A federal judge has dismissed three lawsuits against the city of St. Paul that claimed the city was discriminatory in enforcing housing codes and unfairly targeted some landlords who rented to low-income and minority tenants.
The decision was hailed by city officials, who claimed vindication after criticism that was lobbed at housing officials and inspectors.
The property owners are likely to appeal, their attorneys said, so four years of legal wrangling may not yet be at an end.
Thomas Gallagher, Sandra Harrilal and Frank Steinhauser III were lead plaintiffs in the lawsuits. In all, 16 plaintiffs filed against the city and 17 other named defendants, including former Mayor Randy Kelly and Andy Dawkins, former director of the defunct Department of Neighborhood Housing and Property Improvement.
In a 53-page decision, U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen broadly noted claims that did not have evidence to support them.
The landlords alleged the city unfairly targeted them because they rented to low-income and minority tenants. City officials exaggerated and lied about housing code violations at their properties, encouraged tenants to file false court claims against them and used police to intimidate them and their tenants, the suits said.
The landlords said the city's actions violated the Fair Housing Act and federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).
City Attorney John Choi called the dismissals monumental. "The way I'd interpret this decision is it validates what the city residents have asked for for a long time: aggressive enforcement of our housing code to maintain our neighborhoods," he said.
The city's housing standards are generally stricter than federal Housing Quality Standards. Over the past several years, the city has increased its enforcement of its housing code by rewriting ordinances and performing more frequent inspections, as well as working to increase penalties and shorten response times when complaints come in.
Bob Kessler, director of the Department of Safety and Inspections, said people don't realize how important the service is until weeds, trash and deteriorating houses appear in a neighborhood.
"I think this really reaffirms the integrity of the staff, that the people who do the work on the street are good civil servants," Kessler said.
Aggressive enforcement of the housing code is important, said Tait Danielson Castillo, executive director of the District 7 Planning Council, which includes Frogtown. "I think the city has a valid mission to make sure all housing in St. Paul is safe, secure and adequate," he said. "But with that comes responsibility. They need to ensure all staff are well-trained, that they apply law fairly and that they are fully trained in race relations and anti-discrimination."
City Council President Kathy Lantry lamented the time and city resources spent defending against a "frivolous lawsuit."
Choi said his staff reviewed and disclosed 2.5 million e-mails requested during the course of the suit.
"Obviously, all of the plaintiff property owners are disappointed in the decision of the court," said attorney John Shoemaker, who represents Steinhauser and Harrilal. Attorney Matthew Engel, who represents Gallagher, declined to comment.
The property owners are preparing to appeal the decision to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, both attorneys said. "We are confident that the claims and evidence will be presented to a jury following that appeal," Shoemaker said.
Chris Havens • 651-298-1542