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Villa Victoria v. Schuler

A-5719-06T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2008) (Unpublished)

LANDLORD-TENANT; EVICTION; REASONABLE ACCOMMODATIONS — Reasonable accommodation cases are factually sensitive and therefore, before deciding that a landlord seeking to evict a tenant need not give an allegedly mentally ill tenant the ability to take steps to control his or her mental illness, a court should hold a plenary hearing to determine the underlying facts and whether the tenant’s behavior, otherwise the basis for eviction, result from a disability that could be reasonably accommodated.

A female tenant lived at a federally subsidized multi-family complex. She suffered from bipolar disorder, and was found mentally disabled and entitled to Social Security disability benefits. At a point in time, her visits to her psychiatrist were reduced, her psychotropic medicines were reduced, and her medications were modified. Sometime after that, the tenant terminated her relationship with a boyfriend and her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy.

One day, the tenant was alone and depressed in her apartment. She drank a couple glasses of wine. She threw a broken chair at a window, causing the glass to shatter. She called her mother, and her mother had her admitted to the hospital where she was diagnosed both bipolar disorder and mixed episodic alcohol abuse. She was given an anti-depressant and released. Her landlord served her with a Notice to Quit, terminating her tenancy because of her willful misconduct or gross negligence in regard to the property damage. The tenant alleged that she was severely depressed and asked for a reasonable accommodation to her disability to settle the matter – a year’s probation, and more vigilant therapy. The landlord rejected this settlement offer, and filed an eviction action. The tenant defended the action by submitting a psychiatrist’s expert report that diagnosed both manic depressive illness and mixed episodic alcohol abuse. The doctor stated the damage was caused by an exacerbation of her symptoms. The lower court did not permit the psychiatrist to testify, but rather decided the case on stipulated facts without any testimony presented. The tenant sought a dismissal of the eviction action, because the landlord failed to provide the tenant with a reasonable accommodation of her mental disability. The lower court concluded that the tenant’s actions were alcohol-related conduct, apart from any mental disability that required a reasonable accommodation analysis, and the landlord did not have to tolerate property destruction as a result of the alcohol abuse. The tenant appealed.

The Appellate Division reversed and remanded for a new trial. It found that reasonable accommodation cases are factually sensitive, and that the tenant’s expert report was ambiguous as to the true cause of the damage. Therefore, the Court found that the lower court needed to hold a plenary hearing with testimony taken from both parties’ experts or fact witnesses in order to conclude that the tenant’s action was the product solely of alcohol abuse. It pointed out that the appellate courts have the right to remand cases for more testimony or for testimony which the parties themselves did not offer.

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