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Miah v. Ahmed

A-1-03 (N.J. Supr. Ct. 2004)

LANDLORD-TENANT; EVICTION; RELOCATION—A residential tenant who is forced to moved out because the apartment is illegal is entitled to a full six months’ rent to cover relocation expenses even if those expenses are actually lower, and the landlord may not set-off any monies it claims it is owed by the tenant, leaving that claim to later suit.

The Anti-Eviction Act provides that a residential tenant, displaced as the result of a zoning code enforcement determination that his or her apartment was illegal, is entitled to “reimbursement expenses from the [landlord] in an amount equal to six times the monthly rental paid by the displaced person.” The relocation expenses are to be paid five days before the tenant is locked out of the apartment. In this case, the landlord of an illegal apartment deposited six month’s rent into court prior to the tenant’s removal. The landlord, who had a pending suit against the tenant for unpaid rent, argued that he was entitled to set-off the unpaid rent against the relocation assistance he was required to pay. The landlord also argued that the tenant was only entitled to actual relocation expenses and demanded a hearing at which the tenant would be required to prove his actual expenses. The lower court refused the hearing request and ordered the landlord to deposit the full six months’ rent in court. The Appellate Division reversed. It focused on the word “reimbursement,” and held that the statute was intended to reimburse the tenant, not provide the tenant with a windfall. Therefore, the tenant had to prove his damages.

On further appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division’s holding, noting that the statute’s language is clear and unambiguous. The statute requires reimbursement expenses in a fixed amount equal to six months rent. The legislature clearly intended to establish a defined sum that would not be subject to a court’s discretion or depend on the tenant’s actual expenses. The purpose of the statute is to aid a displaced tenant of an illegal apartment by requiring payment of the relocation amount at least five days before the tenant is required to move out. It found it to be impractical and burdensome to require a tenant to prove his other expenses before moving. The Court also noted that the statute is silent as to whether the landlord is entitled to set off against the reimbursement expense. In its view, not disbursing the relocation assistance until a set-off claim is heard would unfairly burden and delay the tenant’s move to new housing quickly (as contemplated by the statute). The landlord still has a cause of action against the tenant even though it might not later be able to collect any awarded damages.

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