N.J. law allows tenants to claim legal fees from landlords

Tenants now have the same ability as their landlords to be awarded legal and attorney fees when their disputes end up in court under a law signed by the governor this year.

The law allows tenants to be awarded legal fees if they win in a case against their landlords. Advocates say that removes a financial stress that can influence a decision to go to court.

The New Jersey Tenants Organization began lobbying for the bill in March 2012, led by Matt Shapiro, president of the Hackensack-based organization representing more than 100,000 members across the state. It affects leases entered into or renewed on or after Feb. 1.

Shapiro said that for decades, property owners have had a clause in their leases allowing them to collect legal fees from their tenants when they win legal disputes against them.

“It’s been very discouraging to tenants to go to court and risk not only losing the case, but to have to pay out even more for that loss,” said Shapiro.

With the new bill, also known as the Tenant Legal Fee Act, tenants now have the same rights as their landlords.

The legal fees clause was initially included in leases to protect landlords from unruly tenants . Nicholas Kikis, New Jersey Apartment Association director of Legislative Affairs, said the clause was included in the lease so the owner would not incur a financial loss in case of tenant conflicts ending up in court.

Prior to the bill, tenants were not allowed to sue their landlords for legal fees unless there was a contract involved stating that both parties agreed to such terms.

“Landlords were not likely to enter into a contract awarding legal fees to their tenants ,” said Roberta Tarkan, a landlord-tenant attorney based in Jersey City. Tarkan specializes in representing clients in tenant and landlord disputes. She said that landlords would rather get another tenant before agreeing to such terms.

The bill’s sponsors included Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood. To view the bill visit: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us and search for bill number S2018 or A3851 under the 2012-2013 legislative session.

According to Kikis, the bill’s passing creates parity between landlords and tenants .

The law can be enforced only if the landlord reserves the right to legal fees in the lease, and if the lease is entered into or renewed on or after Feb. 1, 2014.

“Some landlords will take the clause out of their leases altogether. But it at least gives the tenant a shot to have their day in court,” said Shapiro.


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