Attorney General Keith Ellison has sued an Apple Valley landlord for forcing tenants to vacate during the COVID-19 pandemic so the townhouse could be put up for sale.

Joanna C. Wentzlaff, 48, directed her real estate agent last fall to tell the tenant to move out within 10 days so the home could be put on the market, the suit filed Tuesday in Dakota County District Court alleges.

Concerned about being kicked out of their two-bedroom home during the COVID-19 pandemic, the tenants reported Wentzlaff to the Attorney General's Office.

Ellison's office told Wentz­laff that she was violating Gov. Tim Walz's executive order that prohibits tenants from being forced out during the pandemic.

Wentzlaff attempted a workaround, according to the Attorney General's Office, and told her tenants that she met an exemption to the order because she or her family member needed to move into the 1,400-square-foot home.

But instead of moving in after the tenants left on Oct. 31, the suit pointed out, Wentz­laff listed the residence for sale about three weeks later while it was empty.

Messages were left Wednesday afternoon with Wentzlaff seeking her response to the allegations.

Under the relevant executive order, property owners are prohibited from pursuing evictions, terminating residential leases or not renewing leases for the duration of the COVID-19 peacetime emergency. One exception is when the residence needs to be vacated so the owner or a family member can move in.

The suit seeks a permanent injunction that would prevent Wentzlaff from violating any executive orders related to her role as a residential landlord. Ellison also is pursuing penalties of up to $25,000 from Wentzlaff and reimbursement to the state for legal expenses.

The tenants were not identified in the suit and declined to be interviewed for this report, said John Stiles, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office.

"The governor has reasonably modified the orders over time to create some common-sense exceptions, but I will not allow anyone to take advantage of those exemptions," Ellison said in a statement.

Ellison has now filed eight executive-order enforcement actions against landlords. Settlements have been reached in six cases. Still pending is an action against a Pine County landlord who is accused of forcing his way into his tenants' home and disconnecting their electricity in an effort to drive them out of the home.

This week's case in Dakota County "should serve as a warning to any landlord even thinking about it," Ellison's statement said. "If you falsely claim an exemption applies in an effort to force your tenants out during this emergency, my office will not hesitate to take action against you."

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482