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Ellis v. Doe

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

May 7, 2018

Andrew Ellis, Appellant,
v.
John Doe, Respondent.

          Hennepin County District Court File No. 27-CV-HC-17-1239

          Joel D. Van Nurden, Van Nurden Law, P.L.L.C., Minneapolis, Minnesota (for appellant)

          Elizabeth F. Sauer, Neng Vue, Central Minnesota Legal Services, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondent)

          Considered and decided by Reyes, Presiding Judge; Schellhas, Judge; and Jesson, Judge.

         SYLLABUS

         A tenant is not required to follow the procedures set forth in Minn. Stat. § 504B.385 (2016), governing a rent-escrow action brought by a tenant, before asserting a habitability defense pursuant to Fritz v. Warthen, 298 Minn. 54, 213 N.W.2d 339 (1973).

          OPINION

          REYES, Judge.

         Appellant-landlord argues that the district court erred in affirming the housing-court referee's determination that part of respondent-tenant's rent was not due because tenant did not follow the procedures set forth in Minn. Stat. § 504B.385 (2016) before asserting a habitability defense to landlord's eviction action. We affirm.

         FACTS

         In February 2016, appellant landlord Andrew Ellis (landlord) and respondent tenant John Doe (tenant) entered into a written month-to-month agreement for the lease of a residential property located in Minneapolis (the property) by tenant in exchange for a monthly rental amount of $755.00 due on the first day of each month. Tenant experienced habitability problems when he took possession of the property, and contacted landlord on several occasions about the issues.

         After landlord failed to complete the requested repairs, tenant contacted a city inspector about the habitability issues. On October 13, 2016, landlord received a notice from the City of Minneapolis informing him that a city inspector had inspected the property and found numerous violations of city ordinances. The notice required him to correct the violations within 30 days. Landlord failed to do so.

         Tenant withheld rent in March 2017 after landlord failed to both correct the ordinance violations and rid the property of a raccoon that tenant alleged was living in the ceiling. Landlord filed an eviction action against tenant alleging nonpayment of $3,581.00 in rent and late fees, and sought return of the premises. Tenant filed an answer stating that he did not owe landlord the amount alleged and asserted a habitability defense pursuant to Fritz v. Warthen, 298 Minn. 54, 213 N.W.2d 339 (1973), arguing that landlord had violated the statutory covenants of habitability under Minn. Stat. § 504B.161 (2016).

         The housing court held a hearing and issued an order scheduling a trial to determine the amount of rent, if any, that tenant owed landlord, and to address the habitability issues raised by tenant in his answer, including landlord's failure to complete the repairs required by the city-ordinance-violation notice. The housing court ordered tenant to pay the withheld rent into the court pursuant to Fritz and Minn. R. Gen. Pract. 608, which provide that the tenant shall deposit accruing rent with the district court as security when the tenant claims to be withholding rent in reliance on a defense. Tenant paid the withheld rent into the court the next day.

         After receiving exhibits and hearing testimony from both parties, the housing court issued an order discrediting landlord's testimony and determining that tenant owed landlord $67.64 in past-due rent. But it concluded that tenant had demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that landlord had violated the statutory covenants of habitability and noted that tenant had suffered considerable loss of his use and enjoyment of the property. It determined that tenant owed landlord only part of the full ...


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