Tenant May be Evicted for Damage Caused Solely by Subtenant

Rampersaud v. Hollingsworth, 456 N.J. Super. 502 (App. Div. 2018).  The opening paragraph of this opinion by Judge Fisher well summarized the issue on this appeal, and the result.  “In this appeal, a now-evicted tenant of a residential apartment, which he sublet to another, argues that only the subtenant, whose conduct generated the tenancy action, could be evicted.  In affirming a judgment of possession, we reject the tenant’s strained interpretation of the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(c), and conclude that an act of one permits the eviction of all.”

The second paragraph of the opinion noted that the Anti-Eviction Act lists as a ground for eviction proof of willful or grossly negligent conduct that “caused or allowed destruction, damage or injury to the premises.”  The appealing tenant here “allowed” damage to the premises by the subtenant.  That by itself might have justified affirmance.

But Judge Fisher went deeper.  He quoted the statute as saying, more fully, that “No lessee or tenant or the assigns, under-tenants or legal representatives of such lessee or tenant may be removed by the Superior Court [from their residence] except upon establishment of one of the following grounds as good cause: ….  c. The person has willfully or by reason of gross negligence caused or allowed destruction, damage or injury to the premises.”  He noted that the use of “[t]he person” in subsection c. created potential ambiguity as to whether “the person” encompassed only the tenant, or others as well.

The panel did not find it difficult to resolve that issue, however.  Judge Fisher said that common sense and context left the Appellate Division “satisfied that the Legislature deliberately used ‘the person’ in N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(c) in order to provide flexibility in the statute’s application and enforcement and that the Legislature intended a broad view of who or what might be “the person” whose actions bring about the event that triggers a ground for terminating a tenancy.”  He concluded by saying that “[s]tated another way, we find nothing in the Anti-Eviction Act to suggest a court’s obligation to ensure that the rights of innocent co-occupiers are preserved and only actual wrongdoers are evicted.”

The tenant also argued that the landlord’s notice to quit was insufficient because it did not identify the cause of the damage.  But that argument also failed.  The notice described “the nature of the damage,” which all parties agreed was substantial enough to warrant eviction.  And it was sent to both the tenant and the subtenant.  Judge Fisher found it unreasonable that “in a case like this, a landlord must be put to the task of ascertaining who among multiple occupants was the precise cause of the damage, as the tenant’s argument suggests, particularly when, as here, the landlord wasn’t in privity with the occupant who caused the damage.”