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.

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

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.

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

Complex Commercial Tenancies Often Test The Limits Of The Summary Eviction Process

Rental Agreement (PD)
I recently co-authored an article, entitled "Commercial Tenancies, Complexities, And The Limits Of the Summary Eviction Process," that discusses, as the title suggests, situations where commercial landlord-tenant matters may be too complicated for the normal, summary eviction process in New Jersey courts. Here are the first few paragraphs:

New Jersey tenants who don't pay, including commercial tenants, may be swiftly dispossessed of their leasehold pursuant to the Summary Dispossess Statute, N.J.S.A.  2A:18-51 to -61 (the "Statute"). The Statute gives landlords the right to seek the removal of tenants who do not pay rent, or who otherwise violate the terms of the lease.  The Statute establishes a summary eviction process, which as its name implies, is "summary" in nature and, among other things, does not provide for formal discovery and typically does not involve issues other than possession.  From the filing of the summary dispossession complaint it is not uncommon for a tenant to be dispossessed within 90 days or less.

However, what happens when a tenant is not paying rent for a valid reason or due to a legitimate dispute with a  landlord? Can that tenant also be summarily dispossessed? Recognizing the limits of a process that by design is "summary" in nature, New Jersey Courts have answered that question "No." The mechanism to stave off the summary dispossession is the motion to transfer to the Law Division, which remedy is exercisable by a court, at its discretion, if the issues are of "sufficient importance" that proceeding in a summary fashion would not do justice. N.J.S.A.  2A:18-60. Typically, matters of "sufficient importance" involve complex issues and/or the need for discovery.

Please check out the full article here

Tenants Who Don’t Act Quickly On Claims For Breach Of Implied Warranty of Habitability Risk Being Left Out In The Cold

by:  Gregory S. Ricciardi

On May 15, 2012, the Appellate Division handed down its decision in Vitiello v. Marques, a commercial landlord tenant dispute.  The case involved a claim for constructive eviction, wherein the Plaintiff alleged that the leased premises was “exceptionally cold” as a result of a failing heater and cracked window frames, all of which the Landlord allegedly refused to repair.  As a result of the cold, the Plaintiff declared that the premises were uninhabitable, except that the tenant waited until the summer to actually vacate the premises.   The trial judge ruled and the appellate division affirmed that Plaintiff failed to establish the “factual predicate for constructive eviction.”   Relying on Reste Realty Corp. v. Cooper, the benchmark New Jersey Supreme Court Case on constructive eviction, the court reasoned that the plaintiff failed to prove that the Landlord’s conduct substantially interfered with the tenant’s use and enjoyment of the premises, such that departure from the property was justified. The second element of a constructive eviction claim is that the tenant must actually vacate the premises within a reasonable time after the conditions rendering the property inhabitable arise.

The takeaway for tenants in this case is to act quickly and decisively  if constructive eviction is the basis for which the tenant withholds rent or seeks to terminate a lease.  Hollow complaints and chilly inconvenience are no match for a well drafted, landlord protective lease.  Although the failure of a HVAC system may be the basis for a constructive eviction claim, do not wait until the summer to vacate the premises because the heat is not working, unless of course you live in Alaska.