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January 13, 2016


Submitted January 4, 2016 Decided

Before Judges Sabatino and O'Connor.

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Docket No. LT-12034-14.

Roberta L. Tarkan, attorney for appellant.

Respondent has not filed a brief.


In this unopposed appeal, defendant Jamal M. Abdeljawad ("the tenant"), seeks to overturn a judgment of possession the trial court entered on September 2, 2014 in favor of his landlord, plaintiff Montano Properties, LLC. For the reasons that follow, we reverse.

Prior to the events at issue, for many years the tenant had an oral month-to-month tenancy for his apartment in West New York. While in the process of refinancing a mortgage, plaintiff required written leases signed by each of the tenants in the building.

In January 2014, the landlord sent a proposed one-year lease to the tenant for his signature. The lease slightly increased the monthly rent and also increased the charge for late payment. The tenant did not sign it.

The landlord consequently brought an action to evict the tenant. On April 23, 2014, the parties appeared in the trial court and mutually entered into a Consent to Enter Judgment. One of the provisions in the Consent to Enter Judgment stated that the tenant would review the lease with the landlord's attorney by May 8, 2014. After having the lease translated from English to his primary language of Arabic, the tenant decided not to sign it, but did not communicate his disapproval to the landlord or its attorney.

Lacking a signed lease, the landlord served a notice to terminate the tenancy on May 21, 2014, directing the tenant to vacate his apartment by July 31, 2014. The landlord then brought a new action for possession. The tenant appeared in opposition. There was no claim that the tenant was not current on his rent, and the dispute only concerned the tenant's failure to sign the new lease.

After considering the circumstances, the trial court concluded that the Consent to Enter Judgment essentially functioned as the equivalent of a Notice to Quit and that the landlord was thus entitled to possession. The tenant moved for reconsideration, which the court denied. However, the trial court agreed to stay the tenant's eviction pending this appeal.

The tenant argues that the procedures followed here by the landlord and the trial court did not comport with the strict requirements of the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 to 61.12. We agree.

The Legislature has mandated that "[i]t is in the public interest of the State to maintain for citizens the broadest protections available under State eviction laws to avoid such displacement and resultant loss of affordable housing[.]" N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1a(d). It is well established that "the dominating principle in construing the Act [is] that it must be construed liberally with all doubts construed in favor of a tenant." 224 Jefferson St. Condo. Ass'n v. Paige, 346 N.J. Super. 379, 389 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 172 N.J. 179 (2002); see also 447 Assocs. V. Miranda, 115 N.J. 522, 529 (1989). The Act's provisions are "highly technical" and cases applying the Act generally require "precise compliance with statutory requirements." Kuzuri Kijiji, Inc. v. Bryan, 371 N.J. Super. 263, 273 (App. Div. 2004).

A key provision in the Act relevant here is its requirement in N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.2(e), which requires one month s notice to a tenant prior to a landlord bringing an eviction action for failure to sign reasonable lease changes. A tenant's failure to do so in response to such a request amounts to "good cause" to terminate a lease. See N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(i); 447 Assocs., supra, 115 N.J. at 532.

Here, the landlord failed to make a clear and unambiguous request of the tenant. The Consent to Enter Judgment was poorly worded, as it did not specify that if the tenant failed to sign the proposed new lease by the specified date, he would be subject to eviction. Nor is it self-evident that all of the proposed terms of the lease were reasonable to the tenant. See 447 Assocs. supra, 115 N.J. at 530-31. For example, the proposed lease contained a $100 fee for late payment, a large sum relative to the proposed $695.65 monthly rent.

We disagree with the trial court that the Consent to Enter Judgment sufficed to meet the Act's procedural requirements in lieu of service of a Notice to Quit. N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.2. The procedures of the statute normally should be strictly followed, and we discern no reason to excuse deviation from them here.


1 Defendant Jamal M. Abdeljawad was incorrectly pled Jamal Abdel.