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Keighley v. Staley

A-4827-06T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2008) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT; MOLD — Where a tenant has not caused the mold condition, and the condition renders the apartment unhabitable, the tenant may avoid paying rent.

A tenant leased an apartment and gave a security deposit. The landlord provided a window air conditioner, but when it stopped working, the tenant purchased a replacement unit which was installed by the landlord’s handyman. Two months later, the landlord undertook repairs of the roof whereupon water seeped into the wall where the air conditioning unit was installed. The conditions in the apartment became intolerable and the tenant hired a contractor to perform repairs. The contractor found that the water seepage problems had actually been taking place over an extended period of time, and that previous repairs had been made to the wall. The tenant also hired an indoor environmentalist who found elevated airborne fungal concentrations and toxic molds. The tenant notified the landlord that he would not pay the last month of his rent, and demanded a full refund of his security deposit prior to vacating the premises. Soon thereafter, the tenant filed an action for damages alleged to result from an uninhabitable apartment. The landlord defended the action by presenting testimony that discharge of condensation from the air conditioner actually had caused damage to the wall and that no further evidence of ongoing leakage was found.

After a bench trial, the lower court entered judgment in favor of the tenant. It found that the landlord wrongfully withheld the security deposit and ordered reimbursement for repairs and counsel fees. The court found the testimony of the tenant’s experts more credible than those of the landlord.

The landlord appealed, but the Appellate Division affirmed the judgment, finding sufficient credible evidence to support the lower court’s conclusion that the tenant was justified in vacating the premises without paying the final month’s rent because of the mold condition, which rendered the apartment uninhabitable, that the tenant was not responsible for any damage to the apartment. Consequently, the tenant was entitled to recover double the amount of his security deposit, together with other reasonable damages incurred.

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