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NJ Landlord-Tenant Trials: Landlords Must Meet the Burden Required by Court Rules

Generally, most NJ landlord-tenant matters settle before trial. A prior post explained the range of options available to tenants and landlords before “taking your chances with a judge.” While settlement is usually the best route, sometimes a trial is unavoidable. Whether the trial is for nonpayment or other “good cause” under the Anti-Eviction Act, N.J.S.A 2A:18-61.1., the landlord has the burden of proving his case. New Jersey Court Rule 4:37-2(b) requires that a landlord show that the facts and the law entitle him to relief (in a landlord-tenant setting, the relief is a judgment for possession). Practically, this means that the defendant-tenant, before telling the court his side of the story, can ask the court to dismiss the landlord’s case. The type of eviction case determines what the landlord must show to avoid dismissal.

Rule 4:37-2(b) states that:

(b) At Trial-Generally. After having completed the presentation of the evidence on all matters other than the matter of damages (if that is an issue), the plaintiff shall so announce to the court, and thereupon the defendant, without waiving the right to offer evidence in the event the motion is not granted, may move for a dismissal of the action or of any claim on the ground that upon the facts and upon the law the plaintiff has shown no right to relief. Whether the action is tried with or without a jury, such motion shall be denied if the evidence, together with the legitimate inferences therefrom, could sustain a judgment in plaintiff’s favor.

In an eviction for nonpayment case, a landlord must show that the rent alleged is “legally due and owing.” Often times, this is best accomplished by showing the court a signed lease that includes the rent amount. When the landlord doesn’t provide a lease, he must prove both how much the rent is and that the rent is owed. Without a lease, the easiest way to show the amount of rent is receipts that evidence a prior course of conduct. Many times a landlord’s testimony will also suffice. However, any inconsistencies can undercut the landlord’s case.

In a nonpayment case, it is also the landlord’s obligation to show the rent is owed. Many times landlords will offer only their testimony that the rent is unpaid. Here, one of the most important rules of landlord-tenant relationships applies: Do not pay the rent in cash without getting a signed receipt. There is absolutely nothing stopping a landlord from denying rent paid in cash was received. For whatever reason, if a landlord is willing to deny receiving rent paid in the cash, the tenant can find himself in a nasty situation.

In notice or other “good cause” cases and when applicable, the landlord must show that the tenant is responsible for the underlying acts alleged. Whether those acts are damage to the premises, violations of rules and regulations, disorderly conduct or habitual lateness, it is the landlord’s responsibility to offer competent evidence. That competent evidence should be limited to the content of the required notices. A tenant should object to the entry of evidence or facts not contained within the notice. If the landlord does not have the benefit of all the facts that tend to prove violation, the case may be dismissed under 4:37-2(b).

Since the facts of each circumstance vary, a landlord or 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, Paterson, Passaic 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.