New Jersey Evictions: No Counterclaims For Sanctions Against Landlords

GAVEL.jpgAccording to a recent report in Newark’s Star Ledger, the average rent for a New Jersey 2- bedroom apartment is $1302 per month.* However, for thousands of landlords who are not being paid their rent on time, the statistic translates to more than $40 per day of lost rental income. In many cases, having a few tenants who are not paying rent results in a major financial loss for landlords.

In 1947, in an effort to lend efficiency to the eviction process, the State of New Jersey created a “Summary Proceeding” to handle eviction actions. Although, the process has undergone several statutory and regulatory changes since then, the concept of allowing New Jersey landlords a method to quickly remove tenants has remained unchanged. Today, landlords can typically expect that an eviction action will be scheduled for trial about 1 month from the date of filing, and that a tenant can be removed within about 2 weeks from the day a Warrant of Removal is ordered.

The Summary Proceeding is much faster than a typical ejectment action, thus preventing landlords from losing valuable time in replacing a non-paying tenant. There is, however, an inherent limitation in the Summary Proceeding. Because tenants are sometimes served with a copy of the Tenancy Summons as little as ten days before trial, requests for Discovery and the filing of Counterclaims are not permitted. While the tenant may assert a claim against the landlord on the day of Court that would constitute an equitable defense to the underlying claim for eviction, tenants in an eviction proceeding may not assert any Counterclaims for damages against the landlord. Therefore, tenants who wish to bring a claim against the landlord will often need to either have the tenancy matter transferred are file a separate action against the landlord in another division of the Court.

Notwithstanding the Court’s limitation on the filing of a claim against a landlord in an eviction proceeding, some litigants have been curious to see what the Courts will do in light of the Hodges v. Feinstein decision of just a few years ago. In Hodges v. Feinstein, 383 N.J. Super. 596 (2006), the Court ruled that landlords and attorneys who file eviction actions are considered Debt Collectors under the Federal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act, and are therefore liable for sanctions under New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act in the event of a false or misleading eviction filing. The question then becomes whether the sanctions could be collectible in Landlord Tenant Court. The answer appears to be in the negative.

The matter of King Plaza Residential v. Sanchez (App. Div. 2012) involved a tenant who sought attorney’s fees and damages against a landlord who had filed four separate eviction complaints against him. After the fourth eviction complaint was dismissed, the tenant filed four separate motions seeking attorney’s fees and sanctions against the Plaintiff. The Court in that matter ruled that in order for the tenant to proceed on her claim for damages against the landlord, she must first either have the matter transferred to law division (or presumably Special Civil Part if the claim is under $15,000) or file a separate action for damages in that forum. In so ruling, the Court relied on the principle that the Tenancy Court does not permit a tenant to assert a claim for damages against a landlord.

* Sarah Portlock, N.J. has fourth highest rents nationwide, study finds, March 14, 2012