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Hector v. Balani

A-4474-05T5 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT; EVICTION — There is a point at which a landlord’s equity interest in its property and its incurrence of expenses can outweigh a tenant’s interest in uninterrupted occupancy of a rented building, such as when a tenant refuses to leave until four months following the date when it was required to leave so as to allow renovations to be made to the building.

Two tenants were given notice by their landlord that renovations were going to begin in little more than a month on the apartment building in which they resided. The landlord planned to relocate the building’s tenants, at his own expense, to apartments in an adjacent municipality and then to move them all back when the renovations were completed. The tenants responded with a letter disputing their landlord’s notice and calling for additional time to have the notice reviewed by an attorney and to relocate. In response, the landlord wrote that their refusal to relocate was a violation of their leases. The tenants responded by revoking their earlier contentions. They signed the agreement covering their temporary relocation but maintained that they still wanted an attorney to review the notice. Roughly two weeks before the renovations were about to begin, the landlord’s attorney informed the tenants of the impending construction and that all remaining tenants were to be moved within a week. On the day that the remaining tenants were to be moved, the landlord’s attorney again contacted the tenants with information as to the location of their new apartment and about the moving company that was hired to pack the tenants’ belongings and to move them. The tenants did not move on the specified date and the landlord subsequently gave the tenants notice that their lease would be terminated.

These were the only tenants remaining on the premises. Over the course of the following two months, the landlord’s attorney corresponded with two different attorneys for the tenants telling them that the landlord was incurring losses as a result of not starting renovations on time but still offering to settle the matter if the tenants would leave the building on a date that was one month beyond the starting date for renovations on the building. The tenants rejected the offer and the landlord subsequently sought to evict them. At trial, the tenants, who by then had taken on a third attorney, agreed to a time frame for leaving the building but were seeking assurances from the landlord about the project’s timing, the new rent, and a guarantee that the building would not be converted into a condominium. In response, the lower court agreed that the landlord could not specifically address some of the tenants’ concerns. It found that the tenants had not acted in good faith, that their conduct was duplicitous, and that their demands were unreasonable. It entered a judgment for possession and terminated the lease. The lower court also rejected the tenants’ fourth attorney’s motion for reconsideration and his attempt to stay the eviction with an offer of a late cure. The following day, the lower court issued a warrant for removal which gave the tenants one week to vacate the premises. The tenants filed an appeal two days before the removal deadline.

On appeal, the tenants argued that there was no evidence that they had breached the lease and also argued that the lower court abused its discretion by not allowing them to cure a breach, if one actually existed. The Court disagreed, finding that the lower court’s finding that the tenants had breached the lease was supported by considerable evidence. It noted that the landlord had shown good cause for the temporary removal of the tenants and was acting in the interest of public policy by attempting to rehabilitate the building. The Court also ruled that the landlord had satisfied the standard for prevailing in its summary dispossession complaint because he had proven every element of his claim with considerable evidence of a breach on the part of the tenants.

The Court questioned whether the matter of the motion to reconsider and vacate judgment was appropriately before it, but examined the matter as if it was a motion for relief from judgment. It noted that while there may be some cases where a late cure could prevent an eviction following judgment, there is a point at which a landlord’s equity interest in its property and its incurrence of expenses could outweigh a tenant’s interest in uninterrupted occupancy of a rented dwelling. Here, the Court found that, under the circumstances, the landlord’s concerns outweighed that of the tenants given that the tenants refused to leave until four months following the date when the renovations were to begin. This caused the landlord considerable losses. The Court additionally rejected the tenants’ request for equitable relief where the tenants argued they should be protected against a forfeiture of their lease interest. The Court noted that state anti-eviction laws were properly adhered to and the Court invoked the principle that a party seeking equitable relief must show good faith in its actions. It also found that the tenants did not show good faith and affirmed the judgment of eviction but vacated the stay for possession by the landlord for about two weeks on the condition that the tenants maintain payment of their rent and abide by the terms of their former lease.

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