Tenants in New Jersey have the right to possess their apartments. What this means is that once the tenant occupies an apartment, he or she does so to the prohibition of others. However, there is a common violation of this tenant right: the interference of a landlord with a tenant’s possession via an illegal lockout. Illegal lockouts occur for various reasons and are used to change the conditions of a lease, force occupants to pay more rent or interfere with the tenant’s behavior. Luckily for residents, these illegal lockouts are forbidden in N.J.S.A. 2A:39-1 et seq.
However, a landlord has rights too if a tenant refuses or neglects to pay their rent, and it’s in arrears over the specified days, or if the tenant has violated other provisions of the lease, under particular circumstances and conditions, the law allows the landlord to reenter and retake ownership of the premises. The property owner can seize property that belongs to a tenant and once the statutory allotted period lapses, after offering a proper notice, the tenant’s property can be publicly auctioned.
To enter and retake possession may not be the best way to solve the problem at hand. It exposes a landlord to liability if they do not do it properly. Property owners need to be aware of potential problems and why they need to consult a knowledgeable lawyer to discuss if reentering and retaking ownership is legal or if it’s the best option for their case.
The unlawful or forcible entry is defined as follows in N.J.S.A. 2A:39-2 : if any person enters a property and holds or detains the same with force, whether the occupant is present or not, by any form of violence, or by threatening to kill, beat or maim the current occupant, or by such circumstances, words or action excite fear, or by carrying the possessions of the party occupying the resident or putting them outdoors, or by entering peacefully then by frightening or force, or any circumstance of terror, turn the party out of ownership, such a person is considered guilty of forcible entry and detainer.
The above section shows that it’s illegal for landlords to lock out tenants, cut off utilities or interfere with the tenant’s possession or use of the premise. A landlord can only take the ownership of the apartment and lockout tenants by pursuing a complaint to seek the eviction of the occupant. Once the complaint is filed, the tenant is allowed to see a judge so they can raise defenses to the eviction. The law requires landlords to follow this procedure. Unlawful Detainer Statute outlaws any other process for handling the issue.
Because the facts vary depending on the case at hand, a landlord should always consult an attorney with their specific circumstance. Information that must be disclosed to the lawyer may include:
· If the lease contains language that prohibits a lock-out
· If the contract requires a landlord to offer a written notice to party before there can be a breach of the lease
· If the owner has granted the tenant a specified duration to make the payment as part of his/her effort to resolve the problem
· If the landlord has been accepting late rent payments routinely, making the tenant believe that timely payments are not necessarily required
In summary, lockouts come with potential problems and hidden dangers if not implemented as per the law. It is recommended that landlords consult a lawyer familiar with property lockouts before opting for such a process.