New Jersey Evictions: An Exception to Res Judicata

The prohibition against double jeopardy, which precludes a person from being tried twice for the same crime, has an equivalent in the civil courts. The concept of Res Judicata stands for the principle that a person cannot be sued twice for the same dispute. However, similar to the prohibition against double jeopardy, Res Judicata is not without exceptions. One such exception involves actions in New Jersey’s Landlord Tenant Courts. The Landlord Tenant Courts in New Jersey are Courts of extremely limited jurisdiction. More specifically, the only issue that can be resolved in a proceeding in Landlord Tenant Court is whether or not the tenant is to be evicted. All other issues must be adjudicated separately in different venues. This duality has led to multiple Court decisions limiting the bar against subsequent actions, even in cases where both actions are adjudicated in Landlord Tenant Court.

Generally, the Courts have ruled that a landlord tenant proceeding will not bar subsequent actions involving the same parties in cases where the relief sought is different than the original action. However, in light of this fact, we were left uncertain as to how the Court would rule in a case where a landlord brought a nearly identical action twice against the same tenant. We recently had an opportunity to test the limits of Res Judicata in landlord tenant actions.

The facts of the matter were quite simple. The allegation was that the tenant had caused purposeful or grossly negligent destruction to the rented premises. To support this claim, the landlord produced a long list of damages she claimed the tenant or his guest had caused. Under the law, evictions for grossly negligent destruction to a residential dwelling can be filed upon 3 day’s advance notice to the tenant. In the past, our firm has been successful at evicting several tenants under this cause. The problem in the pending case, however, was that the landlord had already unsuccessfully tried this matter with a previous attorney. The landlord then came to our firm to see if she could obtain a different result.

We started our action by changing the premise upon which the eviction was sought. While the original action had argued simply that the tenant had damaged the premises, our action argued that the tenant violated the written lease by failing to pay for the damages. Under New Jersey’s eviction law, a residential tenant can also be evicted for violations of the landlord’s rules and regulations; however, the requisite Notice periods required for this cause are quite onerous.

The Defendant’s attorney argued that our action was really a disguised version of the original action. I argued that the cause of action was substantially different and that Res Judicata should not apply in either case. After a few hours of arguments, the Court recessed for lunch, while the parties continued to discuss possible settlement options. Unfortunately, the matter eventually settled, and we were left with no indication as to how the Court would rule upon such an issue.

Another example of a case where Res Judicata may not apply is the use of Settlement Agreements in the Landlord Tenant Court. It is a well-established principle that an agreement entered into in Landlord Tenant Court that requires a tenant to pay a certain amount of money to remain in the rented premises does not create a money judgment against the tenant in the event of a breach. In fact, the Court’s only remedy against a tenant who fails to pay the amount of money agreed upon in a Tenancy agreement is to evict that tenant.

The Landlord Tenant Court is without authority to compel the payment of money. Similarly, the amount set forth in the agreement should create little more than a reputable presumption to be taken into account by a subsequent judge when a money judgment is actually sought. Therefore, the parties will routinely stipulate to an amount that differs from the amount actually owed, strictly for purposes of adjudication in the Tenancy Court. For instance, landlord tenant actions are often settled with an agreement that the tenant will vacate in a specified period of time and will pay the landlord no money. The proper interpretation of this agreement is that the tenant will not need to pay any money in order to avoid being evicted prior to the date set forth in the agreement; however, the tenant often believes that this term implies that he or she cannot be sued for the actual amount of money that is due. To avoid any unnecessary confusion, it is a good practice to write into the agreement the statement that “the parties reserve their civil remedies.”