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Lewis v. J.T. Management Co. LLC

A-5892-05T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2007) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT; DISCRIMINATION — To establish a claim of housing discrimination under New Jersey law, a tenant needs to offer prima facie evidence of disability, that the tenant’s landlord knew of the disability, and that the landlord’s actions were motivated by that knowledge.

A disabled tenant, receiving general welfare assistance benefits, rented a two bedroom apartment. The rent was highly subsidized under a temporary rental assistance program. Over two years, the monthly rent increased twice. Upon learning of the first rental increase and that the apartment was advertised as containing one bedroom and a den, the program administrator gave the tenant notice that the benefits would be terminated because the new rent was above the fair market value for a one-bedroom apartment in the county.

The tenant filed a federal complaint alleging that her rental increases were imposed after she had complained to the police about noise that affected her disability. The tenant filed a verified complaint with the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights alleging that her landlord had committed unlawful housing discrimination on the basis of her disability, specifically that the rent increases were imposed as retaliation for her complaints of noise that affected her physical disability. The Division’s investigation concluded that the landlord had no knowledge of her complaints to the police, or to any other third party. The Division found that the rental increases were standard and issued upon renewal of lease agreements. It found no evidence of any other grounds for a claim of discrimination. The tenant appealed.

The Appellate Division held that to establish a claim of housing discrimination under New Jersey law, the claimant needed to offer prima facie evidence that she was disabled, that her landlord knew of her disability, and that its actions were motivated by that knowledge. Here, the Court found that the landlord’s explanation of its rental increase policy and its statement that the tenant’s apartment was a legal two-bedroom unit was sufficient to place the burden on the tenant to establish that the explanation was pretextual. It then found that the tenant did not meet this burden. As a result, the Court affirmed the Department’s decision, stating that the tenant’s real issue was the classification of her unit by the temporary rental assistance program as a one-bedroom unit rather than two in its decision to cut assistance based upon a spatial dimension scheme.

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