The fight to find livable homes for low-income tenants has an unlikely champion — a corporate defense attorney who has turned Hennepin County housing court into a launchpad for exposing grim apartment conditions and landlord fraud.
A simple 2016 legal fight by Michael Cockson to get heat restored during a cold snap in a south Minneapolis apartment turned into a courtroom drama that continues to unfold, with a juggernaut of legal rulings on behalf of tenants.
“I think he’s done more in the last two years than anyone has done in the last 10 years,” said attorney Larry McDonough of Dorsey & Whitney, who drafted Minnesota’s housing law three decades ago. “He’s just elevated the issues of housing habitability and the practices of slumlords into the public consciousness in a way that nobody else has done.”
Working pro bono with a team of lawyers and assistants at the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels, Cockson uncovered a secret financial arrangement between Stephen Frenz, one of the city’s most controversial landlords, and Spiros Zorbalas, who was ordered in 2011 by the City Council to jettison his apartment empire but secretly never did. Cockson’s work led to the eventual ouster of Frenz, who had his own rental licenses revoked in December. City officials and Cockson have now joined forces to stop the eviction of 1,000 Frenz tenants.
“He has been nothing short of a fierce advocate on behalf of the tenants he’s representing,” Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal said. “If not for his persistence and efforts, I don’t know when the city would have become aware of the fact that Zorbalas had an ownership in any of these properties.”
Neither Frenz nor Zorbalas returned phone calls seeking comment.
The Faegre firm says Cockson has devoted nearly 950 hours of free legal work to tenants rights issues in the past two years. The American Bar Association standard for lawyers is at least 50 hours of pro-bono service per year.
But not everyone is a fan.
Rickey Misco, a former Frenz employee, bought five apartment buildings from Frenz, but the city’s regulatory division refused to grant Misco rental licenses because it was a contract for deed purchase, meaning the properties revert to Frenz if Misco misses his payments.
Cockson sued Misco, saying that without a license he should not be collecting rents. He sought to have tenants’ rents rebated and an administrator appointed to oversee Misco’s properties. Misco defended Frenz in a letter to the City Council, calling Cockson “a real gem,” adding, “defamation, lies and character assassination were the tools of his trade.”
Cockson, 47, majored in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin before studying law at George Washington University. There he became interested in housing law and representing tenants.
“I was struck by the way the tenants were treated so badly and landlords did not take their obligations seriously,” he said. “There’s a disparity in power and access to courts, and I wanted to be part of the rebalancing. Landlords have lawyers at housing court routinely. They’ve got resources and knowledge on how to participate in the judicial system, and tenants typically don’t.”
He joined Faegre Baker Daniels in 2001 — a key reason being the firm’s commitment to pro bono work. He is now a partner at the firm.
United Renters for Justice, a tenants rights group, found itself embroiled in a conflict with Frenz two winters ago over substandard conditions and lack of heat in a 19-unit Minneapolis apartment house. They needed a lawyer.
Jodie Boderman, Faegre’s pro bono manager in Minneapolis, knew Cockson had taken on Frenz twice before.
“I walked into his office and asked him if he would lead a team to take over the case,” she recalled. His response, she said, was “Please.”
Frenz’s lawyers asked that the suit be dismissed because a majority of building tenants had not signed onto Cockson’s suit, making it invalid under state law. To bolster his claim, Frenz introduced three leases from tenants who he said had not joined the suit, plus an affidavit from Frenz.
Bryan Washburn, a young Faegre lawyer who visited the apartment house of the tenants in question, got suspicious when he saw children’s shoes on the floor in one apartment, but no sign of toys. Faegre subpoenaed Xcel Energy and discovered the unit had no electricity account. The kids’ shoes were props and the leases had been fabricated. Cockson presented the information to Frenz’s lawyers, who resigned after withdrawing the leases and Frenz’s affidavit.
Over the next month, Cockson filled the court record with evidence of substandard conditions in the building. But he grew suspicious about who owned the properties.
“This is where my background in financial litigation came in handy,” Cockson said.
Zorbalas, who had built a reputation for buildings with housing violations, had all his licenses revoked in 2011. Frenz was hailed by city officials as a savior when it was announced he had bought out Zorbalas.
Zorbalas had mortgages on Frenz’s properties, but they weren’t contracts for deed. Why, Cockson, wondered, would Zorbalas take any risk by being mortgage holder?
It came out during an April 2016 court hearing with Frenz on the witness stand. Frenz had testified earlier that he and his wife alone owned the apartment houses, but under questioning by Cockson, Frenz disclosed Zorbalas’ role.
Later, Cockson gave an impassioned plea to Housing Court Referee Jason Hutchison, reflecting the zeal behind his mission.
“The system is truly in trouble, your honor, if powerful landlords can exploit tenants by refusing to provide them with habitable housing, hide behind shadow requirements of housing court discovery rules, operate rental property in clear violation of the law and preclude litigants from their day in court and subvert your role as a judge and fact finder,” he said, according to a transcript. “If that is allowed to happen, justice is over. Everything that our forefathers fought for is over and a lie.”
In his decision, Hutchison concluded Frenz committed fraud, found for the tenants, and fined Frenz $187,790, the largest in housing court history. The city revoked Frenz’s 62 rental licenses in December.
Cockson’s class-action suit against Frenz and Zorbalas has been certified, meaning more tenants can join as plaintiffs.
“I can’t overstate the impact Michael has had on the cause of justice for the vulnerable in our community,” said Drew Schaffer, executive director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. “I can’t say enough about Jodie Boderman and all the people at Faegre Baker Daniels. [They] deserve a ton of credit for ... putting people over profit.”
Cockson’s wife, Jesseca, is an attorney whom he met at Faegre. She’s now a career law clerk for U.S. District Judge David Doty.
“All of his cases matter,” she said. “But [the housing cases] take on a greater significance when you are dealing with low-income people who don’t have any heat, or have mice, or landlords violating the law. He takes it to heart. He talks about it all the time.”
They have four children. In Cockson’s spare time, he enjoys bicycling, photography and playing the guitar.
“All the kids are so proud of him,” his wife said. “He’s doing something for people.”