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Miah v. Ahmed

359 N.J. Super. 151, 819 A.2d 440 (App. Div. 2003)

LANDLORD-TENANT; EVICTION; DAMAGES—Where a landlord is required to evict a residential tenant because the occupancy is illegal, the requirement to reimburse the tenant for six months’ rent is not an obligation to pay the equivalent of six months’ rent to the tenant, but is only one to pay relocation expenses based upon the tenant’s actual out-of-pocket costs.

A landlord discovered that its tenant’s occupancy was illegal and it was therefore required to evict the tenant. In such circumstances, the applicable statute states: “If a residential tenant is displaced because of an illegal occupancy in a residential rental premises pursuant to [a particular subsection of the statute] and the municipality in which the rental premises is located has not an ordinance pursuant to [another section of the same statute], the displaced residential tenant shall be entitled for reimbursement for relocation expenses from the owner in an amount equal to six times the monthly rental paid by the displaced person.” Here, the lower court read the statute “to mean that a full six months’ rent had to be paid over to the tenant in any event, whether or not the tenant actually incurred those expenses and required reimbursement to that extent for actual expenses.” In effect, the lower court treated the statute “as creating a penalty provision against the landlord and in favor of the tenant.” The lower court also did not credit the landlord for the three months during which the tenant resided in the apartment after the eviction.

At the outset, the Appellate Division noted “that merely because there was an illegal occupancy, a tenant is not entitled to have rent free accommodations, particularly for an extended period.” It then looked at the statute and saw that the term “reimbursement” was not defined. Therefore, it applied what it called “usual rules of statutory construction.” Words in a statute which are not specifically defined are given their common meanings. According to the Court, it is appropriate to look to dictionary definitions. Here, “[r]eimburse” is defined as “[t]o pay back, to make restoration, to repay that expended; to indemnify, or make whole.” After considering that definition, the Court said: “Although ‘reimbursement’ is required, it would seem to be an improper confiscation by the Legislature of a person’s funds to require payment of an amount more than necessary to repay or compensate an individual under the circumstances here, or even for relocation.” The Court was satisfied after considering the plain meaning of the word “reimbursement,” that “any relocation expenses must be based upon actual out-of-pocket expenses by the tenant.”

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