What is a “Building”?

Cashin v. Bello, 223 N.J. 328 (2015).  The cardinal principle of statutory interpretation is that plain language controls and ends the need for any further inquiry.  In this opinion by Justice Fernandez-Vina, speaking for a unanimous Supreme Court, the issue was whether the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1 et seq., which allows an “owner of a building of three residential units or less” to remove a tenant if the owner intends to occupy personally that tenant’s unit, would permit removal of a tenant from a two-story single-family house (actually, a converted garage) where the owner also owned a multi-unit apartment building on the same parcel of land.  In short, the issue was whether “‘building’ denotes a single, unattached physical structure– an interpretation that would permit ouster of the tenant in this case– or whether ‘building’ includes all structures owned by an individual that are located on the same parcel of land.”

That question virtually answered itself, and Justice Fernandez-Vina concluded that “‘[b]uilding’ designates a discreet [sic] physical structure, not a number of structures connected by nothing more than the ownership of the land on which they sit.”  This plain language thus permitted eviction of the tenant.  Accordingly, the Court reversed the contrary ruling of the Appellate Division.

Since the issue was statutory interpretation, the Supreme Court’s review was de novo.  However, since the Anti-Eviction Act is”remedial legislation,” it was to be “liberally construed to protect the rights of tenants, with all doubts resolved in favor of the tenant.”  Nonetheless, since the statute did not define “building,” the Court would give that term its “generally accepted meaning …. ‘a structure with walls and a roof, esp. a permanent structure.'”  Though Justice Fernandez-Vina observed that this plain language interpretation resolved the issue, he went on to demonstrate that the legislative history of the statute and its “varied vocabulary” confirmed that result.  In particular, the careful use in the provision at issue of “building,” as opposed to “structure,” which was used elsewhere in the statute and is commonly defined as “a tract of land with the structures on it,” was very persuasive.