Good News: That Tenant You May Not Have Known You Had Is Not A Cloud On Title

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

AuctionIf you have ever been to a sheriff's sale in New Jersey then you are familiar with the litany of announcements that precede each sale — "This sale is made subject to easements of record," "The property is being sold on an 'as is' basis," etc. Sellers make these announcements because, under New Jersey law, they are required to disclose "any substantial defect in or cloud upon the title of the real estate sold, which would render such title unmarketable." If a seller intentionally or negligently fails to disclose any substantial defects or clouds on title, then a court may vacate the winning bid and return the winning bidder's deposit. For example, if a seller fails to reveal the amount of unpaid taxes on a property before a sheriff's sale, the sale can be vacated if the winning bidder discovers the amount and is unwilling to pay it.

Usually included in these announcements is something making clear that the property is being sold subject to the rights of tenants and occupants, if any. But what happens when, after the sale, the winning bidder visits the property and discovers a tenant, or at least someone claiming to be a tenant, occupying the property? Does that entitle the winning bidder to vacate the sale and get its deposit back?

This is exactly what happened in PHH Mortgage Corporation v. Alleyne. In that case, the winning bidder at a sheriff's sale moved to set aside its successful bid and compel a refund of the amount it tendered to the sheriff at the sale (winning bidders are generally required to put 20% of the bid price down at the sale and pay the balance within 30 days). The winning bidder argued that, after the sheriff's sale, it sent a representative to the property and he discovered an individual who "refused to give his name but asserted rights to possession of the property as a tenant." The winning bidder argued that (1) this tenancy was a cloud on title, therefore it should have been disclosed at the sale, and (2) the seller has an independent duty to inspect for tenants on the property before the sale. The trial court rejected these arguments and the Appellate Division affirmed.

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Have You Ever Left $600 At The Counter Of A UPS Store?

Security camera (pd)
Me neither, but that is what happened in Glenn v. Duroseau. In fact, plaintiff in that case alleged that she not only left the money on the counter but that, when she went back a few minutes later, it was gone. To make matters worse, the security camera in the store did not work, so there was no way to tall exactly what happened. The trial court originally held this against the store owner, holding that he had a duty to plaintiff to ensure that the security cameras were working, but this decision was reversed on appeal. 

In Glenn, plaintiff claimed that she walked into a UPS Store and placed her pocketbook on the counter, along with an envelope containing $600 in cash. When she left, she claimed that she took the pocketbook but not the envelope. She walked about four blocks away from the store before she realized that she was missing the envelope. When she returned to the store, the envelope was gone. She asked a store employee if he had seen it, but he responded that plaintiff did not leave an envelope in the store. Plaintiff became upset and called her boyfriend, who arrived and told the employee to give plaintiff her money back. The employee again denied that plaintiff had left an envelope in the store. 

Plaintiff then called the police. When police officers arrived, they asked if the security cameras in the store were working. The employee did not know, but called his boss, who arrived on the scene and promised to review the tapes. However, it turned out that the security cameras were not working. Plaintiff sued the store owner, seeking the return of her $600.

 

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Of Parking Spots and Snow Blowers

Snow blower (pd)One of the things I like about the law, and litigation in particular, is the "just when you think you've seen it all . . . " aspect of it. In a recent decision, Sevinc v. Fulton House, the Appellate Division resolved a dispute that reminds us that we have not seen it all, and probably never will. At its core, the case was about the alleged breach of a contract between plaintiff and defendant. What made it interesting was the subject matter of the alleged breach — plaintiff accused defendant, a residential co-op corporation, of improperly appropriating a portion of his parking space and using it to store a snow blower.

In Sevinc, plaintiff purchased both a unit in the co-op and a parking space in the co-op's parking lot. The lease for the parking space did not describe the space's size, shape, or dimensions, but the size and shape were depicted on the architectural plans that the co-op included in its Public Offering Statement. There was no standard sizes for the parking spaces in the co-op's lot, and some spaces, including plaintiff's space, were larger than others because of where they were situated in the irregularly shaped lot. The size of his space was important to plaintiff because he was a limousine driver and needed extra room to park his Lincoln Town Car.

For almost two years, plaintiff parked in his space without incident. One day in the spring of 2011, however, he pulled in and found that a "metal box" had been placed in the left front corner of his space. A few days later, he saw the building's superintendent installing metal strips to hold the box in place. The superintendent told plaintiff that the co-op was relocating a snow blower to the front of his space and that the metal box would be used to store gas cans for the snowblower. Shortly thereafter, the co-op had white and yellow lines painted on the left side of his space, "all the way from the rear of his space to the front, where the snow blower and gas can container were now located." The newly-configured space was ten-feet wide, the same size as other spaces in the lot but one-third smaller than plaintiff's original space. Plaintiff's car still fit in the space, but pulling in and out was more difficult. 

 

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Lease “Signed Under Protest” Not Binding (And Have You Ever Heard Of “Grumbling Acceptance”?)

Sign contract(Pd)
What happens if a tenant signs a lease but writes "signed under protest" under the signature? According to the Appellate Division, it means the lease is not binding. More importantly, perhaps, the Appellate Division has never heard of the contract theory known as "grumbling acceptance." If this is one that you did not cover in law school, join the club.

In Bergenline Property Group, LLC v. Coto, defendant was a longtime tenant of premises owned by plaintiff. There was an oral lease between the parties for most of the tenancy. But, in 2013, plaintiff served a notice to quit on defendant, requiring defendant to sign a written lease and pay a security deposit or vacate the property. Defendant refused and plaintiff served another notice to quit, requiring defendant to vacate the property for refusing to agree to reasonable changes to the terms of the lease. Defendant did not vacate and plaintiff filed an eviction complaint.

At the hearing on plaintiff's eviction complaint, the parties agreed to allow the court to determine the reasonableness of several provisions in the proposed lease and modify the lease as necessary. The court did just that, issuing a written opinion that modified some of the terms of the lease. Despite defendant's prior agreement to be bound by the court-modified lease, defendant refused to sign it. Plaintiff then moved for a judgment of possession. At the hearing on that request, the court gave defendant another chance to sign the lease. In response, Defendant first delivered a lease with a signature that was not witnessed and a post-dated check for the security deposit. Plaintiff refused to accept both. Defendant then delivered a lease, signed by defendant and witnessed by defendant's counsel, and a money order for the security deposit. However, directly below defendant's signature on the lease appeared the words "signed under protest." Plaintiff refused to accept this lease as well, but gave defendant one more chance to come to plaintiff's counsel's office and sign the lease. Defendant was apparently driven to plaintiff's counsel's office, but refused to leave the car or execute a new lease.

Plaintiff then renewed its request for a judgment of possession. Defendant opposed the motion, arguing, among other things, that the "signing under protest" language did not change the document, and stating, "parenthetically," that if plaintiff was "offended" by that language, plaintiff could strike it. The court entered the judgment of possession, finding that, by placing the "signing under protest" language on the lease, there was no meeting of the minds, and therefore no binding contract. As a result, defendant failed to sign the lease and violated the court's order requiring her to do so.

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New Jersey Supreme Court Answers Burning Question: When is a converted garage a “building” under New Jersey’s Anti-Eviction Act?

When my wife and I lived in Hoboken, one of our favorite restaurants was Court Street. It is located on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Court Street. We went there at least once a week for most of the time we lived in Hoboken. (Great food, good atmosphere, a little off the beaten path. You should check it out.) Little did I know at the time that we were looking out from the restaurant onto a "building" that was the subject of a long-running landlord-tenant dispute that was only recently resolved by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

I used quotation marks around "building" because the issue in Cashin v. Bello was whether the word "building" as used in the Anti-Eviction Act denotes a single, unattached physical structure or whether it includes all structures owned by an individual that are located on the same parcel of land. This issue was more than just semantics to the parties involved because if the Supreme Court endorsed the former then defendant could be evicted, but if it endorsed the latter, then defendant could stay. Unfortunately for the tenant, the Supreme Court endorsed the former.

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