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Landlord Illegal Lockouts: How New Jersey’s Unlawful Detainer Statute Protects Tenants

In New Jersey, tenants have a right to possession of their apartments. Generally, this means that once a tenant has a right to occupy an apartment he may do so to the exclusion of others. One fairly common violation of this right is a landlord’s interference with a tenant’s possession by way of an illegal lockout. Illegal lockouts happen for many reasons. They are used in an effort to force tenants to pay more in rent, to change the terms of a lease or otherwise affect a tenant’s behavior. Fortunately for tenants, Illegal lockouts are forms of self-help, prohibited by N.J.S.A. 2A:39-1 et seq.

The Unlawful Detainer Statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:39-1 et. seq. is a powerful tool for curing illegal lockouts. Forcible or unlawful entry and detainer are defined in N.J.S.A. 2A:39-2 as follows:

If any person shall enter upon or into any real property and detain or hold the same with force, whether or not any person be in it, by any kind of violence whatsoever, or by threatening to kill, maim or beat the party in possession, or by such words, circumstances or action as have a natural tendency to excite fear or apprehension of danger, or by putting out of doors, or carrying away the goods of the party in possession, or by entering peaceably and then, by force or frightening by threats, or by other circumstances of terror, turning the party out of possession, such person shall be guilty of a forcible entry and detainer within the meaning of this chapter. With regard to any real property occupied solely as a residence by the party in possession, if any person shall enter upon or into said property and detain or hold same in any manner without the consent of the party in possession unless the entry is made pursuant to legal process as set out in N.J.S. 2A:18-53 et seq. or 2A:35-1 et seq., such person shall be guilty of an unlawful entry and detainer within the meaning of this chapter. (Emphasis added).

The above-emphasized section makes it illegal for a landlord to lockout a tenant, cut off the power or other utilities, or otherwise interfere the tenant’s use and possession of the premises. Landlords may only take possession of an apartment and lockout a tenant by pursuing a complaint seeking eviction. After the filing of a complaint, a tenant has the right to see a judge and raise whatever defenses to eviction he/she may choose. The law requires that landlord’s follow this process. Anything else is prohibited by the Unlawful Detainer Statute. A tenant’s right to damages under the Unlawful Detainer Statute will be explained in a future post.

Since the facts of each circumstance vary, a tenant should consult an attorney with his/her specific circumstances. Offit Kurman practices landlord tenant law throughout New York and New Jersey assisting tenants in avoiding unnecessary and costly delays. The firm’s geographic practice area includes: New York City (Manhattan, New York County, Brooklyn, Kings County, Queens, Queens County, Bronx County, Staten Island, Richmond County) and New Jersey (Jersey City, Hoboken, Bayonne, Hudson County, Newark, Essex County, Woodbridge, Middlesex County). The Firm invites you to visit the “Promises” page for our new way of doing business. Contact us today for a guaranteed free initial consultation.