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Truesdell v. Carr

351 N.J. Super. 317, 798 A.2d 153 (Law Div. 2002)

LEASES; EVICTION; DAMAGES— In the case of an award of damages against a landlord for wrongfully locking out its tenant, the award is trebled before applying a credit for previously unpaid rent.

Residential tenants brought suit alleging wrongful eviction pursuant to the provisions of N.J.S.A. 2A:39-1 et seq. The jury determined that the landlord had indeed “locked out” the tenants contrary to the statute and awarded damages for lost furniture and similar losses. Because a return to possession was an “inappropriate remedy on the facts in the case, the tenants were held entitled to a trebling of the damage award.” The landlord “counterclaimed for unpaid rent for the one-half month prior to the eviction.” Prior to the eviction the tenants’ security deposit had, by consent of the parties, been applied to unpaid rent for a prior period. The tenants conceded the counterclaim and the jury found that the tenants owed the landlord a small amount of unpaid rent. This gave rise to the question as to whether the offset for the unpaid rent was to be subtracted from the damage award “before or after the trebling required by the statute. ... In cases involving the wrongful withholding of the return of a tenant’s security deposit, the statute provides for a recovery of ‘double the amount of said moneys.’” Under case law interpretation, the doubling applies to the amount “wrongfully withheld,” rather than calling for a “doubling of the amount of the initial security deposit.” Therefore, it is “well-settled that, in the context of the security deposit statute, a permitted offset is to be subtracted from a tenant’s damages prior to the doubling of the damages for purposes of the entry of judgment under the statute.” The Court, however, found that the rationale for this result is “the relationship between the purpose of the security deposit and the nature of the costs sought to be offset against the landlord’s obligation to return it.” Here, the Court believed that the circumstances were quite different. The landlord’s claim would have been a permitted offset against the tenant’s security deposit if there were any remaining money available. On the other hand, a landlord is not entitled to any “preference” or “priority lien against other assets of the tenant[].” In short, “[t]here is no factual or legal relationship between the landlord’s claim for unpaid rent and the tenants’ claim for damages for the unlawful eviction. As a result, there is no underlying rationale that would justify a requirement that the tenants credit the landlord with the amount of the unpaid rent before asserting their statutory claim to treble damages.”

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