New Jersey landlords can evict a residential tenant for damage caused by a sub-tenant, according to a recent decision by the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court. In so ruling, the court rejected the tenant’s argument that only the subtenant could be evicted under the Anti-Eviction Act, which authorizes a landlord to regain possession of leased premises by proof of willful or grossly negligent conduct that "caused or allowed destruction, damage or injury to the premises."
Facts of Rampersaud v Hollingsworth
Starting in 1981, a landlord leased a rent-controlled Jersey City apartment, on a month-to-month basis, to defendant Ronald A. Hollingsworth (the “tenant”). The tenancy continued after plaintiffs Dexter and Seleema Rampersaud (collectively, "the landlord") became the owners of the premises.
For an approximate six-month period in 2016, the tenant allowed defendant Carlos Crayton to occupy the premises. In October 2016, Crayton damaged the apartment's rear door, dislodging it from its frame and ruining the surrounding molding. The landlord served a notice to quit and demand for possession, citing that the tenant "willfully or by reason of gross negligence caused or allowed destruction, damage or injury to the premises" under the Anti-Eviction Act. Two weeks later, the landlord filed suit for possession.
After a one-day trial at which the landlord, the tenant, and Crayton testified, the judge concluded the damage was significant, the landlord was entitled to possession, and both tenant and Crayton were to be evicted. After their removal, the premises was subsequently been leased to someone else.
Appellate Division’s Interpretation of the Anti-Eviction Act
In its decision in Rampersaud v. Hollingsworth, the Appellate Division affirmed the eviction. “[W]e reject the tenant's strained interpretation of the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(c), and conclude that an act of one permits the eviction of all,” the court held.
As explained by the court, the Anti-Eviction Ace generally prohibits residential evictions unless one of eighteen numerated exception applies. The relevant exception states: “The person has willfully or by reason of gross negligence caused or allowed destruction, damage or injury to the premises.”
The Appellate Division went on to hold that the Anti-Eviction Act’s definition of a “person” should be interpreted broadly. “Left only with common sense and the context in which ‘the person’ is found, we are satisfied that the Legislature deliberately used ‘the person’ in N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(c) in order to provide flexibility in the statute's application and enforcement and that the Legislature intended a broad view of who or what might be ‘the person’ whose actions bring about the event that triggers a ground for terminating a tenancy,” Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr. explained.
Accordingly, the court rejected the tenant’s argument that only the "the person" – the bad actor – may be evicted. “Only a judicial rewriting based solely on some novel equitable theory would permit a construction that only Crayton and not the tenant should have been evicted,” Fisher wrote.
Key Takeaway for NJ Landlords and Tenants
The court’s decision clarifies that liability for damage to leased residential premises extends to both tenants and sub-tenants. For landlords, the decision expands the available legal remedies under the Anti-Eviction Act. For tenants seeking to sublet their property, be mindful who you choose because their misdeeds could be held against you.
If you have questions, please contact us
If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Christopher A. Dzwilewski, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-806-3364.