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Meridian Condominium Association v. Campbell

A-2237-04T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

CONDOMINIUMS; UNIT OWNERS—A unit owner is not entitled to an abatement of, or setoff against, common charges based on the doctrine of habitability, but may make a separate claim against the association.

A condominium association sued a unit owner for unpaid condominium fees. In response, the unit owner “asserted a right to setoff against condominium fees for diminution in [its] use of the unit based on [the association’s] failure to maintain the common areas.” It also claimed that its “vehicle was vandalized by an unknown person as a proximate result of [the association’s] breach of its duty to provide reasonable security in the parking lot provided to owners of the condominium units.”

The charges owed by the unit owner had been memorialized in a settlement that required the unit owner to make monthly payments. That settlement was breached and the unit owner did not pay maintenance fees for four years. That was undisputed. Instead, the unit owner claimed that the association had agreed to repair the roof and also that sewers to the building backed up, “causing damage to [the] unit as well as providing an unhealthy environment in which to live.” In essence, the unit owner contended that “the use and enjoyment of [its] unit [had] been affected and the value of the unit [had] been diminished.” While acknowledging that it could not make a setoff claim for defects in the common area, the unit owner alleged “that because the unit had been plagued by by water damage and leaks caused by faulty maintenance of the roof, a common area, [it] should be entitled to an abatement of the monthly maintenance fees.” In doing so, it was relying “on the analogous right of a tenant to a rent abatement based on the doctrine of unhabitability. The lower court dismissed the counterclaim, “correctly observ[ing] that no unit owner may exempt himself from liability for his share of common expenses and cannot claim abatement of maintenance fees due to conditions that allegedly impact on the use and enjoyment of the property.” Under New Jersey case law, “[a] unit owner’s obligation to pay common expenses is unconditional.” In fact, the New Jersey statute provides, in part, that “[n]o unit owner may exempt himself from liability for his share of common expenses by waiver of the enjoyment of the right to use any of the common elements or by abandonment of his unit or otherwise.” That statutory language was repeated in the master deed for this particular association. Consequently, the Appellate Division agreed with the lower court’s dismissal of the counterclaim, but pointed out that the dismissal was without prejudice. Therefore, the unit owner could separately sue the association, but could not assert a setoff against condominium fees.

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