What is the Landlord Tenant Court and What Can it Do? (L.= Landord; T. = Tenant).
In NJ L/T court is a division of the special civll part, Law Division. It only hears LT matters and its authority is limited to eviction. It can also bar eviction. It can give the L a judgment for possession. It has no authority to issue a money judgment but it can order what amount of unpaid rent is due to avoid dispossession. The procedure is summary since it usually has one hearing; and there are no written interrogatories, depositions or pre trial exchange of documents. Both parties are expected to bring their proofs to court. Landlords who are businesses are usually required to be represented by counsel. Sole proprietors or lay property managers are allowed to come to court to represent L in these matters. But a business is rarely permitted to go pro se in court. A T can apply for legal aide representation, a L cannot.
The Anti Eviction Act
NJ has strong protections for T's. L's who have not registered, or do not have a certificate of occupancy, or who have made unconscionable rent increases or who threatened T's with evicton only because they want to get a higher rent from a new T, will find the court will refuse to grant them the eviction and may even fine or sanction them. I once had a L client who forced out senior citizens to make room for a condo conversion. (Let me be clear: this was not based on advice I gave him). The court gave him his eviction but also gave all of the senior T's six month free rent. The Anti Eviction Act prevents L from capricious evictions. The Act requires causes for eviction and proper notice.
Valid Causes for Eviction
The L must provide the T with written Notice to Quit and/or Notice to Cease. The T must continue the improper behavior after receiving the Notice. Then the L has grounds for filing a suit for eviction. The grounds are: failure to pay rent and/ or any additional rent; disorderly conduct on premises; wilful damage or injury to L's property; violation of reasonable rules and regulations; refusing to permit the L to enter the premises (on a reasonable basis and at a reasonable time); failure to pay rent after a rent increase notice; use of proscribed drugs on premises; assault on L or any other person; theft of L's or other's property; holdover tenancy, (remaining after Lease has expired or rent not paid); default on a payment agreement.
Rent was paid timely and in the right amount (or L refused to accept a payment). Damage not caused by T. T.did not violate rules or the rules were unreasonable; T had permission to stay over from L.
The place is not habitable. The T has placed the rent in escrow until such time as the L makes the premises habitable. Waiver: T has a pet and there is a no pet clause-- but the L has not enforced the rule. The demands made by the L are unconscionable; the increase in the rent violates the municipal ceiling.
A Marini hearing
The trial is postponed for a later hearing. The T provides proof that the L has failed to maintain the premise in a livable condition. The L tries to show the premises are in good condition or the T caused the condition.If the L wins,an eviction follows,if the T wins the eviction is stayed.
If the T fails to appeal, the L wins by default. If the T admits the charge, the L wins an eviction or the court orders the payment of the due rent by a date certain. The trial is normally very short and is limited to oral testimony and a review of documents and photos. The judge usually makes a decision immediately. The court can issue an Order for Possession, approve a Settlement Agreement, or order a Marini hearing. After the Court issues a Judgment for Possession after 30 days the L can apply to the Court for a Warrant of Removal. ONLY a court official (in NJ the county constable) can effect the Warrant and evict the T. A L doing this by himself is doing an act of self-help which is illegal. A T can request a Stay of the Warrant and can also vacate it by paying the amount demanded in the Warrant. The L is allowed to bring a locksmith to lock out T. The constable can be armed; use the police to effect an eviction. Most times the T has left to avoid the public embarassment.
Other Court Procedures
If the T is in bankruptcy, the state action is stayed and L needs to obtain permission from the federal court to proceed. A T can ask that the matter be removed to the Law Division because certain counterclaims are beyond the jurisdiction of LT court. After repossession, the L has the legal right to return to court to sue for unpaid rent, + additional rent (collection costs and attorney fees are often cited in the lease as "additional rent "). Which court the L files in, depends on the amount: $3,000 and under is heard in small claims court; $15,000 and under is heard in special civil part,a division of the Law, Civil Court.; and over $15,000 is litigated in the Law Division. A T can also sue, usually for return of security deposit or 2x the deposit for failure to abide by the rules. The court the T files in also depends on the amount. A $3,000 deposit is in small claims but if the T is seeking 2x, then the dispute is for $6,000 - the case belongs in special civil part.
Abandonded Personal Property
If the T leaves their personal property behind, T can request permission to access the space and
remove it. L can bring it to storage and let T remove it from storage. L cannot demand rent to allow T access to their possessions. T cannot use access to the premises as an excuse to regain tenancy. If L does not hear from T, L can send written notice to T that there is only 30 days set aside to regain property. The letter should be sent to the T's new address by certified r/r/r mail. If the T has not provided a new address, it is legal for L to send notice to the vacated premises. For abandoned cars, L can file a police complaint with the registered owner to remove the car; and if not done so by the owner after receiving an order from the municipal court, L can have it towed away to an auto yard. (Again the address of the registered owner is as found in the State records, or L sends order to vacated premises if the T has not provided the L with their new address).
Additional resources provided by the author
This complements my legal guide on landlord/ tenant regulations. My legal guide on commercial litigation may be helpful. You also might find the AVVO staff guide on free legal service in NJ helpful.
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