of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts
Christopher T. Kalla, Douglass Turner, Hanbery & Turner,
P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent.
Spaid, Paul Birnberg, HOME Line, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for
Timothy J. Droske, Clint Conner, Paul K. Beck, Tien T. Cai,
Lawrence McDonough, Dorsey & Whitney LLP, Minneapolis,
Minnesota, for amicus curiae InquilinXs UnidXs por Justicia.
1. In a
residential breach-of-lease eviction action, a residential
tenant must have complained to a government entity or
commenced a formal legal proceeding to assert the retaliation
defense in Minn. Stat. § 504B.441 (2018).
2. In a
residential breach-of-lease eviction action in which a
landlord seeks to evict a tenant for the tenant's
good-faith complaint to the landlord of a material violation
of local or state law, residential covenants, or the lease,
the tenant has a retaliation defense at common law.
consider here whether a residential tenant has a statutory or
common-law defense if a landlord seeks to evict the tenant in
retaliation for the tenant's complaint about the
condition of the leased premises. We conclude that, in this
case, the retaliation defense is not available under the
relevant statute, Minn. Stat. § 504B.441 (2018). But we
also conclude that the common law should recognize a defense
when a landlord retaliates against a tenant for making a
good-faith complaint to the landlord of a material violation
of local or state law, residential covenants, or the lease.
Therefore, we affirm in part and reverse in part.
Housing Associates, LP (CHA) and Aaron Olson entered into a
1-year residential lease beginning May 1, 2016. Thereafter,
Olson made several written complaints to CHA regarding
maintenance issues and further alleged in writing that a
member of CHA's staff had harassed and discriminated
against his minor daughter.
January 20, 2017, CHA gave Olson written notice that his
lease would be terminated two months early, effective
February 28, 2017. The notice alleged multiple breaches of
the lease terms, including disruptive behaviors by members of
Olson's household, failing to list all family members on
Olson's application, an unpaid balance of $275.91,
multiple late payments of rent, and false information on the
application of Olson's live-in aide.
Olson received the notice, but before the February 28
termination date, he filed a written report with the
Minnesota Department of Human Rights. Olson alleged that CHA
only began issuing lease infraction notices to him after he
complained to CHA that its employee, a maintenance worker,
had harassed his daughter. Olson also alleged that CHA had
discriminated against him based on his disability and against
his daughter based on her race and religion.
did not vacate the property on February 28, and CHA brought
an eviction action in district court. Olson appeared pro se,
and the case was tried to a jury. By special verdict, the
jury found that "Olson materially violated the terms of
the lease" but that CHA "retaliated against [Olson]
in whole or in part as a penalty for his good faith attempt
to secure or enforce rights under the lease or the laws of
the State of Minnesota or the United States."
to the district court's post-trial order, CHA did not
object to the retaliation-defense question being posed to the
jury. Following trial, however, CHA moved for judgment as a
matter of law on the ground that Olson's retaliation
defense was not available as a matter of law. The district
court denied CHA's motion, determining that CHA had
waived the argument. The district court entered judgment for
possession of the rental unit in favor of Olson, apparently
based on the existence of a retaliation defense under Minn.
Stat. § 504B.285, subd. 2 (2018), and Minn. Stat. §
appealed, and the court of appeals reversed, holding that no
retaliation defense was available to Olson under either
statutory provision. Cent. Hous. Assocs., LP v.
Olson, 910 N.W.2d 485, 486-87 (Minn.App. 2018). The
court of appeals held that "the defense in section
504B.441 does not apply unless the tenant has filed a
tenant-remedies action in the district court."
Id. The court of appeals also held that the
"defense in section 504B.285 does not apply in an
eviction action based on breach of lease." Id.
at 486. Having ruled that no statutory defense was available,
the court declined to recognize a common-law defense of
retaliation. Id. at 491. Olson appealed only the
holdings regarding Minn. Stat. § 504B.441 and the common
law, and we granted his petition for review.
begin with the question of whether Olson is entitled to
assert a retaliation defense under Minn. Stat. §
504B.441 to CHA's breach-of-lease eviction action. We
must interpret the statute, a question of law that we review
de novo. Cocchiarella v. Driggs, 884 N.W.2d 621, 624
(Minn. 2016). The purpose "of all statutory
interpretation is to ascertain and effectuate the intent of
the Legislature." Hous. & Redevelopment Auth. of
Duluth v. Lee, 852 N.W.2d 683, 687 (Minn. 2014); see
also Minn. Stat. § 645.16 (2018). We will apply the
plain meaning of a statutory provision "[i]f the
Legislature's intent is clear from the unambiguous
language of the statute." Staab v. Diocese of St.
Cloud, 853 N.W.2d 713, 716-17 (Minn. 2014). Consistent
with our canons of statutory interpretation, "we
construe technical words and phrases 'according to
[their] special meaning,' and other words and phrases
according to their 'common and approved usage.'"
Cocchiarella, 884 N.W.2d at 624 (alteration in
original) (quoting Staab v. Diocese of St. Cloud,
813 N.W.2d 68, 72 (Minn. 2012)); see also Minn.
Stat. § 645.08(1) (2018).
determine whether a statute's meaning is plain, we will
interpret the statute "to give effect to all of its
provisions" and to avoid conflicting interpretations.
Am. Family Ins. Grp. v. Schroedl, 616 N.W.2d 273,
277 (Minn. 2000). Accordingly, "it is sometimes
necessary to analyze [a] provision in the context of
surrounding sections." Id. at 278. Sometimes
the operation of a statutory provision "only becomes
clear when it is read in conjunction with the rest of"
the legislative act of which it is a part. Id.
statute is ambiguous if it "is susceptible to more than
one reasonable interpretation." Staab, 853
N.W.2d at 717. When a statute is ambiguous we will consider
canons of construction to ascertain the Legislature's
intent. Id. at 718; Lietz v. N. States Power
Co., 718 N.W.2d 865, 870 (Minn. 2006). Some of these
canons are set forth in Minn. Stat. § 645.16.
turning to section 504B.441, it is helpful to review the
retaliation defenses codified by the Legislature. Section
504B.285, subdivision 2, makes a retaliation defense
available "following the alleged termination of a
tenancy by notice to quit" if the tenant, in
good faith, has sought to secure or enforce the tenant's
rights or if the tenant has made a good faith report to a
government authority. (Emphasis added). The court of appeals
held that this defense was not available to Olson because CHA
did not seek to evict him by notice to quit. Cent. Hous.
Assocs., 910 N.W.2d at 488-89. Olson did not appeal that
determination, so it is not before us.
retaliation defense-the one at the heart of this appeal-is
found in section 504B.441, which is titled "Residential
Tenant May Not Be Penalized for Complaint." Section
504B.441 expressly applies to eviction actions. The statute
is in two parts, the first part consisting of the first
sentence, and the second part consisting of the second and
first part of section 504B.441 states that "[a]
residential tenant may not be evicted, nor may the
residential tenant's obligations under a lease be
increased or the services decreased, if the eviction or
increase of obligations or decrease of services is intended
as a penalty for the residential tenant's or
housing-related neighborhood organization's complaint of
second part of section 504B.441 constructs a 90-day window
following the complaint during which the landlord bears the
burden of proving the adverse action was not retaliatory
unless the complaint was not made in good faith. Beyond 90
days, the residential tenant bears the burden to prove
retaliation. As Olson correctly notes, this third sentence of
Minn. Stat. § 504B.441 is not relevant here
"because Olson shouldered and met the burden of proving
that CHA's eviction was retaliatory . . . [and] did not
seek to shift the burden of proof to CHA."
statutory dispute in this case turns on the meaning of
section 504B.441's use of the phrase "complaint of a
violation." There is no dispute about the meaning of the
word "violation." The term is defined in chapter
504B as "(1) a violation of any state, county or city
health, safety, housing, building, fire prevention, or
housing maintenance code applicable to the building;"
(2) a violation of covenants that the premises will be
maintained in reasonable repair, are fit for their intended
use, comply with health and safety laws, and that unlawful
activity will not be permitted; "or (3) a violation of
an oral or written agreement, lease, or contract for the
rental of a dwelling in a building." Minn. Stat. §
504B.001, subd. 14 (2018). This definition applies to all of