This Is The Landlord-Tenant Equivalent Of Accusing Your Spouse Of Stealing The Covers

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Cold (pd)And, incidentally, it ends the same way. (At least the same way it always ends for me.) No. You are wrong. Your spouse did not steal the covers.

In Loiacano v. Salemne, defendants stopped paying rent to their landlord. The landlord sued to evict them for non-payment. Defendants responded by requesting a "Marini hearing." In New Jersey, tenants are almost never allowed to withhold rent from their landlords. But, in Marini v. Ireland, the New Jersey Supreme Court recognized an exception to this rule. If a landlord refuses to make repairs that are necessary to keep the property habitable, then the tenant can make the repairs and withhold an amount from their monthly rent that is equal to the costs of the repairs. If a tenant does this and is then sued for non-payment, the court conducts a "Marini hearing" to determine whether the tenant was justified in doing so. 

What made Loiacano unique was that defendants were not claiming that the landlord did anything wrong or failed to make any repairs. Instead, they claimed that they withheld "two months' rent on the basis that their downstairs neighbor was manipulating the heat in their apartment." It wasn't even the downstairs neighbor herself who was allegedly doing this. Instead, it was her boyfriend, "identified only as 'Ray.'" Defendants, who had a "contentious relationship" with Ray, alleged that he would "manipulate[] the heat [in the first-floor apartment] so that there would be no heat in defendants' second floor apartment." 

After a three-day hearing, the court ruled in plaintiff's favor, finding that defendants' story was not credible. At the hearing, plaintiff, his wife, and the first floor tenant all testified that the temperature in all three apartments in the building was (1) controlled by a thermostat in the first floor apartment, (2) which was always locked, and (3) which was always set to seventy degrees. The court found this testimony credible, and also found credible the testimony of a heating contractor, hired by plaintiff, who testified that the thermostat was working properly. Finally, the court found credible the testimony of the basement tenant, who testified that he had lived in the building for two years and was never without heat. Based on this testimony, and the basic laws of physics, the court reasoned:

Because heat rises, and the heating contractor found no problem with the heating system . . . if the basement tenant had no problem with the heat during the same time that the second floor tenant [defendant] was complaining of the lack of heat, either the laws of physics would be disregarded or the testimony of the defendant is not credible.

The trial court chose to follow the laws of physics, holding that defendants' version of events was not credible. It further observed that "defendants' poor history of paying the rent in a timely fashion" was probably their actual "motive for [ ] having complained about the heat." Not surprisingly, given that the trial court's decision turned on the credibility of the witnesses, the Appellate Division affirmed.

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