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Sabry v. Tarakji

A-1879-04T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT; EVICTION — Apartment registration requirements and security deposit rules are inapplicable to owner-occupied premises with no more than two rental units and even if a municipality requires registration for such apartments, the failure to obtain a municipal certificate alone does not make a lease illegal.

A landlord and a tenant entered a three year lease for the second-floor residential apartment above the landlord’s home. The lease set the rent and allowed the tenant to use the basement for doing laundry. It also acknowledged that the tenant had paid a security deposit.

The landlord and tenant had a tumultuous relationship, with the parties filing several claims against each other during the second year of tenancy. The tenant filed a complaint against the landlord seeking damages for the landlord’s supposed failure to register the rental property with state or local officials, and for the landlord’s failure to obtain a certificate of occupancy for the apartment from local officials. The landlord filed a complaint against the tenant for dispossession, claiming that the tenant had not paid a month’s rent, and requesting a judgment of possession. The tenant stated that while he had not paid a month’s rent, he had requested that the landlord apply his security deposit to that month’s rent obligation. In both actions, the lower court found in favor of the landlord. It stated that the statutory provisions relied upon by the tenant with regard to the registration requirement and the security deposit were inapplicable, because they applied to residential rental units other than owner-occupied premises with no more than two rental units. Since the landlord’s house was a two-family owner-occupied dwelling, the statute did not apply. The lower court also awarded counsel fees to the landlord.

The tenant appealed from the lower court’s decisions based on a long list of grounds, but the Appellate Division affirmed the judgments except for the fee award. It stated that most of the issues raised on appeal were not sufficient to warrant the Court’s discussion. It agreed with the lower court’s rulings, and reiterated the point that since the rental property was owner-occupied with no more than two units, the tenant’s claims were without merit. It also noted that contrary to the tenant’s claims, the failure to obtain a municipal certificate alone does not make a lease illegal. The Court agreed with the lower court’s conclusion that the tenant failed to demonstrate the municipality’s requirements regarding registration and certificate of occupancy.

During the lower court trial, the tenant had raised several procedural issues. On appeal, the Court found that the arguments concerning the lower court’s failure to provide Harris calendar-call instructions, requests for change of venue, recusal of the judge, and discovery requests, were all meritless. With regard to the Harris calendar-call instructions, the Court noted that the primary concern is that parties have full knowledge and are informed of their options. The lower court was correct in asserting that there was no issue of the tenant being uninformed, and its failure to provide the instructions did not result in prejudice to the tenant. The Court also found that the record demonstrated that the lower court was fully appropriate in dealing with the tenant, and the fact that the lower court disagreed with many of his arguments was no basis for recusal.

With regard to the counsel fees, the Court found that the record did not support the award against the tenant. To award fees, there needed to be a finding of frivolous claims, or that the tenant did not have a reasonable basis for filing his claims. While the Court recognized that the tenant was extremely persistent in his several claims and motions, it stated that the record did not demonstrate that his actions were made in bad faith or for the purpose of harassment, delay, or injury. Therefore, the Court reversed the counsel fees award. All other rulings questioned on appeal were affirmed.

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