Governor Murphy’s Moratorium on Residential Evictions Does Not Extend to Squatters

Talmadge Village, LLC v. Wilson, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. 2021). This short (six-page) opinion by Judge Enright today focuses on the effect of Governor Murphy’s Executive Order No. 106. That Executive Order, issued on March 19, 2020, following the Legislature’s adoption of authorizing legislation, states that “[a]ny lessee, tenant, homeowner or any other person shall not be removed from a residential property as the result of an eviction or foreclosure proceeding.” The COVID-19 pandemic was the motivating force behind the legislation and the Executive Order, and the moratorium (unlike some other COVID-19-related public health measures) remains in effect until January 1, 2022 unless revoked or modified sooner.

Defendant lived in an apartment rented to his former girlfriend. She was on the lease, but he was not, and he never notified plaintiff that he lived there. On July 31, 2020, the lease expired, as defendant’s former girlfriend moved out and did not renew the lease. Defendant did not pay rent to plaintiff or to his former girlfriend after June or July 2020.

After the lease expired, plaintiff learned that defendant was in the apartment. Plaintiff issued a Notice to Quit terminating defendant’s occupancy on September 11, 2020 and filed suit seeking to eject him. A plenary hearing occurred on October 8, 2020, at which defendant admitted that the facts summarized above. The court entered an order granting possession to plaintiff and directing defendant to vacate. But the judge stayed that order based on Executive Order No. 106.

Plaintiff appealed only the stay of the order. Defendant did not cross-appeal. Today, the Appellate Division ruled that it was error to impose the stay.

Since “[a] valid gubernatorial executive order is the equivalent of a statute enacted by the Legislature,” Judge Enright applied the de novo standard of review in determining the scope and meaning of Executive Order No. 106. The facts were undisputed, so that “when the trial court issued its stay order, no one was renting the apartment, and defendant had no right, title or interest therein.”

Moreover, Judge Enright said, “Executive Order 106 bars removal of an individual from a residential property ‘as the result of an eviction or foreclosure.’ Here, plaintiff initiated neither an eviction nor foreclosure action, but instead pursued defendant’s ejectment, given that defendant had no agreement with plaintiff to allow him to occupy the apartment.” Thus, defendant’s removal from the apartment was not barred by the Executive Order. The panel vacated the stay and remanded the matter to allow plaintiff to obtain immediate possession of the apartment and to “pursue defendant’s removal from same.”