FLORANIEZ MCELDERRY v. CRESTBURY ESTATES

Annotate this Case

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE

APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY

APPELLATE DIVISION

DOCKET NO. A-0

FLORANIEZ MCELDERRY,

Plaintiff-Respondent,

v.

CRESTBURY ESTATES URBAN

RENEWAL, LLC,

Defendant-Appellant.

_________________________________

December 15, 2014

 

Submitted: December 9, 2014 Decided

Before Judges Haas and Higbee.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. SC-2234-13.

Reuel E. Topas, attorney for appellant.

Respondent has not filed a brief.

PER CURIAM

Defendant Crestbury Estates Urban Renewal, LLC, appeals the Special Civil Part's December 4, 2013 judgment in favor of plaintiff Floraniez McElderry. We are constrained to reverse and remand because the trial judge did not make adequate findings of fact and conclusions of law as required by Rule 1:7-4.

Defendant owns and operates an apartment complex. In June 2010, plaintiff leased one of the apartments. As required by the lease, plaintiff deposited $325 with defendant as a security deposit. Paragraph 8.d of the lease required plaintiff to provide defendant with her new address when the lease was terminated so that defendant could send her notice of the disposition of her security deposit.

On August 9, 2013, plaintiff provided written notice to defendant that she would be moving out of the apartment on September 8, 2013. However, she did not provide her new address at that time. Instead, plaintiff only listed her current address on the notice.

On October 1, 2013, defendant mailed plaintiff a notice advising that her security deposit had been applied to repair $461.50 in damages to the apartment. The notice listed the specific damages as follows: burned countertop, $425; broken window blind, $8; cracked light cover, $3.50; and missing soap dish, $25. Defendant mailed the notice by certified mail, return receipt requested, to the address plaintiff had provided on August 9, 2013. The post office subsequently returned the notice to defendant marked "unclaimed" and "unable to forward." Thereafter, plaintiff gave defendant her new address and defendant mailed her a second copy of the security deposit notice.

Although plaintiff denied receiving the second notice, she subsequently filed a complaint against defendant in the Special Civil Part for the return of her security deposit. The matter was tried on December 4, 2013. Plaintiff denied damaging the countertop or breaking the window blind. The judge did not ask plaintiff about the cracked light cover or the missing soap dish.

Defendant's property manager presented a copy of plaintiff's lease and photographs of the burned countertop. The property manager also referred to a "move in report" that described the condition of the apartment at the beginning of plaintiff's lease, and a "move out report," which documented changes in the condition of the apartment observed when defendant moved out. The judge did not mark any of these documents into evidence. The judge made no credibility findings concerning plaintiff's or the property manager's testimony, and did not refer to any of the documentation presented to him. The judge also failed to make detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Instead, at the end of the trial, the judge stated

In any event, I've listened to the testimony. It seems to me that the $325 security deposit should have been returned.

There's a denial about the burnt countertop and, quite honestly, over such an insignificant item, I don't know why the new apartment owner just didn't return the $325. It sure isn't very much money.

I'm going to enter a judgment in favor of the plaintiff against the defendant for $325.

This appeal followed.

On appeal, defendant contends "the judgment for the return of the security deposit was unsupported by the facts or the law." We agree.

We begin by commenting on the manner in which the trial was conducted. As previously noted, no exhibits were marked for identification and none were formally accepted into evidence. Rule 1:2-3 provides that "[t]he verbatim record of the proceedings shall include references to all exhibits and, as to each, the offering party, a short description of the exhibit stated by the offering party or the court, and the marking directed by the court." We have said that "the trial judge has the ultimate responsibility of conducting adjudicative proceedings in a manner that complies with required formality in the taking of evidence and the rendering of findings." N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. J.Y., 352 N.J. Super. 245, 264 (App. Div. 2002) (noting, among other things, the trial judge's review and consideration of documents "without any identification for the record)." The failure to identify documents for the record "not only violate[s] basic rules of trial practice, R. 1:2-3, but inhibit[s] the appellate process by depriving the appellate court of a complete record on appeal." Ibid.

The judge also failed to give either party the opportunity for cross-examination. "It has long been held that cross-examination is the 'greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.'" State ex rel J.A., 195 N.J. 324, 342 (2008) (quoting California v. Green, 399 U.S. 149, 158, 90 S. Ct. 1930, 1935, 26 L. Ed. 2d 489, 497 (1970) (internal quotation omitted)). The credibility of the parties concerning the damages to the apartment was the critical issue in this case. However, the judge did not permit either party to cross-examine the opposing witness.

Most importantly, however, the judge failed to make sufficient findings of fact to support his conclusion that defendant should return the full amount of the security deposit. Defendant presented testimony concerning the damages, photographs of the countertop, and reports concerning the condition of the apartment. Plaintiff stated she did not cause the damage. The judge did not make any credibility findings on this issue and, instead, merely concluded that, because $325 "sure isn't very much money[,]" defendant should return the security deposit to plaintiff.

Rule 1:7-4(a) clearly states that a trial "court shall, by an opinion or memorandum decision, either written or oral, find the facts and state its conclusions of law thereon in all actions tried without a jury[.]" See Shulas v. Estabrook, 385 N.J. Super. 91, 96 (App. Div. 2006) (requiring an adequate explanation of the basis for a court's action). "'Meaningful appellate review is inhibited unless the judge sets forth the reasons for his or her opinion.'" Strahan v. Strahan, 402 N.J. Super. 298, 310 (App. Div. 2008) (quoting Salch v. Salch, 240 N.J. Super. 441, 443 (App. Div. 1990)). The failure to provide findings of fact and conclusions of law "'constitutes a disservice to the litigants, the attorneys and the appellate court.'" Curtis v. Finneran, 83 N.J. 563, 569-70 (1980) (quoting Kenwood Assocs. v. Bd. of Adjustment of Englewood, 141 N.J. Super. 1, 4 (App. Div. 1976)).

Because the trial judge did not make any meaningful findings of fact on credibility or the other disputed issues in this case, and did not allow the parties to cross-examine opposing witnesses, the judgment must be reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial.

Reversed and remanded. We do not retain jurisdiction.