"...the apartment was generally unsanitary as defendant had hoarded an immense amount of personal items, garbage, and debris."
In a recent case, the plaintiff (party bringing a lawsuit) owned a housing complex known as H.V. where the defendant (the party defending the case) tenant lived for the last 50 years. On July 17, 2015, the local authorities responded to a "call of gas odor emanating" from the apartment. They found that it was in utter disrepair. The kitchen sink had fallen through the cabinets and other cabinets had fallen off the wall. The bathroom faucet would not turn off, the bathroom had holes in the ceiling, the paint and wallpaper were peeling, the doors did not fit properly, the carpets were destroyed, and there was mold.
That same day, the authorities issued to the owner 11 violations for the apartment. It was even tagged as unfit for human occupancy. On July 20, 2015, the owner served the defendant tenant with Notice under New Jersey law that she had "willfully or by gross negligence caused or allowed destruction, damages, or injury to the premises. Specifically, the Notice informed that her tenancy was being terminated effective July 23, 2015, and set out the 'legal authority' for her removal, based exclusively on her practice of hoarding."
The Notice attempted to detail these findings and violations, and said that there was a violation of the lease. But the tenant failed to give up possession and the landlord filed a complaint to repossess. Significant testimony was taken at trial about the condition of the apartment. The tenant denied that she caused the physical damage to the premises, and that the clutter " accumulated due to a personal setback associated with her mother's death that hampered her ability to care for the apartment." She also said that she cleaned up after the July 17th incident.
The lower court felt that the Notice was good enough, even though it did not identify specific damage caused by the tenant and simply said that the photographs were enough. The Appeals Court disagreed. Even though the apartment was in disrepair, the landlord's notice was deficient. The higher court said that the judge's findings at trial "did not support the entry of the judgment for possession under the law, based upon damage to the apartment."
Under the landlord tenant law, there must be actual damage to the landlord's property for an eviction, "not simply maintaining offensive or noxious conditions." The damage caused must be shown to be by gross negligence (beyond ordinary negligence) by a tenant. In order for a landlord to evict in such a situation, the notice to the tenant must be perfect. It must be explicit, and detailed, and not merely state legal conclusions. The tenant has a right to know, and an opportunity to prepare, against a claim to remove him/her from a property.
In this case, the Notice failed to specify exactly what damages were caused by the tenant. A mere reference to unsanitary or unsavory conditions is not enough. For that reason, the lower court lacked the right to even consider the case. Even though the testimony at trial was about structural damage to the apartment, the deficiencies in the Notice prevented the lower court from considering it. The lesion is unfortunate but simple. Landlords have an important responsibility to make sure that all legal Notices be properly written - in order to secure all of their legal rights. Evan Xavier Bakhet is a J.D. Candidate at Rutgers School of Law-Newark with a scheduled graduation date in 2017. He collaborated with me on this blog.