Residential tenants in New Jersey have certain rights. They cannot be evicted (thrown out or locked out) without a judgment from the New Jersey Superior Court.
Some reasons a landlord might file a complaint in the Landlord/Tenant section of Superior Court:
- The tenant failed to pay rent.
- The tenant is often late in paying rent.
- The tenant has repeatedly acted in a disorderly manner.
- The tenant has caused destruction or damage to the property willfully or through gross negligence.
- The tenant has violated the terms of the lease or other document.
- The tenant has been convicted of a drug offense.
In most cases, a landlord must give a tenant a written notice to cease, or stop, their disorderly conduct or other violation. The landlord can only more forward with an eviction if the tenant continues the conduct after receiving the notice to stop.
Also, complaints other than non-payment of rent generally require notice ending the tenancy. These notices must be attached to the complaint at the time of filing. Under federal law, public housing residences require the landlord to send a copy of the complaint and any eviction notice to the Public Housing Authority (“PHA”) on or before the complaint is filed in court.
If the landlord files a complaint in Superior Court, the tenant cannot be evicted if all of the outstanding rent owed is paid by the close of business on the day of the trial.
If you are successful in court in getting a judgment of possession , the tenant can be evicted. The judgment of possession does not entitle you to the outstanding rent. If you want to seek back rent after the judgment of possession is ordered, you must file a claim in the regular Special Civil Part or Small Claims section to collect the outstanding rent.
Do I need a lawyer to handle my case?
A landlord that is a corporation or limited liability partnership must be represented by a New Jersey attorney in all matters filed in the Landlord/Tenant section of Superior Court.
Things to think about before representing yourself in court
How to File a Complaint in Landlord/Tenant Court
- Complete Forms
- Verified Complaint
- You must provide the correct name(s) and address(es) for each person named as a defendant. Also, you must identify the defendant(s) as individuals, proprietorship, partnership or corporation.
- Tenancy Summons and Return of Service
- Do not include personal identifiers such as social security numbers on the copy of the documents that you file with the court. Complete the forms, make a copy, and then redact the personal identifiers on the copies you will submit to the court.
- Attach the filing fee or request a fee waiver:
- One defendant: $50
- Each additional defendant: $5
- Service fee: You must pay a mileage fee for delivery of the court papers by a Special Civil Part officer. Court staff will tell you the exact mileage fee when you file your case. Payment can be made by cash or by a check payable to Treasurer, State of New Jersey.
- Check the forms to make sure they are complete. Sign the forms.
- For cases involving something other than non-payment of rent, include all notices that you have sent to the tenant and that you plan to rely upon at the trial.
- Make copies of all of the documents you will submit to the court and put one copy in a safe place. You will need a copy for yourself and two copies for each tenant named as a defendant in your complaint.
- Check that you have redacted the personal identifiers on the copies you prepare for court.
- Mail or deliver the complaint, the summons, the certification and the fee to the Superior Court where the rental property is located.
Once your case is filed you will receive a postcard with information about the date and time of your trial.
Preparing for Trial
What to bring
Bring to court all records that will help you prove your case, such as:
- rent receipts, estimates, repair bills;
- dishonored checks from the tenant(bounced checks);
- letters and notices to, or from, the tenant(s);
- photographs; and
- any other documents that you believe will help you defend the case being made against you.
**Photographs, emails and text messages must be printed before you come to court.
You can bring witnesses to help you prove your case; the court will not accept a written statement signed by a witness.
If you are coming to court without a lawyer, you will have to question your witnesses. Prepare any questions you will ask your witnesses before you go to court.
What to expect at the trial:
- If you do not come to court, the case will be dismissed.
- If the tenant does not come to court, the case probably will be defaulted in your favor.
- If you both come to court, you and the tenant could be asked to work with a mediator to try to settle your case.
- If you and the tenant come to an agreement, the mediator will complete the appropriate form. The judge must review and approve the forms before the court will accept your agreement.
- If you do not come to an agreement, the judge will hear your case. The judge either will grant or deny a judgment for possession. A judgment for possession is the first step toward eviction.
Common Defenses in Eviction Cases
There are many ways that tenants can defend themselves in eviction cases. Both tenants and landlords should research these issues in order to prepare for court.Legal Services of New Jersey has a helpful website to get you started.
Some Common Defenses
A rental property must be “habitable,” meaning that people can live in it safely and comfortably. In New Jersey this is also called the Marini Doctrine. Common problems that affect habitability:
- Lack of heat
- Mold, bedbugs, or rodents
- No running water, no hot water, or a toilet that doesn’t work
- Lead paint, broken windows, unfinished floors
- Broken appliances such as a stove or a refrigerator
- Unsafe common areas such as a lobby, stairs or elevator
- Anything else that makes it hard for a tenant to live there normally.
A tenant might withhold rent because of a habitability issue. But habitability cannot be used to avoid eviction for a pattern of late rent payments, noise or pet violations, or any other reason the landlord might give for an eviction.
To make a habitability defense, a tenant must:
- Be able to pay the full amount of rent due on the scheduled court date. They might be asked to give the rent money to the court to hold until the case is over.
- Be able to show the court, with photos or other evidence, that some part of the living space is uninhabitable.
- Be able to show the court that they told the landlord about the problem and gave the landlord a chance to fix it.
- Be able to show the court that they are not the cause of the issue. If the tenant broke the window, for example, that cannot be the reason for not paying rent.
Unregistered Rental Property
The property might not be registered as a rental property. If the landlord lives on the property and there are three units or fewer, the property must be registered with the Community Development Authority.
If the landlord does not live on the property OR the property includes more than three units, the property must be registered with the Bureau of Housing Inspection.
The case might be dismissed if the landlord cannot prove that the property is registered. The judge could also decide to delay the case to give the landlord time to register the property.
A tenant could argue that the tenancy is illegal. Reasons could include:
- The property is condemned.
- There are zoning violations. For example, the property has been divided into more units than it was approved to have.
- The property violates other laws. For example, it might be in a basement with only one escape route.
The judge court decide to give the tenant an “abatement,” meaning the tenant does not owe the full amount of the rent because of a problem with the property. For example, the tenant is paying for a 2-bedroom apartment but one of the bedrooms has no windows and is not a real room.
Section 8 Subsidized Housing
A landlord cannot evict a tenant without first telling any public agencies that subsidize the tenant’s rent. The landlord must attach proof of this notice when the eviction complaint is filed with the court. The case could be dismissed if the landlord did not notify the agency about the case.
It is important for you to come to your scheduled court date. Even if you think that you will lose your case, you might be able to work out a settlement through mediation.
Mediation is often the best solution, because it allows both parties the chance to compromise. Through mediation, each party can get something that they want out of the case. For example, even if a tenant is facing eviction, the tenant and landlord might be able to work out a plan that will give the tenant more time to move out.
A court mediator can work with both the landlord and tenant to come to an agreement. If they agree on a settlement, the mediator will help them submit the correct form to the judge.
If the judge approves the settlement, the case is over and the landlord and tenant can move forward.
You have nothing to lose by trying to settle with the other party.
If the landlord and tenant do not come to an agreement, the judge will hear the case.
Judgments for Possession/Warrants of Removal
If a judgment for possession is entered, the landlord can take steps to have the tenant evicted. If the tenant does not leave the home, a court officer, not the landlord, will serve the tenant(s) with a warrant of removal. When tenants are served with a warrant of removal , they must leave the home within three business days. If they do not, the landlord can ask the court officer to evict them.
After Judgment for Possession
There are still things that a tenant can do after the court date that could change the terms of the eviction. The tenants must notify their landlord if they decide to pursue any of these actions with the court:
- Tenants can request an Order for Orderly Removal, which grants them more time to move out. This could give them up to seven calendar days to move.
- They can request a hardship stay. This could stop the eviction for up to six months. Tenants cannot apply for a hardship stay unless they pay all the money they owe to the landlord, plus any costs. If they pay all the money they owe and they are granted a hardship stay, they must still comply with the original lease and pay all of the rent during the stay.
- Tenants also can apply to the court to vacate (cancel) the judgment for possession. This request is not granted often and requires unique legal circumstances.
Illegal Evictions (Lockouts)
How to File for the Return to Your Rental Premises
A landlord cannot evict tenants or remove their belongings from a rental home without first getting a judgment for possession and then a warrant of removal from the court. Only a Special Civil Part officer can perform the eviction on behalf of a landlord.
It is illegal for the landlord to force a tenant out by changing the locks, padlocking the doors or by shutting off gas, water or electricity.
A landlord also cannot take possession of a tenant’s personal belongings or furniture to try to force them to pay rent. Tenants who have been locked out of their home illegally can file a complaint at the county courthouse. In the complaint, the tenant can request to be allowed back into the home. They also can request monetary damages.
Residential Security Deposit
Maximum security deposit is 1 ½ months’ rent.
In New Jersey, a landlord can only charge up to 1½ months’ rent as a security deposit. The landlord requires the security deposit in order to pay for any damage done to the unit or to cover unpaid rent after the tenant leaves. The landlord must deposit the security deposit into an interest bearing account within 30 days of receiving the money from the tenant.
Security deposit must be kept in an interest-bearing bank account.
The landlord must notify the tenant in writing, within 30 days of receiving the deposit, the following information:
- The name and address of the bank where the money has been deposited.
- The amount of the deposit.
- The type of account.
- The current interest rate of that account.
The landlord must send the tenant an updated statement providing the same information on an annual basis, or within 30 days if
- The deposit is moved to another account or bank;
- The bank merges with another bank; or
- The rental property is sold.
The interest must be paid or credited to the tenant each year.
The landlord must either pay you the amount of the annual interest in cash, or must credit the amount of the annual interest toward the payment of rent.
The security deposit cannot be touched until the tenant moves out.
The landlord cannot deduct any money from a tenant’s security deposit until after the tenant moves out of the home. If the landlord wants to use the security deposit to pay for damage or for unpaid rent, they must notify the tenant in writing within 30 days after the tenant move out of the home. The tenant must provide the landlord with their new address so that the landlord can contact them about your security deposit.
If the tenant owes more money than the amount of the security deposit, or if the damage caused by the tenant was beyond normal wear and tear, the landlord can sue the tenant in court for the additional amount.
If the tenant believes they landlord kept all or part of the security deposit without good cause, the tenant can sue the landlord for security deposits up to $5,000 in the Small Claims section of Superior Court. Lawsuits for security deposits greater than $5,000 must be filed in the Special Civil Part of Superior Court.
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