A federal judge ruled Friday that a Minneapolis landlord with hundreds of housing violations can move forward with his lawsuit claiming that the city illegally barred him from renting out properties for five years.
U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson rejected five of six counts in landlord Ron Folger’s lawsuit, but she allowed him to continue to press his claim that by barring him from renting out properties, the city victimized a large number of minorities who had to find other places to live.
Folger’s attorney, John Shoemaker, hailed the decision as a victory for his client, while Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal said she was “very pleased because it knocks out most of the case at the very earliest stage of the litigation.”
Folger became a prominent target of City Council members, some of whom called him a “slumlord,” and the poster child for a new city ordinance designed to crack down on chronic violators of city housing codes.
The ordinance states that if the city revokes the license of two properties of a landlord for code violations, the city must revoke the licenses of all that landlord’s properties for five years. The city revoked all of Folger’s licenses in 2011, and enforced the decision in the summer of 2012.
In his lawsuit, Folger said that 92 percent of the tenants at his 17 properties were members of a “protected class,” blacks, and most of them were mothers and children.
After he lost his licenses on those properties, the suit says, “Tenants’ lives were substantially disrupted in being displaced from their rental homes, including having to locate replacement housing that was in critically short supply due to the affordable housing crisis in Minneapolis and the Twin Cities.”
Folger sold off some of his properties to his tenants, but maintained ownership under contracts for deed.
In allowing the suit to continue, Nelson also noted Folger’s claim that the city forced him out of the rental business while it has gone much easier on the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, which has many rental properties and has had serious housing violations. She also cited Folger’s claim that while driving him out of the rental market, the city worked to resolve issues with a much larger landlord who also had two rental licenses revoked.
Still, Judge Nelson acknowledged that the city’s ordinance could be a reasonable one. “It is not irrational on its face for the city to conclude that a landlord who has incurred substantive violations with respect to two properties is also likely to not be adhering to the housing code with respect to any additional rental properties it owns,” she wrote.
“I expected this decision with the court,” Shoemaker said. “It is consistent with the judge’s statements back in February. We are going to move now into the discovery phase.”
Segal said she also looked forward to discovery, in which both sides collect additional information, including documents and interviews of witnesses under oath. She said it was rare for so many claims to be dismissed by a judge so early in the case before summary judgment motions.
Asked about Folger’s allegation that by enforcing the ordinance, his minority tenants were victimized, Segal said, “We believe the evidence will show otherwise. … We are very confident that the city did not engage in any inappropriate conduct.”