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Central Housing Associates, LP v. Olson

Supreme Court of Minnesota

June 12, 2019

Central Housing Associates, LP, Respondent,
Aaron Olson, Appellant.

          Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Christopher T. Kalla, Douglass Turner, Hanbery & Turner, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent.

          Samuel Spaid, Paul Birnberg, HOME Line, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant.

          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.


          LILLEHAUG, Justice.

         We 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.


         Central 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.

         On 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.

         After 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.

         Olson 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."

         According 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.[1] 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. § 504B.441.

         CHA 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.



         We 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).

         To 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.

         A 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.

         Before 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.[2] (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.

         Another 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 third sentences.

         The 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 a violation."

         The 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."


         The 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 ...

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