Evicting a NJ Residential Tenant for Causing Damage: Proving the Cause

The NJ Anti-Eviction Act provides the least amount of protection for a tenant causing damage to the landlord’s property. For most grounds for eviction (habitual late payment, violation of lease rules, increase in rent, etc.) the Anti-Eviction Act requires either a Notice to Cease and/or a one month Notice to Quit prior to filing the Complaint. In a damage case, the tenant is entitled to only three days of notice before the landlord files the Complaint. The short time frame is counterbalanced by the landlord’s burden. In an eviction for damage case, the landlord must prove both the cause and effect. Without both, the landlord’s case will fail.

To evict a residential tenant for causing damage, the landlord must prove that the tenant “willfully or by reason of gross negligence caused or allowed destruction, damage or injury to the premises.” N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(c). The statute operates in two parts. The first part is how the damage is caused (that is, willfully or by gross negligence). The second is the effect flowing from the cause (that is, destruction damage or injury) to the premises. Proving willful conduct or gross negligence can be quite difficult. In FDG Management v. Marcus Young, the landlord failed to meet the mark.

In FDG Management v. Marcus Young, the landlord alleged that the tenant damaged the front door to his building by “violently and improperly” trying to open the locked door. Apparently, it was undisputed that the door was damaged (the landlord replaced the front door at a cost of $1,250.00). The landlord provided a video showing the tenant manipulating the door, trying to get in. Although the video showed the tenant pulling on the door and the landlord had to replace it, the tenant’s acts were not “willfully” destructive or “grossly negligent.”

The Appellate Division held that the tenant’s behavior could have been negligent but negligence was not enough. The Court noted: “Although the tenant did visibly apply some degree of force upon the door, the force was not severe under the circumstances, even though it apparently might have caused the door to become damaged.” Interestingly, the Court justified the tenant’s obvious negligence by noting: “[the] tenant’s conduct was only simple negligence, resulting from his understandably-frustrated inability to gain access to the building.” Even though the tenant behaved negligently and caused damaged, this was not enough to warrant eviction. Since the landlord could not prove the cause, the effect did not matter.

Evicting a residential tenant for causing damage is fact-sensitive case that requires meticulous details. It is not a case that should be lightly pursued. Offit Kurman LLC practices landlord tenant law throughout New Jersey assisting landlords and tenants in resolving disputes and avoiding unnecessary and costly delays. The firm’s geographic practice area includes: New Jersey (Jersey City, Hoboken, Bayonne, Hudson County, Newark, Essex County, Woodbridge, Middlesex County, Paterson, Passaic County, Bergen County). The Firm invites you to visit the “Promises” page for our new way of doing business.

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