“The monster under my bed forced me to leave my apartment.” Two tenants in New Jersey are alleging that paranormal activity chased them for their apartment and caused them to break their lease. As reported by ABC News, the couple is suing the landlord for the return of their deposit. Unfortunately, the only thing scarier than the Boogeyman is forfeiting a $2,250 security deposit.
Pursuant to the Rent Security Deposit Act, New Jersey tenants are entitled to a refund of their security deposit within 30 days “after the termination of the tenant’s lease.” N.J.S.A. 46:8-21.1 However, as in this case, a landlord may deduct from the deposit amounts legally due and owed to him by the tenant. One such amount is the money lost by the landlord while the home is vacant and the current tenant breached the lease. The Casper-loving landlord may not recover this amount if the home was uninhabitable under New Jersey case law. Are ghosts enough to render a home uninhabitable? Unless the judge is Van Helsing, no.
When a landlord and tenant agree to a lease, that lease carries with it a warranty of habitability. Marini v. Ireland, 56 N.J. 130 (1970). This warranty means that the space must be free from unlivable conditions. The unlivable conditions must affect “vital facilities” or essential services and must be substantial. Unlivable conditions include the lack of heat, running water, broken plumping, flooding etc. If the landlord is given notice of the condition and does not remediate the problem within a reasonable time, the landlord is held to have “constructively evicted” the tenant. Constructive eviction is a violation the lease and exposes the landlord to liability greater than simply the rent at issue. Reste Realty Corp v. Cooper, 53 N.J. 444 (1969). For contract purposes, the moment the constructive eviction is accomplished the tenant’s rent obligation ends and the landlord is liable for damages proximately caused by his breach.
Constructive eviction is a question of fact. A tenant must offer evidence to establish the existence of substandard conditions. Usually this evidence takes the form of photographs and reports from building inspectors. The problem for Molly Hartley and the couple is that unless the Ghostbusters issue a report (taken as fact by a judge), there is no constructive eviction. Also, to date there are no cases holding that the presence of ghosts is an unlivable condition. To be fair, perhaps the couple gave their landlord notice of the ghastly condition. Unfortunately, absent the Ghostbusters or a scary change in New Jersey landlord-tenant law, they simply violated their lease and will likely forfeit their deposit.
It should be noted that according to the landlord’s attorney, David Semanchik, there may be more to the story than creatures that “go bump” in the night. Speaking to the Asbury Park Press, Semanchik said: “Frankly, there is something else going on, she is a single mom, she has this fiancé living with her. I think she is in over her head and she can’t afford the rent.” Perhaps the couple’s best course of action is to ask the Boogeyman to split the rent or have him evicted–unless he has squatter’s rights.
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