Changes in New Jersey Landlord-Tenant Law
It has long been the custom in New Jersey to have a clause in a residential lease that says that if the tenant defaults in the terms of the lease, the landlord has the right to collect attorney fees and court costs in the event that the landlord has to go to court to enforce the terms of the lease. Thus, if the tenant breaches a provision of the lease, and the landlord has to go to court to enforce the terms of the lease, it is customary for the court to award the landlord its attorney fees and court costs if the landlord prevails in court. In most cases, the court award of attorney fees is less than the landlord’s actual attorney fees. For example, in Ocean County, the court will award the landlord only $350.00 in attorney fees in an eviction for non-payment of rent.
As of February 1, 2014, New Jersey has a new law which allows a tenant the same rights to attorney fees and court costs if the tenant has to go to court to enforce the terms of the lease.
The new law, P.L. 2013, Chapter 206, has been codified at N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.66 and N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.67. The first part, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.66, states that if a lease contains a provision that entitles a landlord to collect attorney fees and court costs for breach of the lease by the tenant, then the court shall have the right to read into the lease a similar provision for the benefit of the tenant. Thus, if the landlord takes the tenant to court alleging that the tenant violated the terms of the lease and the court determines that the tenant was not in breach, then the court can award the tenant its attorney fees and costs from the landlord. The new law states that a landlord can still collect attorney fees and court costs from the tenant if the landlord files an eviction action for non-payment of rent and the tenant pays the rent after the filling date of the eviction complaint, but before the entry of the judgment, unless the court finds that the tenant had a meritorious reason for withholding the rent.
The second part of the new law, N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.67, requires that if the lease contains a provision allowing the landlord attorney fees and court costs, the lease must contain an explicit provision allowing the tenant the right to collect attorney fees and court costs. The law is specific as to the wording that must be in the lease as well as the size of the font. Interestingly, there is no provision in the new law as to what happens if the new wording is not in the lease. More than likely, the failure to put the language in may result in the landlord losing the ability to collect attorney fees and court costs if the landlord has to enforce the terms of the lease.
All landlords should make sure that their lease conforms to the new law.