Andrew Ellis, a Minneapolis landlord who has been in the cross hairs of tenants, city regulars and the courts for more than four decades, found himself on the losing end of a Minnesota Supreme Court decision this week.
The high court ruled Wednesday that a tenant did not need to provide Ellis with a written notice of housing violations before asserting in housing court that there were substandard conditions at the time Ellis sought to evict him for withholding rent.
As far back as 1976, Ellis was under fire, facing off against 50 demonstrators who picketed a duplex he owned, accusing him of being a slumlord, according to Star Tribune archives.
A housing inspector at the time, he was fired in 1990 after receiving 97 orders the year before to clean up and repair his own rental property. He later got his job back through arbitration, retired in 1996 and has squared off with the city in other cases.
In the latest dust-up, Ellis launched eviction proceedings against a tenant for nonpayment of rent. The district court found for the tenant and ordered rent abatement until the repairs were made. The state appeals court affirmed the decision, and Ellis appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The tenant is referred to in court documents as “John Doe” because public record of an eviction action can make it harder for a tenant to rent elsewhere, said Michael Cockson of Faegre Baker Daniels, who wrote a brief in support of the tenant.
Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chutich, writing for the court, said that the tenant first contacted Ellis several times, then called the city. A city inspector came to the apartment in October 2016 and saw damage to the bathroom floor, kitchen cabinets and bedroom ceiling where there was a water leak. Also found were cracks in the walls, peeling paint, broken window seals, windows that were painted shut, animals running through the ceiling, a front door to the duplex that did not lock and back stairs held together by a cord.
The city ordered Ellis to make repairs, and Ellis filed an eviction action in March 2017, alleging nonpayment of rent that the tenant withheld. The tenant deposited two months’ unpaid rent with a court administrator. A court referee sided with the tenant.
“Ellis’s standard would permit improper evictions based on a procedural defect, even when tenants have a solid basis for withholding rent,” Chutich wrote. Chief Justice Lorie Gildea wrote a concurring opinion.
Joel Van Nurden, an attorney for Ellis, said he was disappointed by the decision but not surprised. “We were advocating for a clarification in the law [to require a written notice provision], which is always difficult,” he said.
While he said Ellis had been informed of problems with the apartment beforehand, the high court decision means a tenant will not need to give a notice about issues before an eviction hearing over withholding rent. “The landlord could hear about it for the first time at an eviction hearing,” he said.
Elizabeth Sauer, supervising attorney with Central Minnesota Legal Services, who also represented the tenant, said that in more than 10 years of representing tenants she had never heard of the scenario Van Nurden described.
“Usually, if there hasn’t been written notice of repair problems, there has been repeated verbal notice,” she said.