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Romeo v. Perillo

A-6835-03T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT; ABANDONMENT — New Jersey’s statute governing removal of a tenant’s abandoned property is not applicable to a landlord’s actions taken before adoption of that statute.

A landlord received a telephone call from his tenant advising the landlord that the tenant was in jail. The landlord contacted the local police for advice and was told he could enter the premises. Because the landlord could not contact the tenant, for the next two months the landlord contacted the tenant’s friends and family to see if the tenant had made plans for anyone to take responsibility for the lease or for tenant’s property. After learning that the tenant did not make plans with anyone to be responsible for the lease or for tenant’s property, the landlord entered the apartment and removed the tenant’s property. After a year in storage, the landlord threw out tenant’s property. The landlord retained the security deposit to defray the costs of making repairs, but the landlord never sent an invoice to the tenant itemizing the damage. The tenant filed a criminal charge against the landlord for theft the complaint was dismissed.

Although the landlord admitted at trial that he was aware that he ignored existing rules and regulations governing the removal of a tenant’s possessions, the modern statute governing removal of a tenant’s abandoned property (N.J.S.A. 2A:18-72) was not enacted into legislation until after the landlord had removed the tenant’s property from the apartment. Surprisingly, the lower court’s order granting partial summary judgment on liability mentioned that the landlord was in breach of that statute. After partial summary judgment was entered in favor of the tenant on the issue of liability only, the tenant and landlord tried the issue of damages. In charging the jury, the lower court instructed the jury to consider the question whether the tenant abandoned his property. The tenant appealed this jury charge, arguing that the partial summary judgment in his favor reasonably led him to believe he only had to try the issue of damages. He claimed, for that reason, he was unprepared to argue liability and as such the jury verdict against him should have been reversed. The Appellate Division agreed and vacated the jury’s finding that the tenant abandoned his personal property. Further, the Appellate Division vacated the grant of partial summary judgment to the extent liability was found under N.J.S.A. 2A:18-72 and remanded the matter for a trial to decide the issue of whether the tenant abandoned his personal property.

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