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Jersey City Management v. Garcia

321 N.J. Super. 543, 729 A.2d 521 (App. Div. 1999)

LANDLORD-TENANT; EVICTION—Residential tenants have a legal right to contest the reasonableness of lease terms and should not be evicted if, following an adverse ruling, they cure the breach that gave rise to the contest.

A landlord sought to evict a long term tenant in its federally subsidized federally housing project. The tenant had had a cat for eleven years and a dog for two years. At the time of trial, the tenant conceded the lease contained a “no-pet” provision, but contended that there were particular circumstances that rendered application of that provision unreasonable. This was relevant because the landlord was seeking the tenant’s removal pursuant to the section of New Jersey law that permits removal where the tenant continues to violate a landlord’s rules and regulations after written notice to cease, “provided such rules and regulations are reasonable.” According to prior case law, what is “reasonable” within the meaning of the tenant eviction law must be analyzed “with the recognition that personal affinities towards both living quarters and pets should not be required to be sacrificed on the basis of a landlord’s whim or caprice.” The lower court concluded that application of the “no-pet” provision for the tenant’s cat was not reasonable under the circumstances. Nonetheless, the lower court held that application of the “no-pet” provision for the tenant’s dog was reasonable. On the same day that the tenant received the lower court’s decision, it removed the dog from the apartment. Nonetheless, the tenant was served with a warrant of removal. A few days later, the tenant filed an order to show cause seeking to vacate the judgment of removal on the basis that the dog had been properly removed once the lower court determined the reasonableness of the “no-pet” provision as applied to the dog. In effect, the application was a motion for relief of judgment pursuant to R. 4:50-1. The Court held that the circumstances warranted relief from the judgment. In its view, the tenant had a good faith basis for believing that keeping the pets was not violative of a reasonable application of the no-pet policy and, thus had a good faith basis for choosing to litigate that defense. Case law has held that where there exists a bona fide dispute, tenants have “a legal right ... to contest the reasonableness of the lease terms” such that immediate removal despite a cure may not be warranted. The Court also pointed out that the landlord’s notice to quit and termination of lease stated “YOU ARE HEARBY [sic] ADVISED OF YOUR RIGHT TO DEFEND THE ACTION IN COURT.” Consequently, the Court held that “relief from the dispossess judgment was warranted either because the underlying basis for the judgment had been satisfied and it was no longer equitable that it have prospective application, . , or because enforcement of the judgment of possession would be unjust, oppressive and inequitable.”


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