The Cost of Waiting: Applying the Laches Defense to a New Jersey Nonpayment of Rent Case

A question often posed by New Jersey landlord is: “When should I file a nonpayment of rent case? After how many months?” Answering this question requires balancing the propriety of litigation relative to the amounts involved. Unscrupulous landlords may be tempted to “sit” on the rent for many months, allowing the tenant to accrue a balance that the tenant has no realistic chance of paying. In a case like this, the landlord relies on the tenant’s poor money management skills and hopes that the tenant cannot pay the all of the rent due on the court date. But, landlord-tenant law is too sophisticated for this game; the affirmative defense of “laches” may defeat the landlord’s claim.

Laches is an equitable affirmative defense. Generally speaking, an affirmative defense is a defendant’s set of fact which, if true, undercut the legal consequences of Plaintiff’s claim. A laches defense challenges the Plaintiff’s facts by highlighting a nefarious or inexcusable reason for waiting to bring the claim. Specifically, the defendant-tenant must show that the landlord “without explanation or excuse, delayed in asserting a claim now stale, that the delay was unreasonable under the circumstances, and that [the delay] visited prejudice” upon the defendant-tenant. Berkeley Development Co. v. Great Atlantic Pacific Tea Co., 214 N.J.Super. 227, 243, (Law.Div.1986).

How is a laches defense applied in a landlord-tenant nonpayment case? First, the tenant has to show that the landlord waited an unreasonable amount of time before filing the nonpayment complaint. Secondly, that there is no explanation or excuse for the delay. And thirdly, that the delay harmed the tenant. The third component is the most troublesome. If the landlord does not cash the tenant’s checks or “loses” the money orders and the tenant spends that money on something else, where is the harm? On the one hand, the tenant should not be able to live for free just because the landlord delayed filing the claim. On the other hand, if the landlord’s delay is part of a plan to take to advantage of a less sophisticated tenant, there should be consequences. Proving the third element of the laches defense, is often the trickiest.

Successfully raising an affirmative defense in a landlord-tenant case is a fact sensitive, detailed undertaking. 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: Jersey City, Hoboken, Bayonne, Hudson County, Newark, Essex County, Woodbridge, Middlesex County, Paterson, Passaic County, Hackensack, Bergen County and other points across New Jersey.

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