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Masterson v. Post

A-3235-09T4 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2011) (Unpublished)

LEASES; CO-TENANTS — One co-tenant cannot unilaterally terminate a lease; all co-tenants must agree to do so.

Two roommates occupied an apartment pursuant to a written lease. When one roommate needed to move out, the remaining occupant sought and found a replacement roommate. The terminating roommate notified the landlord’s managing agent of her intent to substitute the new occupant on the lease for herself. The agent agreed.

The remaining roommate and the new roommate both signed a new lease with the landlord, at the previous rent, for the balance of the lease term. The lease specified that the two would be jointly and severally liable under the lease. Months after moving in, the new roommate advised the remaining roommate that she needed to leave for personal reasons. The remaining roommate agreed to try to find a new occupant. Months later, the remaining roommate told her roommate that she had been unsuccessful, and that because she wasn’t sure if she wanted to renew the lease, it was not sensible to advertise any further.

The new roommate then served a sixty-day notice on the landlord seeking to terminate the lease. The landlord responded that the remaining tenant could not do so without the consent of the her roommate. The new roommate testified that she removed all of her belongings and paid all rent except for the last month’s rent. She said she had withheld the last month’s rent because the remaining roommate had taken over “her” living space by allowing another person to place personal belongings in “her” bedroom. The remaining roommate disputed that assertion and claimed that the new roommate had vacated the apartment without paying her share of the utilities for six months. Also, the old roommate testified it was necessary for her to pay the landlord the full amount of the last month’s rent.

After a trial, the lower court ruled in favor of the remaining roommate for one-half of the last month’s rent and for non-payment of one-half of the utility charges for six months, reasoning that the new roommate had taken over the lease with the consent of the landlord, and thus was as responsible for the rent as was the remaining roommate.

The new roommate moved for a new trial, arguing that the lower court had incorrectly interpreted the lease. She claimed the lease allowed her to terminate her obligation under the lease on sixty days’ notice to the landlord. In denying the motion, the lower court held that the old roommate should have focused instead on the part of the lease that made her jointly and severally liable for the rent.

On appeal, the Appellate Division found that reading the lease as allowing the new roommate to unilaterally terminate her lease obligations would completely ignore other important lease terms. Additionally, it agreed with the lower court that the original roommate would generally be entitled to reimbursement when she paid both shares of rent. However, the Court reversed the lower court’s decision because the lower court did not allow the remaining roommate to present evidence supporting her contention that the old roommate had permitted a third party to move into “her” bedroom. The new roommate had offered photographs to support her assertion, but the lower court ignored the proffer. Had her photographs been considered, the remaining roommate’s credibility might have been undercut and that might have rendered the decision inequitable.


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