Skip to main content

Powell v. Taylor

A-0117-08T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2009) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT; EVICTION — The decision by a residential tenant to leave an apartment does not give the landlord the right to lock the tenant out because, in New Jersey, residential tenants have a vested right to remain in their apartments until such time as they formally give up possession or are the subject of a judgment for possession.

A tenant rented a room at a Class A rooming house. He received a list of house rules. One day, the tenant arrived at the rooming house and saw a locksmith changing the lock to his room. The owner and the building’s property manager also had placed the tenant’s belongings in the common kitchen. The tenant took what he could carry, but left behind several items. The tenant sued, alleging he was locked out of his apartment for breaking a rule. He claimed he was threatened with physical harm and that he lost half of his property. The owner responded by claiming the tenant owed back rent and damaged his carpeting. He also denied that he threw the tenant out, asserting that the tenant voluntarily elected to leave the premises after repeatedly violating house rules. The owner also alleged that he gave a letter to the tenant confirming their agreement.

The lower court ruled in favor of the tenant, holding that the owner violated the Anti-Eviction Act. First, it found that the owner gave the tenant neither an effective notice to cease nor a notice to quit. Second, it held that the landlord’s letter did not meet the technical requirements of either notice, since: (a) it failed to use those words (quit or cease), as required by case law; and (b) the letter was given after the asserted violation and only a few days before the actual “eviction” took place. It further found that the tenant’s version of the facts, with respect to whether he “voluntarily” left the premises, was more credible than the owner’s. As a result, the lower court found it was clear that the tenant did not leave voluntarily. It noted, however, that the agreement to leave, if there was one, would not have given the landlord the right to lock its tenant out since a tenant had a vested right to remain in the property until such time as he or she formally gives up possession or is the subject of a judgment for possession. The court assessed treble compensatory damages, attorney’s fees, and costs against the owner. It reduced this award by the amount of past due rent owed by the tenant and the cost to repair the damage caused by the tenant. The owner appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that there was sufficient credible evidence in the record to support the lower court’s findings. It also agreed with the lower court that it was irrelevant that the owner may have had sufficient grounds to evict the tenant pursuant to the Act. Since the owner did not observe the procedural safeguards of the Act and terminated the tenancy “on the spot” without giving its tenant notice and an opportunity to be heard, he was in violation of the Act.

66 Park Street • Montclair, New Jersey 07042
tel: 973-783-3000 • fax: 973-744-5757 •