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Hebner v. Rodriguez

A-1828-08T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2010) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT; SECURITY DEPOSITS — Even though a landlord may violate the notice provisions of the Security Deposit Act, if the tenant is not entitled to return of any portion of his or her residential security deposit, the tenant is not entitled to statutory doubling despite the landlord’s failure to give proper notice following the tenant having vacated the property.

A tenant entered into an oral month-to-month lease for a ground floor apartment unit and posted a security deposit. The tenant later qualified for, and received, federal Section 8 housing assistance. When the tenant failed to pay his portion of the rent, the landlord had him evicted and the sheriff’s office executed a warrant of removal. The tenant asked the landlord to return his security deposit, but the landlord did not reply and never told the tenant why the security deposit was being withheld.

The tenant sued for return of his deposit, statutory damages, and interest under the Security Deposit Act based on the landlord’s failure to return the security deposit and provide an itemized list of deductions. At trial, the landlord testified he was owed rent. In addition, the landlord claimed he had to clean and repair damage to the apartment and to change the locks. The landlord also claimed that the tenant had borrowed money from him to be bailed out of jail. The tenant claimed that the repairs the landlord made were long overdue, the need for which pre-existed his occupancy of the premises. The lower court found the tenant not credible and, in fact, deceptive. The lower court held that even though the landlord did not send an itemized list of the deductions from the security deposit, the landlord was not liable under the Security Deposit Act because he established that the amount owed exceeded the amount of the deposit.

The tenant appealed, but the Appellate Division affirmed. The tenant argued that the Security Deposit Act only required him to prove the existence and termination of the landlord-tenant relationship, him posting a security deposit, and the landlord’s failure to return the deposit or give notice with an itemized list of the deductions. In essence, the tenant argued that he was entitled to double the security as a result of the landlord’s failure to comply with the statute regardless of whether the tenant was really entitled to the return of all or a portion of his security deposit. The Court disagreed.

The Court found that when a residential tenant violates his or her obligations under the lease, the Security Deposit Act does not automatically impose “doubling” if the landlord fails to either return the security deposit or send an itemized list of the deductions. Rather, a court is required to determine the landlord’s offset from the deposit. If the landlord’s offset exceeds the amount of the deposit, then there is no deposit to return and, therefore, no basis for enforcing the notification requirement. In this case, the lower court found that the landlord’s offsets exceeded the amount of the tenant’s security deposit. While the Court did not condone the landlord’s failure to send notice to the tenant along with an itemized list of deductions, it found that the tenant was not entitled to the return of any portion of the security deposit and therefore it was not entitled to statutory doubling under the Security Deposit Act.

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