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Housing Authority of the City of Jersey City v. Knight

A-1269-03T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2004) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT; EVICTION—A default judgment of possession can be vacated in exceptional circumstances when needed to achieve equity and justice, such as when the tenant had made previous, good faith efforts to resolve a non-payment of rent problem directly with the landlord and only missed the eviction hearing because of a real fear of being fired from his or her job.

A housing authority sued a tenant for overdue rent. The tenant failed to appear and a default judgment was entered. The lower court then denied the tenant’s request for relief from the judgment of possession, finding that the tenant’s failure to appear at the initial proceeding was at his own peril and risk.

On appeal, the owner contended that he missed the court appearance because he had to report to work for fear of losing his job. Furthermore, he argued that he tried to pay his rent multiple times, but the housing authority’s manager refused to take it because the payments were late and were not in the correct amount. The tenant provided copies of money orders to demonstrate that the rent payments were available and that he had attempted to settle the matter in good faith. He testified that he had communicated with several housing authority representatives to try to settle the matter out of court. In response, the housing authority argued that the lower court correctly denied the requested relief because the tenant failed to show excusable neglect or a meritorious defense to justify being excused from the default judgment.

Court Rule 4:50-1(f) is available in nonpayment of rent summary-dispossess actions in “exceptional situations,” when “needed to achieve equity and justice.” In exercising its discretion under the Rule, a lower court may consider any evidence that militates against the grant of relief, such as a tenant’s erratic past payment record, disorderly conduct, or damage to the premises. The Appellate Division found no such negative factors in this case. It found no evidence that the tenant, a resident for twenty-four years, had had trouble paying his rent in the past. To the contrary, the record established that the tenant believed that he could arrange to catch up on his rent without going to court. Although the Court agreed that the tenant’s need to go to work did not, alone, amount to excusable neglect for failing to appear in court, the tenant had satisfactorily explained that he did not attend the hearing because he was concerned about his “strange” relationship with his boss, and never had trouble working out differences with the housing authority in the past. The Court was sympathetic to the concept that missing work has a greater impact on those in a lower income bracket, especially where, because of uneasiness between an employee and boss, the employee could easily be fired. Additionally, the tenant had made several attempts to pay his rent, all of which were rejected simply because he had not gone to court. For these reasons, the Appellate Division held that the lower court mistakenly exercised its discretion when it found no equities favoring the tenant. Consequently, the Court held that the tenant was entitled to relief from the Judgment of Possession.


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