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Muller v. Qarmout

A-6330-01T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2003) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT; REMEDIES; ATTORNEYS FEES—A tenant is entitled to an award of attorney’s fees if it successfully shows that its landlord made an improper threat to lock-out the tenant.

A landlord with a written lease had a rent dispute with his tenant. He sent a “Notice of Eviction,” advising his tenant that her rent was late “and currently in the grace period,” and that it was an eviction notice unless the rent was paid in full by a given date. The notice went on to say: “Failure to pay rent forfeits your right to occupy the said apartment. New locks will be installed on the building and apartment 3 within days.” The tenant replied that because the landlord had failed to notify her in writing of the amount and location or her security deposit within thirty days after she claimed to have paid the deposit, the landlord was required to apply the deposit to her rent. She then “filed a complaint in the Special Civil Part, seeking an order preventing [her landlord] from changing the locks or effecting a lock-out of [her] from the premises.” She also sought counsel fees in connection with her action to prevent the lock-out. The lower court entered an order to show cause restraining the landlord from changing the locks and “from utilizing ‘any other self help eviction actions against [the tenant] until further order of the Court.” The landlord filed a cross motion opposing the relief sought by his tenant and also asked for eviction, asserting that the deposit had been paid with a bad check. A number of hearings were held and eventually the tenant moved out at the end of the lease term. The landlord appealed the lower court’s restraining order and the award of attorney’s fees. The Appellate Division, first finding that the Special Civil Part had jurisdiction over the landlord, agreed with the lower court that the original letter from the landlord was “an improper threat to lock-out” the tenant. It further construed N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.6 “as permitting an award of counsel fees under the circumstances.” On the other hand, the Court found that the lower court had awarded counsel fees to the tenant for more than her original action “to prevent the illegal act threatened by [the landlord].” It reviewed the certification for attorneys’ fees submitted to the court below and modified the lower court’s award.

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