Kellett v. Lewis

A-6619-97T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2000) (Unpublished)
  • Opinion Date: February 15, 2000

LANDLORD-TENANT; EVICTION—In order to justify an eviction based upon commission of unreasonable acts, a landlord must prove a substantial or considerable departure from the conduct that is reasonably expected from a tenant; seemingly outrageous behavior by a ninety year old tenant was not enough.

A ninety year old tenant resided in an apartment that was subsequently converted to condominium ownership. As a pre-conversion tenant, she enjoyed protected tenancy status. The unit was sold subject to her tenancy. The relationship between the owner and the tenant was not a good one. The tenant had sent many long, angry letters to the landlord. The theme of many of the letters was that the landlord’s repairs should have been done in the morning after the tenant’s bathroom routine and before lunch. The tenant complained that repairs at other times were an invasion of her privacy and interfered with her life. More than once, the tenant physically struck the landlord. Five years earlier, during the course of an eviction proceeding, the landlord decided to give the tenant “a second chance,” relying on assurances from the tenant’s stepson that there would be no reoccurrence. Following that incident, the tenant apparently alienated her family and stepchildren and they no longer desired to act as her intermediary with the landlord. After numerous angry exchanges, in writing and in person, the landlord presented a renewal lease to the tenant. The lease provided for a five percent rent increase and included specific conditions prohibiting the tenant from abusing the landlord either verbally or in writing and required the tenant to cease and desist from any “further malicious and slanderous remarks, either oral or written, regarding the Landlord of the Lease.” The tenant refused to sign the lease. The following day, the condominium’s management company complained that the tenant had refused access to repair a toilet. The landlord sent the tenant a Notice Terminating Lease with a Demand of Possession. It alleged many grounds, including, among others, the tenant’s refusal to cease and stop certain acts following Notices to Cease, interfering with the landlord’s right to make inspections and repairs, and disorderly conduct. It was a difficult trial. The lower court issued a written opinion finding that the tenant had “made threats and assaulted [her landlord], and that the tenant had denied the landlord access to make repairs and ‘the components of a reasonable and rational landlord/tenant no longer exist.’” The judge issued a warrant of removal, concluding that “the facts reveal[ed] that [tenant] has been unreasonable, disorderly and has violated” the provisions of the New Jersey Statutes allowing eviction for disorderly behavior after written notice to cease and allowing eviction for substantially violating the landlord’s reasonable rules after written notice to cease. The tenant appealed, arguing among other things, that there was no compliance with the Anti-Eviction Act. In its review, the Appellate Division emphasized that the Anti-Eviction Act was remedial legislation enacted to protect residential tenants from the effects of what had become a critical housing shortage. It also pointed out that it was required to strictly construe the Act. In doing so, “after a thorough and laborious review of the proofs, [the Appellate Division] conclude[d] that [the landlord] ha[d] failed to meet her burden with respect to the allegations of her complaint.” The Court focused on three grounds. The first ground was the tenant’s failure to pay the five percent rent increase. Under the rent control ordinance in the municipality where the property was located, seniors were afforded a four percent cap on rent increases if their landlord provided heat and the senior’s income was below a particular figure. Although the landlord claimed that her tenant was required to file an application to earn the protection of the rent leveling ordinance, the Court and the Appellate Division thought otherwise. The second ground was breach of the lease conditions. However, the Court pointed out that the new lease never became effective. Therefore, its conditions could not have been breached. A third ground for eviction was that the tenant “committed other unreasonable acts.” The evidence presented by the landlord established that the tenant was insisting on protecting her privacy by demanding that repairs be done at her convenience. The Court interpreted this to mean that the landlord/tenant relationship was merely “fraught with more friction than most.” Nonetheless, the Court felt that “in order to justify an eviction, the landlord must prove a substantial or considerable departure from the conduct that is reasonably expected from a tenant. A minor or trivial transgression is not enough.” Even though the tenant’s conduct may have been frustrating, it did not quality “as the sort that justifies eviction.” The landlord did not show that, “as a result of the tenant’s insistence that work be done at her convenience, essential repairs have gone undone, or property damage has been sustained.” Although the tenant could have been more flexible, scheduling repairs had not been impossible. Further, it was not disorderly conduct to “use” the building staff to drive her to stores nor was it disorderly to “loiter” at the doorman’s station. Those were issues between the tenant and third parties which did not involve the landlord. With respect to the allegation of threats, a note that read, “[i]f you ever dare again to shake your hand in front of my face you may find my cane in your face! Keep away from me. 23 year tenant in Apt. 10G - at age 88 I’m to be moved AFTER my death. NOT BY YOU,” was held not to be a threat. “[W]hen read in context, it is clear that tenant thought she was being threatened by [her landlord]. The incident was nothing more than an acrimonious exchange between people who view each other with distrust. It is insufficient to support an eviction.”