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B.J. Funk Reality Company vs. Sahar Elsdani

B.J. Funk Reality Company vs. Sahar Elsdani — Decided 8/14/18. In this matter, the Appellate Division wrestled with whether the plaintiff met its burden in proving that a tenant, with physical disabilities, had the ability to willfully cause damage to the premises. The Appellate Division held that the trial court erred in finding that the defendant willfully caused damage to the premises. Specifically, the Appellate Division found that the plaintiff failed to meet its burden of proving, by the preponderance of evidence, that the defendant had willfully caused damage to the apartment.

The landlord alleged that the tenant had caused the following damage in her apartment: 1) Turning on the kitchen oven which was filled with pots and leaving the State of New Jersey causing smoke to engulf the apartment and causing the evacuation of the building; 2) Destroying the stove and dismantling the range burners; 3) Dismantling the smoke alarms in the apartment causing a risk of death and physical harm to the tenants in the building; and 4)  Causing smoke damage to the apartment. At trial, the defendant denied all of the allegations against her and maintained that someone must have broken into her apartment on the date of the incident.  The court found plaintiff’s witnesses’ testimony to be credible; determined that she created a dangerous environment by dismantling the burners on the stove; and entered judgment for possession.

Defendant subsequently sought post-judgment relief and filed an order to show cause. On the return date of the order to show cause, the defendant presented new evidence which was not introduced at trial. The defendant claimed that her physically disability, specifically limited range of mobility in her arms, would have made it impossible for her to raise her arms to remove the smoke detectors. The trial court disregarded this evidence, stating that the defendant failed to present this evidence at trial. Further, the court issued an amplification opinion, which held that the defendant had willfully caused damage to the apartment, even though at trial, the court found that the defendant did not act willfully and/or with gross negligence.

Defendant appealed the trial court’s decision. On appeal, defendant contended, for the first time, that the trial court ignored evidence that the plaintiff violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Appellate Division was sympathetic to the defendant’s arguments and found that the trial court should have considered, even at the post-judgment stage, evidence of the defendant’s disability to determine whether she indeed had the ability to willfully dismantle the smoke detectors in her apartment. The Court held that in order to determine gross negligence, the plaintiff had the burden to prove that defendant’s conduct was indeed purposeful and willful. The Appellate Division also found that the other evidence that defendant presented post-judgment should have been further examined by the trial court to assess whether defendant’s conduct indeed rose to the level of gross negligence. Hence, the Court held that the trial court failed to determine whether the plaintiff proved, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant caused damage to the premises. Therefore, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded for a new hearing.