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Village Apartments of Cherry Hill, N.J. v. Novack

383 N.J. Super. 574 893 A.2d 8 (App. Div. 2006)

LANDLORD-TENANT; EVICTION; COMPETENCE—An eviction proceeding of a mentally incompetent tenant cannot proceed without participation by a guardian for the tenant even if the tenant is represented by counsel.

A landlord entered into a residential lease. Its tenant was adjudged mentally incompetent and a guardian had been appointed. The tenant negligently filled the bathtub in his apartment with clothing then left the water running, causing a flood that damaged the apartment. The landlord sought to evict the tenant for cause. At trial, the tenant appeared with his attorney, but his guardian did not appear. The tenant’s mother was guardian. A substitute guardian was appointed, but was not qualified in time for trial and did not appear. The tenant’s attorney did not request an adjournment of the trial so that the guardian could appear and did not request the appointment of a guardian ad litem before the trial continued. The lower court permitted the trial to proceed, even without the tenant’s guardian, and found in favor of the landlord. The tenant appealed and the Appellate Division reversed, noting that the grounds for appealing an eviction action are limited to jurisdictional questions. The Court found that without the appearance of the tenant’s guardian, the lower court did not have jurisdiction to decide the case. It noted that, by statute and court rule, a person adjudged mentally incompetent must be represented by a guardian as well as by an attorney because an attorney and guardian have different roles and objectives. While the attorney’s role is to zealously represent the tenant, the guardian’s role is determine what is in the tenant’s best interest. The Court noted that the requirement to have a guardian present is not a matter of form, but is required in order to protect an incompetent person. In this case, since the tenant had been receiving Section 8 housing benefits, a judgment evicting him for cause would have risked his ability to find new Section 8 housing. The Court noted that had the guardian been present, the guardian might have recommended that the attorney not contest the action or seek to have the eviction order vacated to preserve the tenant’s Section 8 housing eligibility. For those reasons, the Court held that the presence of the guardian was essential and that the trial should not have proceeded without the tenant’s guardian.

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