A group of landlords has dismissed all claims against the city of St. Paul alleging that it violated the federal Fair Housing Act by aggressively enforcing housing code violations, ending a legal dispute that reaches back more than a decade.
The landlords had alleged that the city’s enforcement of a range of violations — including rodent infestations, leaking sewage and inoperable smoke detectors — discriminated against minority renters because it decreased the supply of available housing. But faced with a series of court rulings that undermined their argument, the landlords have backed down from their legal fight with the city.
“This is a moment to celebrate,” said St. Paul City Attorney Sam Clark. “All along, the city has fought for the principle that every resident of St. Paul deserves to live in housing that meets minimum standards for health and safety. That’s as true for people with limited income as anyone else.”
Beginning in 2004, the landlords filed several lawsuits arguing that housing codes were forcing them to board up properties and turn out low-income and minority renters.
In 2008, a federal judge ruled in favor of the city, but the landlords convinced a panel of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse that judgment. St. Paul pursued an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court but withdrew its case before the high court heard oral arguments.
In 2012, the law firm Dorsey & Whitney agreed to represent the city at no cost. In 2015, St. Paul reached a settlement with two of the landlords, who agreed to drop their claims in exchange for the city’s help in finding them more St. Paul housing properties to buy. In addition, the settlement included putting a residential landlord on the city’s Business Review Council, a group of mostly business people that advises the inspections department on regulations.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who authored the Fair Housing Act when he was in the U.S. Senate, is a retired partner with Dorsey & Whitney.
Attorney John Shoemaker, who represented several of the landlords over the years, said Friday that many are frustrated to have never gotten their day in court. When the landlords filed suit, he said, city housing standards were more restrictive than those of the state.
“This case has got an incredible history,” he said, adding that changes to the law have made it unlikely his clients would have prevailed. “The small-business owners who have provided rental homes for years and years were forced out of business. And they have not been allowed a trial for all these years.”
According to officials at Dorsey & Whitney, the firm’s staff members and attorneys worked pro bono for more than 3,000 hours on the case. After several favorable appellate decisions in the intervening years, Dorsey in mediated talks with the remaining landlords obtained the dismissal of all claims earlier this month.
The Fair Housing Act, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of dwellings based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It was amended in 1988 to extend protections to people with a disability or those who have children under the age of 18.
Skip Durocher, litigation partner of Dorsey & Whitney, said the act was never meant to allow landlords to avoid maintaining their rental property at a safe standard.
“Ultimately, this says that the Fair Housing Act is really designed to prohibit discrimination against people based on color, religion, sex or national origin. And all the folks who fall within those categories are who it is meant to protect,” he said. “Not those seeking monetary gain.”