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Gupta v. Michaels

A-4059-09T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2011) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT — A residential tenant is not required to vacate his or her premises and claim constructive eviction before seeking a rent abatement.

A tenant entered into a residential lease and posted a 1-1/2 month security deposit. The tenant purchased a new refrigerator, and deducted the cost from the monthly rent, claiming that the landlord had failed to repair or replace what he described as an old leaking unit. The landlord objected.

Because the tenant continued to complain of unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, the landlord offered to terminate the lease and to allow the tenant to leave. The tenant then told the landlord that he had found a home to purchase and would vacate the premises. Believing that the landlord would not return the full amount of his security deposit, he paid only one-half of the rent for the penultimate month and paid no rent for the final month. Because of a closing delay, the tenant held over for one month, paying timely rent for the holdover month.

After the tenant failed to vacate at the originally promised time, the landlord sued to evict for non-payment of rent. On the return date, the parties settled by signing a consent judgment providing, among other things; acknowledgment by the tenant of his failure to pay one and one-half months’ rent and immediate entry of judgment for possession in favor of the landlord. The tenant was not to pay any additional rent to landlord and landlord would stay the eviction for about a week. The parties executed an amendment to the lease, changing the termination date of the lease.

The tenant vacated according to the agreement. After the landlord re-entered the property for his own use, he obtained estimates for what he claimed were damages to the property caused by the tenant. Following trial, the lower court entered judgment in favor of the landlord, calculated by adding together unpaid rent, subtracting a credit for the security deposit, and reducing the award because of the Special Civil Part jurisdictional limit.

The tenant appealed, and the Appellate Division agreed with the tenant that the lower court had erred in awarding the landlord unpaid rent for the month following the agreed-upon vacation. The consent agreement said that if the tenant vacated before the agreed-upon date, no additional rent would be owed. Likewise, the landlord’s complaint did not demand rent for the month at issue. Further, the landlord’s reoccupation of the premises during the month at issue was inconsistent with a claim for that month’s rent. Thus, the award for rent during the final month was reversed.

The lower court had concluded that there was no evidence showing conditions that would have allowed a rent abatement. However, on appeal, the Appellate Division could not determine if the lower court had considered the issue of the refrigerator purchase, or only of other unrelated conditions concerning the cleanliness of the premises. It noted that a tenant is not required to vacate its premises and claim constructive eviction before seeking a rent abatement. Because the Court could not determine whether the lower court had considered the issue of whether the tenant was entitled to a rent abatement because of his purchase of the new refrigerator, the matter was remanded on that issue.

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