In an unpublished decision issued on May 21, 2013, a New Jersey appeals court held that a landlord was not entitled to evict his residential tenant, an 89-year old blind man with diabetes, because of the tenant’s refusal to sign a new lease. Ochieng v. Bloss, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, Docket No. A-0703-12T2.
This decision reversed the trial court’s ruling which was in favor of the landlord. The appeals court concluded that the landlord failed to follow the required notice procedures under the New Jersey Anti-Eviction Act, and that therefore the trial court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. The appellate reversal is a bittersweet victory for the tenant though, because the landlord can re-file a new complaint once he has issued the proper pre-lawsuit notices.
Walter Bloss, the tenant in this case, is a disabled veteran suffering from diabetes and heart problems. He is also legally blind, and was 89-years old at the time his landlord filed to evict him. Bloss had resided in the premises (a rent controlled apartment in West Orange) for more than 40 years. The landlord Ochieng purchased the building in 2006.
Because of Bloss’s disabilities, his grandson Steven Van Deysen has occasionally lived with him since the 1980s. In the past 6 years the grandson lived with Bloss on a regular basis based on the advice and recommendation of Bloss’s doctor so that someone could help Bloss monitor his diabetes.
The landlord accused the grandson of engaging in inappropriate behavior at or near the apartment building. In an effort to remove the grandson from the apartment, in February 2011 the landlord presented Bloss with a renewal lease that would allow the landlord the right to approve the caretaker. The new lease was offered at the same time the landlord issued Bloss a notice to quit, which demanded that he surrender possession of the premises. Bloss refused to sign the new lease, claiming he needed his grandson to care for him.
About 17 months later, in May 2012, the landlord again presented Bloss with a renewal lease and another written notice demanding surrender of the apartment; this renewal lease was essentially the same as the one he previously provided to Bloss back in February 2011. Again, Bloss refused to sign it. About 2 months later, on July 20, 2012, the landlord filed the eviction action.
Neither party hired a lawyer, and a trial commenced on August 27, 2012. The following day, the trial judge ruled in favor of the landlord by finding that the terms of the renewal lease were reasonable, that the landlord acted reasonably by refusing to approve the grandson as the caretaker. Bloss then filed retained a lawyer, filed an emergent appeal and successfully obtained a stay of the eviction pending the outcome of the appeal.
In reversing the lower court’s decision, the Appellate Division found that the landlord failed to provide Bloss with the proper pre-lawsuit notice in violation of New Jersey’s Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 to -61.12. Specifically, the appeals court noted that a cause of action to evict a tenant for refusal to sign a renewal lease does not accrue (or begin) until the tenant actually refuses to sign the lease. From that point, the landlord must provide the tenant with a minimum 30-day notice citing the refusal to sign a new lease as grounds for the eviction. The appeals court concluded that the landlord in this case failed to serve the 30-day notice to his tenant. The court found that the May 12, 2012 notice was not a “notice to quit” or demand for possession, but rather constituted an offer to sign a new lease. Consequently, the case was prematurely filed and the trial court should have dismissed it.
The victory for this 89-year old tenant is a temporary one though, as the appeals court remarked that the landlord would be well within his rights to file a new eviction case if he serves the proper 30-day notice to quit based on the tenant’s refusal to sign the May 2012 proposed lease, and the 30-day period has expired.