of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts
D. Van Nurden, Van Nurden Law, PLLC, Minneapolis, Minnesota;
and John R. Shoemaker, Shoemaker & Shoemaker, P.L.L.C.,
Bloomington, Minnesota, for appellant.
Elizabeth F. Sauer, Central Minnesota Legal Services,
Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent.
Y. Trevor, Tiana Towns, Dorsey & Whitney LLP,
Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Samuel Spaid, Minneapolis,
Minnesota, for amicus curiae HOME Line.
Jones, Michael F. Cockson, James W. Poradek, Isaac B. Hall,
Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amici
curiae Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, CHUM, Family
Housing Fund, Housing Justice Center, Inquilinxs Unidxs Por
Justicia, Jewish Community Action, Loaves and Fishes Duluth,
The Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, Northpoint Health
and Wellness Center, Inc., and Volunteer Lawyers Network.
tenant need not follow the procedures for an action under the
rent-escrow statute, Minnesota Statutes section 504B.385
(2018), when asserting a common-law habitability defense in
an eviction action.
tenant need not provide written notice of violations of the
covenants of habitability to a landlord before asserting a
common-law habitability defense in an eviction action.
Andrew Ellis initiated eviction proceedings against his
tenant, John Doe, for nonpayment of rent. The tenant raised
a common-law habitability defense, asserting that Ellis had
breached the covenants of habitability. The district court
found for the tenant and ordered retroactive and prospective
rent abatement until the habitability violations were fixed.
The court of appeals affirmed the district court's
now asks us to reverse, asserting that the tenant did not
follow the procedures for a rent-escrow action under
Minnesota Statutes section 504B.385 (2018), which require
written notice to the landlord before initiating an action
for breach of the covenants of habitability. We conclude that
a tenant asserting a common-law habitability defense in an
eviction proceeding is not required to follow the procedures
for an action under the rent-escrow statute. Accordingly, we
affirm the decision of the court of appeals.
is the owner and landlord of a duplex in Minneapolis. The
tenant rented a unit in the duplex in February 2016 under a
written month-to-month lease. The apartment had ongoing
repair issues, and the tenant later testified in an eviction
action that he contacted Ellis about those issues "on
several occasions"-enough times that Ellis got tired of
him calling. He further testified that he sent Ellis "a
letter in regards to the different issues that we had."
five months passed without Ellis making repairs, the tenant
called the city inspector. When the inspector came to inspect
the apartment in October 2016, the tenant met with him and
discussed several issues, including damage to the bathroom
floor, kitchen cabinets, and bedroom ceiling from a water
leak; cracks in the walls; peeling paint; broken window
seals; and windows that were painted or glued shut. While the
inspector was there, the tenant and the inspector could hear
an animal running through the ceiling and scratching at the
walls. The tenant also pointed out the front door entrance to
the duplex, which did not lock and barely closed. He showed
the inspector the back stairs, which were held together by a
cord, and the side rail on the front stairs, which was weakly
attached to the stairs.
October 2016, the city inspector sent Ellis a notice of
ordinance code violations, which required Ellis to make
numerous repairs within the next month. Specifically, the
notice required Ellis to (1) repair the windows that were
painted shut and the windows that would not stay open; (2)
repair or replace the handrail for the front stairs; (3)
repair the front entry door; (4) identify and fix the source
of the moisture problem, as well as repair all water-damaged
surfaces; (5) repair the peeling paint in the kitchen; (6)
replace the non-functioning smoke and carbon monoxide
detectors; (7) repair the rear exterior stairs, which were in
unstable condition and lacked a useable handrail; (8) replace
a torn window screen; and (9) replace two broken window panes
and one missing pane.
March 2017, Ellis filed an eviction action under Minnesota
Statutes section 504B.291 (2018), alleging nonpayment of $3,
581 in rent. The tenant acknowledged that he had withheld
rent for the month of March and deposited the unpaid rent for
the months of March and April 2017 with the court
administrator. On March 20, 2017, the tenant filed an answer
denying Ellis's allegations and raising the common-law
defense of breach of the statutory covenants of habitability.
See Minn. Stat. § 504B.161, subds. 1, 4 (2018).
parties appeared before the housing court referee. Both
parties submitted exhibits and testimony. Both parties also
testified, and so did the tenant's mother. The referee
found the testimony of the tenant and his mother to be more
credible than Ellis's testimony. In evaluating
Ellis's nonpayment-of-rent claim, the referee found that
the tenant had actually overpaid his rent for 2016
and only owed rent in the amount of $67.64 as of February
referee then turned to the tenant's habitability defense.
Based on the tenant's testimony, the photographs of the
unit offered as exhibits, and the city inspector's
report, the court found that "the condition of the
premises violated the statutory covenants of
habitability." Although Ellis testified that he had
addressed all of the issues in the city inspector's
letter, the referee found Ellis's testimony
"untrustworthy" and noted that he "was unable
to answer very basic questions about the interactions of the
parties." The referee found that the tenant was entitled
to retroactive and ...