Q: My nephew and his roommate lived in a condo that they leased from the owner for more than five years. After they moved out, they were sued by the owner for damages totaling $11,000. They are both young men in their 30s with master's degrees. They are not partying hoodlums. I have been there several times and can attest to the fact that the condo was well cared for. They had photos of the condo when they moved out, but I'm not sure if they have photos from the day they moved in. Other than what most people would consider normal wear and tear, it didn't appear anything was amiss. One thing they noted was that the button to open the microwave door was broken. Despite giving the required 60-day notice, they were sued for another month's rent because the owner "couldn't find a tenant." Even though they seem to have done everything right, a judge ruled in the owner's favor for the total amount. They were denied a lawyer, while the owner had one, who apparently was pals with the judge. They are appealing, but this case smells to high heaven. How is it their fault there was no tenant following their proper notice?
A: There are several issues in your question. Many times people make reports to friends and relatives about their case, and the perception can be different from reality. So keep that in mind when reporting what you have heard from your nephew. There is no specific rule prohibiting judges from being on a friendly basis with attorneys who appear before them. While it may seem that lawyers and judges are talking in a friendly manner during breaks or prior to hearings, usually that is part of the collegial process that can develop in the court system. With that being said, most judges try to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, so if the judge at your nephew's hearing was overly friendly to the opposing counsel, you or your nephew should discuss this with an attorney, if you or your nephew hire one. However, these are very serious allegations. Unless there is some actual evidence of favoritism, like a recording or video, there is probably nothing your nephew can do about it now. Unless he has such evidence, raising it on appeal probably won't be helpful to his case.
In Minnesota courts, everyone has a right to be represented by an attorney. However, what frequently happens at conciliation court is that the hearing is scheduled, and people are expected to show up ready to proceed. A party cannot show up on the date and time the conciliation court hearing is scheduled and ask to delay because they want to hire an attorney. My guess is that when your nephew and his roommate saw the other side had an attorney, they asked for a continuance and were denied because they should have done that before the hearing.
You didn't mention a security deposit, and whether it was returned, since that can be used for repairs that go beyond normal wear and tear. The landlord may withhold from the security deposit an amount that is reasonably necessary to cover back rent or other money owed the landlord, or to restore the place to its condition at the time they started renting from him, excluding ordinary wear and tear. Even though your nephew and his roommate were living in the owner's condo for five years, the owner still has the right to contact them and inspect the place while they are renting it. I'm not sure if the owner waited five years to inspect his condo, or if he walked through it once a year and everything looked OK until the end of their tenancy. However, after living in a place for five years, there is definitely going to be wear and tear, which the tenants are not responsible for if it qualifies as "normal wear and tear," such as worn-out carpeting, nicks or marks on the walls and scuffed wood floors. Kitchen appliance problems, such as the microwave door button being broken, are usually considered a minor repair that should be reported to the landlord once the tenants notice it, and the landlord is responsible for repairing it. For their appeal, your nephew and his roommate need to gather evidence, such as their photos at the time of move-out, get witnesses such as yourself who can attest to the good condition of the condo, a copy of their 60-day written notice to terminate the lease, and any other proof to help with their case. There is no reason for a judge to rule in the landlord's favor by requiring an additional month's rent from your nephew and his roommate, unless they didn't give adequate notice. Once tenants give their required 60-day written notice, they are no longer liable for the rent unless they owe the landlord money for rent from previous months. If the landlord cannot find a new tenant that doesn't make the previous tenants responsible for the rent. So, either the lease continued to run for another month or they weren't able to prove that they gave notice. They should make sure to bring that evidence with them as well.
Kelly Klein is a Minneapolis attorney. Participation in this column does not create an attorney/client relationship with Klein. Do not rely on advice in this column for legal opinions. Consult an attorney regarding your particular issues. E-mail renting questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Kelly Klein c/o Star Tribune, 650 3rd Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.