Landlord/Tenant Disputes and Damages
In a recent unpublished case, Canales v. Yu, N.J. Super. App. Div. (per curiam), a landlord/tenant dispute that started out with the landlord not returning a security deposit ended with the landlord receiving an award covering only a small fraction of the damage incurred, with no costs or expenses.
The Plaintiff and Third-Party Defendants (collectively, Tenants) rented the first floor of a residential property owned by the Defendant (Landlord). Issues arose as the landlord alleged the tenants damaged the property and the tenants claimed that the landlord failed to make requested repairs, which resulted in the tenants agreeing to vacate the property. The landlord stated that she was not going to return their security deposit because the property had been damaged.
In a small claims action, the landlord was awarded $2,328.38 for property damage, late fees, lease violations, and loss of personal property, after seeking $20,000 in her complaint. The landlord appealed and claimed that the lower court made many errors and the award was only a small fraction of the damages that occurred, but the holding was affirmed.
The standard residential lease agreement signed by the tenants stated that the tenant is liable for all of the landlord’s damages caused by the tenant’s breach of the lease agreement. Further, if the tenant was successful in any action, then the tenant shall recover attorneys’ fees from the landlord. The tenant also signed an addendum allowing the tenants to have two dogs in the apartment for additional rent and a security deposit.
Problems between the parties persisted with the tenants complaining about clogged pipes, ceiling leaks, stove issues, and a roach infestation. Tenants withheld rent and claimed the landlord ignored all repair requests and relief was sought in court, in which the tenants agreed to pay rent. The same issue occurred again, and this time the tenants agreed to vacate the property. After the tenants moved out, the landlord sent them a letter informing them that they would not get their security deposit back. At the end of the jury trial, the jury entered a verdict in favor of the defendant and found the following: “the Defendant did not wrongfully withhold tenants’ security deposit; tenants damaged defendant’s property beyond normal wear and tear; the cost of repairs incurred by the defendant was $1,803.38, defendant had no notice of conditions affecting habitability of the property; tenants owed defendant late fees for three months of late rent; tenants owed defendant fees for dog lease violations; and tenants removed a $75 space heater that belonged to defendant.” This resulted in the $2,328.38 award that the defendant appealed.
Defendant argued that the award did not include her costs and expenses. The court found that the defendant failed to comply with the proper procedure to recover costs, as she never filed an affidavit with the court clerk, so this request could not be considered. R. 4:42-8(c). Costs are only awarded to a prevailing party, so it would have been improper to allow testimony as to costs before the jury verdict, as defendant was not yet a prevailing party. See R. 4:42-8(a). Further, the judge has the discretion to award attorneys’ fees, not the jury.
With respect to additional costs and expenses, the lease provided that tenants could recover attorney's fees if defendant was found to have breached the lease, so even if tenants had ultimately succeeded at trial, defendant could not claim that she is not bound by the terms of the parties' contract.
The judge addressed additional concerns and stated that the jury was properly instructed on the issue of implied warranty of habitability, which the landlord is held to in a residential lease. Tenants presented testimony that they requested that defendant make repairs to conditions that they alleged affected the habitability of the property, and the alleged failure to repair the conditions was tenants' reason for withholding rent. Accordingly, the judge did not err in instructing the jury on the implied warranty of habitability.
While the landlord/tenant relationship is a complicated one, it is important to make sure the lease agreement discusses repairs, when a security deposit will be withheld, who is in charge of repairs, and what will happen when a matter is not resolved internally and goes to court. Many landlord/tenant disputes occur because each party’s expectations are not presented upon initial lease signing. To have this avoid happening to you, a landlord should make sure to have an experienced attorney review their lease agreement for any inconsistencies or unaddressed situations.
The information in this Client Alert is provided solely for information purposes. It should not be construed as legal advice on any specific matter and is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. The information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based upon particular circumstances. Each legal matter is unique, and prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.
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