Lawsuit Seeks to Void Jersey City’s New Tenant Friendly Right-to-Counsel Law

Jersey City Hall Renovation
City Hall, Jersey City. Photo via City of Jersey City.

An ordinance that has been hailed as a big win for renters by Jersey City officials is subject to a legal challenge as a property rights group claims a right-to-counsel law for tenants is unconstitutional.

Last month, Jersey City’s Council voted unanimously to adopt a right-to-counsel program. The initiative will provide free legal representation for tenants facing evictions, with the program’s funding coming from a 1.5-2.5% fee on new developments.

The program will allow tenants who are at 80% or below the Area Median Income to seek representation in court if they are served an eviction notice. But a new lawsuit filed on July 26 in Hudson County Court claims that that ordinance “exceeds the taxing authority and police powers” of Jersey City.

The legal complaint was filed by the Jersey City Property Owners Association (JCPOA), an organization run by Executive Director Ron Simoncini. He serves as the head of several other property rights groups in the Garden State, including the Union City Property Housing Initiative, the Montclair Property Owners Association, and the Mile Square Taxpayers Association.

JCPOA’s latest lawsuit says that “the creation of this new ‘right to counsel’ is not a power delegated to municipalities by the State of New Jersey and is not included in any of New Jersey’s expansive rights to appointed counsel for litigants.” The complaint also argues that Jersey City’s ordinance conflicts with the state’s Just Cause Eviction Act.

“A tenant’s landlord-tenant relationship is not a fundamental right that due process or equal protection require a right to counsel,” the filing says. “Rather, it is a contractual right between two private parties.”

The lawsuit additionally takes issue with how the ordinance is funded, writing that the “taxation created by Ordinance 23-048 is improperly being used to subsidize a private benefit for tenants” and “provides a benefit for one side of a private contractual relationship and is otherwise not in the general public interest.”

That issue violates both state and federal equal protection rights, according to the lawsuit. “The ordinance creates a ‘right to counsel’ and provides a free private benefit for a class of citizens to the detriment of other classes of citizens,” the case argues.

The JCPOA concludes that the city had “no rational basis for the adoption of this Ordinance” and that adoption of the law “exceeds the police powers granted to the City under N.J.S.A. 40:48-2.” The group is looking to have the law voided and be awarded unspecified damages.

Councilman James Solomon, who spearheaded the right-to-counsel ordinance, blasted the lawsuit in an email to Jersey Digs. Calling the case “frivolous,” Solomon says that only three percent of tenants in Jersey City get representation during eviction proceedings.

“Since Right-To-Counsel was first announced, my office has received threats of legal action, including from far-right activist groups who worked to overturn abortion and affirmative action in this country,” Solomon said. “I won’t be cowed by people who align themselves with these radicals to expand their profit margins.”

“You want to sue your way out of your responsibilities to tenants, Jersey City residents, and the city that allowed you to make the profits you’re using to fund this suit against us?” Solomon added. “You want to waste your time and money on this frivolous lawsuit? Fine. See you in court.”

Attorney Charles Gormally, who is representing the JCPOA in the case, told Jersey Digs that the landlords suing the city provide safe and well-maintained homes to tens of thousands of Jersey City residents who enjoy formidable rights established by state law.

“While the Ordinances being challenged may be well intentioned, they are built upon a completely false premise that all landlords are slumlords and thousands of tenants are wrongfully evicted,” said Gormally. “Unlike most other states, eviction of a tenant in New Jersey cannot happen unless a judge sitting in a public courthouse, in Jersey City, enters an order permitting such eviction—and only after receiving evidence that the landlord has complied with state law that protects tenants from eviction.”

Gormally added that the JCPOA hopes that the City Council “remains open to modifying the ordinance so that it complies with New Jersey law, actual facts, and fairness to the taxpayers.”


Editor’s note: This article has been updated from a previous version to add additional comments from parties involved in the lawsuit.



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