714 A.2d 282 (1998)

LANDLORD-TENANT; EVICTION—Based upon its view that a pro se tenant did not understand the terms of an eviction consent agreement, the Supreme Court determined that existing landlord-tenant court procedures must be standardized to protect pro se tenants such as the one in this case, and the consent agreement was set aside.

A month-to-month tenant in an apartment failed to pay her monthly rent. Her landlord served her with a Notice to Quit, which stated that her tenancy would end on June 22, 1995 and that the landlord would seek eviction proceedings if she did not vacate the premises. On June 22, a complaint for summary dispossess was filed. The complaint alleged back rent, late charges, damages, and contract costs. The complaint also requested attorney’s fees.

The summary dispossess hearing took place on July 14, 1995. During a recess in the hearing, the tenant told the landlord’s attorney that she was unable to pay the back rent. The attorney then told the court clerk of this and a judgment for possession was entered. The tenant then signed an agreement (which was entered as a consent judgment) staying the issuance of a warrant for removal (as a hardship stay) until December 31, 1995. The tenant told the clerk she would be able to make full payment within 11 days. On July 25, she paid all monies that were demanded. When signing the consent judgment, the tenant, based on conversations with the landlord’s attorney and his paralegal, thought that this was a probationary period and that if she fulfilled all her obligations she would be allowed to stay in the apartment. She then fulfilled all her obligations. Nonetheless, her landlord sought eviction on December 31, 1995. The lower court upheld the consent judgment because the terms were clear. The Appellate Division upheld the lower court. The Supreme Court reversed.

In reversing the Appellate Division, the Supreme Court found that the procedures in landlord/tenant court failed to protect pro se tenants. The Court was felt it was inappropriate for opposing counsel to advise a pro se tenant. The Court directed each county to prepare and implement a set of plain-language instructions for tenants that conveys certain information. The Court also found that the attorney’s fees were improperly demanded at the eviction hearing since they were attorney’s fees in connection with the eviction, which the landlord was not entitled to collect. The Court also found that the lower court abused it’s discretion in failing to vacate the consent judgment.


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