A tenant can be evicted only if the landlord follows each of the steps in the eviction process and if a judge is convinced that there is cause for eviction under the Anti-Eviction Act. A tenant can defeat an eviction complaint by showing that the steps in the eviction process were not correctly followed, or that cause for eviction does not exist, or that the landlord has not met other duties under the law, particularly the duty to provide the tenant with safe and decent housing. This section explains the most common defenses used by tenants to defeat an eviction in court.
Tenants who have to defend themselves in an eviction case without a lawyer should read this section carefully. Acting as your own lawyer is called appearing pro se. Landlord-tenant law can be very complicated, so you should make every effort to get a lawyer. A law passed in 2013 may make it easier for you to do that. Before this law, a court could only order a landlord to pay a tenant’s attorney’s fees in a very small number of cases, such as cases where a tenant sues a landlord to get back a security deposit and wins. This made it difficult for a tenant to find a private attorney willing to represent him or her. This law gives tenants the right to have the court order the landlord to pay the tenant's attorney's fees in other kind of cases too, including evictions. This may make it easier to find an attorney who is willing to represent you because, if you have a good case and win, the landlord will have to pay your attorney too. The law says that tenants automatically have this right if the lease
In other words, it gives a tenant exactly the same right to collect these fees as the landlord gave to itself in the lease. Cite: N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.66 et seq.
Unauthorized practice of law
The judge cannot hear an eviction case if your landlord is a corporation unless the corporation is represented in court by a lawyer. The letters “Inc.” after the landlord’s name mean that it is a corporation. The corporate landlord’s case must be dismissed if someone who is not a lawyer prepared the complaint and summons. Unfortunately, some courts may bend the court rules and allow property managers, stockholders, and others who are not lawyers to act for the corporate landlord. This is improper under New Jersey law (except that a partner in a general partnership may file papers and appear pro se). Cite: Rule 6:10 and Rule 1:21-1(c).
The law requires landlords who rent houses, apartments, or buildings to register certain information with the clerk of the city or town where the building is located. If your building contains three or more apartments, the landlord also must register with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs in Trenton. The law requires that the landlord list his or her name and address and the telephone number of someone—such as the superintendent, janitor, or other person—who can be reached at any time and who is responsible for ordering emergency repairs and receiving complaints from tenants. The law also requires the landlord to provide a lot of other information as well. The landlord must display this information at the property in a place where tenants can see it, and the landlord must give this information in writing to each tenant. Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-28 and 29.
The registration law prevents a landlord from evicting you if the building is not properly registered. You can call the city or town clerk to find out if the property is registered. Call town hall and ask for the clerk. Ask the clerk to check the Landlord Registration file to see if your landlord is registered. If your landlord has not registered the property or has not given you a copy of the registration, the court cannot enter a judgment to evict you in favor of the landlord. In most eviction cases where a landlord has not registered, the judge will postpone hearing the case to give the landlord time to register. Once the landlord registers, the court can then hear the case and enter a judgment for eviction. The postponement can give you extra time to move or to obtain the rent you may owe. Some judges do not follow this procedure and will enter a judgment anyway, if the landlord agrees to register the property later. This practice is clearly wrong. Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-33 and Iuso v. Capehart, 140 N.J. Super. 209 (App. Div. 1976).
If your landlord is not registered, you can file a complaint in Superior Court or municipal court. A landlord can be fined up to $500 for failing to register. Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-35.
Improper notice or no notice
You can get an eviction complaint dismissed if the landlord did not give you a proper notice to cease and/or a proper notice to quit before taking you to court. This is a very important and common defense. As explained in the section, The Tenant's Right to Court Process, these notices must specifically and in detail describe the conduct that is causing eviction and give you the correct amount of time before going to court. Notices must be very specific so that tenants know exactly what is expected of them and how to prepare for trial. Landlords must “strictly comply” with notice requirements and, if they do not, you should argue that the eviction action should be dismissed. See Notices required before an eviction suit. Remember that the landlord does not have to give you any notice to evict you for nonpayment of rent. Cite: N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.2. If you live in public or subsidized housing, you may be entitled to additional notices. See the next section for more information about this.
Carefully read the notice to cease and the notice to quit before you go to court. If you only received a notice to quit, find out if the Anti-Eviction Act requires the landlord to first serve you with a notice to cease.
Here are some common examples of improper notices. If you think the notice that you receive from your landlord is improper in these or other ways, or even if you are not sure, tell the judge, give him or her the notice to review, and ask that the eviction complaint be dismissed because you received improper notice.
Failure to follow federal notice requirements and procedures
Tenants who live in public housing or in other subsidized buildings may be entitled to certain notice and procedural rights over and above what is required by state law. For example, under federal law, you may be entitled to a notice from the landlord if you are being evicted for non-payment of rent, even though state law does not require the landlord to give such notice. See the next two sections for more information about this. For state law notices, see The Only Legal Grounds for Eviction (N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1).
If you are being evicted from public housing or other subsidized buildings, or you are being denied Section 8 assistance, or you are being terminated from Section 8, you should check with a Legal Services attorney to make sure that you have received the proper notice.
Public housing notice requirements
If you live in public housing, you are entitled to the following notices before the housing authority terminates your lease.
When the housing authority is required to give you the opportunity for a grievance hearing, the notice must also inform you of your right to request formal or informal hearings with the housing authority. Cite: 24 C.F.R. § 966.4 (l)(3)(ii).
It is important that you contact a Legal Services attorney to make sure that your rights are protected and that you have received the proper notice.
Subsidized housing notice requirements
If your building receives a subsidy, but you have a private landlord (not a housing authority, and not a Section 8 voucher), you may have the following rights.
The above rights to notice should be written in your lease. Unless the housing authority or other subsidized landlord gives you the proper notice, you cannot be evicted, and the case must be dismissed. Cite: Housing Authority of Newark v. Raindrop, 287 N.J. Super. 222 (App. Div. 1996); Riverview Towers Associates v. Jones, 358 N.J. Super. 85 (App. Div. 2003).
If you are not sure what type of housing you live in, you may check the Guide to Affordable Housing in New Jersey (from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs ).
Section 8 voucher notice requirements
If you are a Section 8 voucher holder, you are entitled to the notices that you would receive under state law. For state law notices, see Grounds for Eviction (N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1). You are not entitled to any notices over and above what you would receive under state law.
If you are a Section 8 voucher holder, and you receive an eviction notice from your landlord, you must promptly give the public housing authority a copy of the eviction notice. Cite: 24 C.F.R. § 982.551(g). Your landlord must give the public housing authority a copy of any eviction notice that the landlord gives you. Cite: 24 C.F.R. § 982.310(e)(2)(ii).
Improper eviction complaint
An eviction suit can be dismissed by the judge if the eviction complaint was not prepared in the correct way. This happens often, so you should read the complaint you received to make sure it is correct. Here are some examples of an improper eviction complaint.
The judge should dismiss an improper eviction complaint because eviction cases are set up to be quick, and the landlord can always start the eviction process over again. Some judges will incorrectly allow a landlord to amend or change the complaint in court, so that the complaint is proper and the case can proceed to hearing. You should object if the judge allows an on-the-spot change to the complaint. If the judge allows the amendment anyway, ask to postpone the hearing so that you have time to prepare a defense to the amended or changed complaint.
You already paid the rent or can pay it on the court date
A common defense to an eviction for nonpayment of rent is to show that the rent has already been paid. This is why it is very important to get a rent receipt (signed by the landlord) for each rent payment, even if you pay by check or money order. You can prove that the rent has been paid by bringing receipts to court to show the judge. What if you agree that you owe the rent or you have a hearing and the judge finds that you owe rent? You can still have the eviction dismissed by paying the rent and court costs to the court before the court closes on the day of the hearing. Cite: N.J.S.A. 2A:18-55.
For example, at the end of your hearing, the judge finds that you owe $500 and enters a judgment for possession for nonpayment of rent. You immediately leave the court and call a relative or friend who agrees to lend you the money. The case against you can still be dismissed, and you will not be evicted if you can get the money (including court costs) to the courthouse and pay it to the court clerk before the court closes for the day, usually at 3:30 or 4:00 p.m.
The rent money and court costs are paid to the clerk of the Special Civil Part of the Superior Court. The clerk does not take personal checks. Cashier's checks or money orders are best and should be made out to Treasurer, State of New Jersey. The court clerk will give you a receipt and send the money to your landlord. The court clerk also will dismiss the eviction complaint against you. If you pay all of the rent to the court clerk before the hearing on your complaint, you should go to the hearing anyway to make sure that the judge knows you have paid the rent and dismisses the complaint.
Note: If you do not have the rent money, you may be able to get help paying your rent from a state agency or local charety. See Programs to Prevent Eviction for information about some of these homelessness prevention programs.
Paying utility bills that your landlord is supposed to be paying
If your landlord is supposed to pay for utilities and does not pay the bill, you may be in danger of having your utilities shut off. If you receive a notice from an electric, gas, water, or sewer public utility that your service is in danger of being shut off, you may pay the utility to keep the service going. You may then deduct this amount from your rent, and the landlord cannot evict you because you have not paid that amount as rent. Cite: N.J.S.A. 2A:18-61.1(a).
If you pay for utility bills, keep the notices and your receipts from the utilities because the landlord may still try to evict you for nonpayment of rent.
Failure to obtain a certificate of occupancy
A municipality may have an ordinance that requires a landlord to obtain a certificate of occupancy (also known as a “C.O.”) before the landlord can rent a unit. The certificate of occupancy, issued by the municipality, ensures that apartments meet code standards before they are rented. Failure by a landlord to obtain a certificate of occupancy can be used to show that the conditions in the apartment are poor and that this violates the landlord’s duty to provide habitable housing. The conditions of the apartment determine how much rent is due. Cite: McQueen v. Brown and Cook, 342 N.J. Super. 120, aff’d 175 N.J. 2000 (2002). The court in this case said that if a landlord does not have a C.O., he or she must apply for one before trying to evict a tenant.
Failure to provide safe and decent housing
The Section Repairs and Habitability explains the landlord’s duty to provide safe and decent housing. It also explains the various ways you can use your rent to force your landlord to make repairs in your apartment or house. These ways include repair and deduct—using rent to make repairs yourself and then deducting the cost of the repair from the rent. Another way is rent withholding—keeping your rent payments from the landlord until he or she makes needed repairs.
Both repair and deduct and rent withholding involve not paying the landlord the rent when it is due. This means that if you take these steps, your landlord could take you to court for nonpayment of rent. In court, your defense to the landlord’s claim for rent will be that he or she failed to provide you with safe and decent housing. You should review Your Right to Safe and Decent Housing, especially the sections that explain repair and deduct, rent withholding, and rent abatement. It is important to remember that if you use repair and deduct and rent withholding as a defense to nonpayment of rent, you will have to show the court how serious the problems are in your apartment. For rent withholding, you may also be required to deposit with the court the full amount of rent you have withheld before you can get a hearing on your defense that your housing is unsafe and in need of repair. The judge does not have to do this, however, and can simply adjourn the case without requiring you to deposit the rent. To be safe, when you go to court after not paying the rent, you should take with you the full amount of rent you have withheld in cash, a certified check, or a money order. The court will not accept personal checks.
The landlord is wrong, did not prove one of the good causes for eviction, or is lying
If what the landlord says in the complaint is not true, you have the right to deny it. The landlord then has to prove that what he or she says is true. The law requires the landlord to prove that the complaint is based on facts. The facts that the landlord does show must also prove one of the legal grounds for eviction described in The Tenant's Right to Court Process. If the facts shown by the landlord do not prove one of the limited grounds for eviction, the case must be dismissed, even if they prove something the landlord thinks should be enough to evict you. But be careful: sometimes a judge will believe the landlord over a tenant, so you should be ready to prove that you are right and that the landlord is wrong. You can do this by taking with you to court witnesses, photos, letters to or from the landlord, receipts, and anything else that might help prove your case.
Waiver—the landlord knew about it but continued the tenancy
The landlord waives, or gives up, his or her right to evict you if he or she knows that you have been breaking the lease or any rules of the tenancy but still accepts your rent payment during this period. Cite: N.J.S.A. 46:8-10. Here are some examples of a waiver:
Retaliation—the landlord wants to get even
The law does not allow a landlord to evict you to get even for asserting your rights under the law or for enforcing your rights under the lease. The landlord also cannot evict you to get even for your complaining about conditions in your house or apartment to the board of health, building inspector, housing authority, or any other government agency. Finally, the landlord cannot evict you to get even for your involvement with a tenants association or any lawful organization. Each of these types of getting even (retaliation) are defenses to the eviction action. If you can prove that your landlord is trying to evict you in retaliation, the case will be dismissed. Cite: N.J.S.A. 2A:42-10.10 and 10.11. Be prepared to prove retaliation before you go to court.
Even if only one of the reasons the landlord wants to evict you is retaliation, you are protected from eviction by law and the landlord's complaint should be dismissed by the court. Cite: Les Gertrude Associates v. Walko, 262 N.J. Super. 544 (App. Div. 1993); Housing Authority of Bayonne v. Mims, 396 N.J. Super 195 (App. Div. 2007); Silberg v. Lipscomb, 117 N.J. Super 491 (Dist. Ct. 1971).
For information about citations, and how to get more information about a particular law, see Finding the Law in the Landlord-Tenant section.
This information last reviewed: Mar 17, 2017