In New Jersey, as in most other states, landlords must be careful to avoid infringing on their tenant’s rights — particularly in the wake of a complaint or other legal action taken by the tenant. New Jersey statutory law basically prohibits (and serves as grounds for a civil action for damages and other relief) landlords from retaliating against their tenants for exercising their legal rights.
If you’re a landlord with a difficult tenant, you might find yourself embroiled in a dispute over purported “retaliatory” actions. In the event that your actions are deemed retaliatory, you could be subjected to significant civil penalties, and could even be prevented from properly evicting the tenant. As the stakes are rather high, it’s important that you contact an experienced New Jersey landlord-tenant attorney for further guidance on how to avoid liability and effectively control the situation.
Let’s take a brief look at some of the basics of how retaliation works.
Retaliation in New Jersey is formally referred to as “reprisal,” and is written into section 2A:42-10.10 through 10.14 of the N.J.S.A. Simply put, the statute prohibits landlords from responding to the tenant’s legitimate exercise of a legal right by taking certain adverse actions against the tenant.
For example, if a tenant submits a complaint to the housing authority about your building code violations, you cannot subsequently raise that tenant’s rent. Were the case to go to trial, it’s likely that the court would find that your conduct was clear retaliation.
Of course, this prohibition can put a substantial amount of pressure on landlords who are already being hassled by difficult tenants. After all, suppose that a tenant has made numerous formal complaints about the building to authorities, and is withholding rent.
You begin the eviction procedure, but the tenant argues (retaliation is a defense to eviction) that you are retaliating against them for their complaints. This can be infuriating — perhaps you are losing money and are simply attempting to replace the tenant with a tenant who is willing to pay on time. You may not even be considering their earlier complaints when seeking to evict them.
Fortunately, even if you have taken adverse actions against a tenant who has exercise their legal rights under New Jersey law, you may still be able to avoid liability. When determining whether retaliation has occurred, the court will consider the circumstances.
Consider the following.
Certain adverse actions may be taken by a landlord without necessarily being viewed as retaliatory in nature. Generally speaking, the more severe the action, the more likely it is that it will be deemed retaliatory — particularly if there is no objective justification for the action.
For example, suppose that you raise the rent on a tenant who has submitted formal complaints about you. Now, if you also raised the rent on other tenants in similar apartments, and for the same amount, then the conduct would hardly be considered retaliatory, despite being adverse in nature. On the other hand, if you only raised the rent on the complaining tenant, then the action might seem targeted, or otherwise unjustified by the circumstances.
The lengthier the period of time between the tenant’s exercise of their legal rights, and your adverse action, the more likely it is that a court will not find a connection. For example, if you seek to evict a tenant three years after they submitted a complaint, that will significantly weaken the argument that you were retaliating.
The New Jersey reprisal law prohibits retaliatory conduct that is made in response to the tenant’s good faith complaints to a governmental authority, or even to the landlord. If the tenant’s complaints were objectively in bad faith (i.e., there was no legitimacy to their complaint, and it was initiated solely to harass or otherwise cause problems for the landlord), then you may be entitled to take adverse action against the tenant.
If your tenant has taken certain legal actions against you — for example, reporting building code violations — then it’s important that you do not retaliate against that tenant. New Jersey landlord-tenant laws currently protect tenants from being evicted or from otherwise being subjected to retaliatory conduct (e.g. reprisal) by their landlord. Retaliation can be used as a defense to eviction in New Jersey or can even be used to justify a lawsuit against the landlord to obtain damages.
Importantly, however, if your tenant is suing you for retaliation (or is using the defense in an eviction), you are not without options. In fact, retaliation can be quite challenging for the tenant to prove, giving you — the landlord — ample opportunity to undermine their arguments.
Here at Griffin Alexander, P.C., our attorneys boast several decades of combined experience representing landlords, housing associations, and numerous others in disputes with their tenants, including those that involve tenants claiming retaliation. Among our primary specialties is New Jersey landlord tenant law — as such, we are well-equipped to handle any complications that may arise during landlord-tenant litigation.
Call (973) 366-1188 to speak with an experienced attorney here at Griffin Alexander, P.C. today.
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