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Golden Peak, LLC v. Melgar

A-3004-07T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2009) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT — A family occupant or “functional co-tenant” may be protected by the Anti-Eviction Act provided that such person can show continuous residency, substantial contribution toward the tenancy’s financial obligations, and that the contribution has been acknowledged and acquiesced to by the landlord.

A For many years, a mother lived in a rent-controlled apartment with her adult son. Then, she moved into an assisted living senior housing facility leaving her son as the sole resident of the apartment for more than five years. Only the mother has signed the lease as the “tenant.” The lease permitted her son to reside in the premises with her. Nonetheless, the landlord contended that the lease did not permit the tenant to leave her son behind as the sole resident. The landlord sued to evict the tenant and her son even though the son had lived in the apartment for over twenty years.

The Law Division held in favor of the landlord. The Court referred to a clause in the lease that provided that there can be no assignments or subletting without the written consent of the landlord. Although the son was found to have lived in the apartment during the entire duration of the lease and was a substantial contributor to the rent, because the mother was no longer residing in the apartment, it granted possession to the landlord. It rejected the son’s argument that he was the functional equivalent of a “co-tenant” who could seek protection under the Anti-Eviction Act. The Court held that the prior Supreme Court opinion relied upon by the son was a Section 8 case, and its holding limited to Section 8 tenancies. The Court concluded that the son’s occupancy was contingent upon the tenancy of his mother, who was the named tenant in the lease. Accordingly, it found that he was not protected under the Act and could be evicted by the landlord.

On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed. It believed that the central issue was whether the family-member occupant had a continuing right of possession after the named tenant had left the premises, whether as a result of death or the need for care not available in the home. It held that, notwithstanding the terms of the lease, the tenant’s son was entitled to the protections of the Act. The Court declared that it must look beyond the label imposed by the landlord designating the son as a “non-tenant” in order to explore the true character of the relationship. It ruled that a family member occupant or “functional co-tenant” may be protected by the Anti-Eviction Act, provided that such person could show, as the son did here: (a) continuous residency; (b) substantial contribution towards satisfaction of the tenancy’s financial obligations; and (c) that his or her “contribution has been acknowledged and acquiesced to by the landlord.” It rejected the lower court’s finding that these standards only apply to Section 8 tenancies. It then explored the intent and purpose of the Act, which is to protect residential tenants against unfair and arbitrary evictions by limiting the basis for their removal. Finding that the Act is remedial in nature and should be liberally construed, the Court ruled that the Act applied in this case. The Court determined that the Act enumerates seventeen grounds for eviction. In the present case, it stated that the landlord did not claim that the son violated any rule or failed to pay rent. The Court declared that while the lower court emphasized a landlord’s right to choose its tenants, it gave insufficient consideration to the fact that the son had been living in the apartment for more than twenty years and that he was the sole tenant for more than five years. Thus, it concluded that, since there was no cause to evict, the son had a continued right of possession, protected from eviction without cause.


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