Evictions of residential tenants must be done correctly and landlords can be subject to serious penalties if they do not strictly comply with the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-53, et seq. The Act sets forth the specific grounds upon which tenants can be evicted. Even the smallest mistakes can force a landlord to restart the entire process, which results in more time and money wasted.
Legal Grounds to Evict a Tenant in NJ
Whether a tenant has a written lease or is month-to-month, a residential landlord can only evict for reasons permitted by the Act. Many landlords believe they can evict a tenant once the lease expires. That is not the case. Upon expiration of a lease and without execution of a renewal, a tenant automatically becomes month-to-month and can only be evicted for grounds set forth in the Act. These grounds include but are not limited to:
- Failure to pay rent
- Disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace of other tenants
- Property damage
- Health and safety violations
- Violation of the lease, rules and regulations
- Failure to pay valid increased rent
- Tenant refusal to accept reasonable changes for lease renewal
- Illegal activity that includes drug convictions or offenses on the property
- Threatening or assaulting the landlord
- Certain criminal convictions
The Act sets forth the process for eviction based on each ground. For example, in a non-payment of rent case, the landlord is not required to provide the tenant with any prior written notice before filing the complaint for eviction. In some instances, i.e., willful destruction of property, drug dealing, the landlord can terminate the tenancy on 3 days’ notice and then file for eviction immediately. But, if the landlord is seeking to evict based upon the tenant’s violation of some other term in the lease (i.e., pets, smoking, disturbances), then certain notices are required as a prerequisite to terminating the tenancy and filing the complaint many of which contain differing timeframes. This process can take 3-6 months, possibly more as the Courts are still working hard to handle the backlog of cases caused by COVID-19.
Non-payment of rent cases are usually the simplest because no notice is required and the landlord must only demonstrate that the tenant has not paid rent. But it can become more complicated when a tenant claims that they withheld rent because the landlord refused to perform certain repairs which violated the implied warranty of habitability imposed upon every residential landlord. When that occurs, the Court will require the tenant to deposit the rent in escrow and schedule a Marini hearing to decide whether the tenant’s withholding of rent was justified.
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated non-payment of rent cases. Governor Murphy’s Executive Order No. 106 signed at the beginning of the pandemic contained an “Eviction Moratorium” staying the enforcement of all judgments for possession, warrants of removal and writs of possession, unless the court determines on its own motion or motion of the parties that enforcement is necessary in the “interest of justice.” The Moratorium was renewed on numerous occasions which created a substantial judicial backlog.
On August 4, 2021, Governor Murphy signed legislation that continues the Moratorium for tenants with household incomes below 120% of the Area Median Income who were unable to pay their rent between the covered period of March 1, 2020 and August 31, 2021, provided they sign a certification setting forth their income and that they were unable to pay rent as a result of the pandemic. The Moratorium is further extended until December 31, 2021 for tenants with household incomes below 80% AMI who sign a similar certification. Once a tenant submits the certification, there is little the landlord can do other than to request a proof hearing to ensure the tenant is being honest and forthright in the certification.
At this point, a landlord’s best option may be to pursue an action in civil court for monetary damages. While collection may not be guaranteed, it at least gives the landlord the ability to secure a judgment.
In the alternative, landlords may consider offering the tenant “cash for keys,” meaning the landlord pays the tenant to leave. When that occurs, we strongly recommend you retain counsel to draft a valid and binding lease termination agreement to address certain potential liability exposures such as the return of the security deposit, abandoned property, back rent, release from past claims, etc.
If a landlord obtains a judgment for possession and executes a warrant of removal to lock out the tenant, there are additional issues that must be addressed. For example, the Security Deposit Law, N.J.S.A. 46:8-19, et seq., requires a landlord to return a security deposit to a tenant within 30 days of vacating or provide written notice with an explanation as to why the deposit is not being returned. Failure to comply can result in the imposition of double damages and legal fees against the landlord.
Also, a landlord cannot simply throw out a tenant’s personal belongings left behind after a lock out. N.J.S.A. 2A:18-72, et seq., imposes storage obligations upon the landlord and requires the landlord to provide a tenant with certain notices prior to disposing of those items (excluding abandoned motor vehicles which are governed by other laws).
A Landlord/Tenant Attorney Lawyer Can Help You
If you are a landlord who has issues with a tenant, or you are a tenant who believes that you are being evicted without proper cause, please contact the Law Office of Craig Rothenberg today to discuss your situation. Located in New Brunswick, NJ, Craig Rothenberg is an experienced landlord tenant lawyer who will fight to make sure you are complying with the pertinent laws and/or that your rights have not been violated in contravention thereof.