In 1951, the New Jersey State Legislature codified the Summary Dispossess Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-53, et. seq., in order to afford the Courts a fast, efficient and fair way of handling Landlord Tenant disputes. In 1974, the vast majority of Landlord Tenant disputes, which involve residential tenants, became guided by the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1, et. seq., which sets forth special procedures for dealing with residential disputes, while still allowing the Court to follow the efficient procedure of the Summary Dispossess Act. For the past 70 years, the New Jersey Courts have operated fairly and efficiently with regard to landlord tenant proceedings. Utilizing this process, the Courts have heard the vast majority of cases within 4 weeks of the date of filing. In cases in which a Judgment for Possession has been entered, the Courts have allowed landlords to schedule lockouts to occur within about 2 weeks of the Court date (or the date when the settlement is breached).
However, on March 16, 2020, the Court’s generally efficient manner of handling landlord tenant disputes was suspended, in favor of avoiding the prospect of having tenants evicted during a pandemic. The theory behind suspending evictions was generally based on the notion that an evicted tenant would inevitably need to move in with friends or family, thus increasing the likelihood that the pandemic would spread. It was also based on the reality that, as a result of people losing jobs during the pandemic, there would be a “tsunami of evictions” once the State resumed conducting these hearings. Hence the State has allowed 14 ½ months to pass (as of the date of this article), in which no evictions (except those filed based on extreme emergencies) have been allowed to occur. During this time period, more than 80,000 evictions have been filed, and there is still no clear plan as to what will happen when the Courts re-open.
In the meantime, several tenant advocacy groups have seized upon the confusion caused by the pandemic to propose new legislation to “improve” the operation of the New Jersey landlord tenant courts. The proposals include requiring mandatory case management conferences and settlement conferences, which would be scheduled to occur prior to the Court date. These proposed measures really have nothing to do with the pandemic and if they are enacted by the New Jersey Supreme Court, they will become a permanent part of landlord tenant law. I recently met with several members of the New Jersey Special Civil Part Committee, for purposes of assembling recommendations to the New Jersey Supreme Court regarding the future of Landlord Tenant law. However, during the meeting, I found that the faction of the Committee, who represented tenants, really had no interest in agreeing to any of the recommendations of the rest of the Committee. These members could not be reasoned with and they were rather obstinate when presented with the viewpoint that the proposed changes to Landlord Tenant law were really just a tactic to further delay evictions.