Supreme Court oral arguments in Reimringer v. Anderson, April 13, 2021
Court requires ulterior motive; state’s amicus sees significant post-moratorium test
As the Legislature debates an off-ramp to the state’s eviction moratorium, the Supreme Court has weighed in with a decision that may lead to awards of statutory treble damages from landlords who act in bad faith.
On the other hand, it preserves the damages award and affirms existing case law that prohibits landlords from taking the law into their own hands, which is significant to tenant’s attorneys.
In Wednesday’s Reimringer v. Anderson ruling, the court found that a landlord who resorts to self-help to remove a tenant from residential premises may be liable under Minn. Stat. § 504B.231 for treble damages, if the landlord acts unlawfully and in bad faith.
That means, the court said in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Paul Thissen, “a tenant must show that the landlord acted in a dubious or dishonest fashion—in a way that suggests the landlord was acting with some ulterior motive or purpose beyond just a desire to oust the tenant—when unlawfully removing them from a residential premises.”
The court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals, leaving the case still alive, said appellant’s attorney, Dean Treftz.
The ruling means that landlords have to follow the statutory process. That is important especially during a pandemic, said Treftz. There has been an uptick in landlord self-help during the pandemic, he explained.
He thinks that since Minnesota’s eviction process is already one of the fastest in the nation, a landlord moving even faster is waving a red flag that may indicate an ulterior motive.
Attorneys for the respondent were unavailable.
Lockout petition denied
The appellant, Aaron Reimringer, signed a lease to rent a single-family house in Monticello from the respondent, Bart Anderson. The rent was $2,500 per month and the appellant was required to pay s $7,500 downstroke, covering the first and last month’s rent and a $2,500 security deposit.
Reimringer and his family moved in after finding the house unlocked and the keys in the kitchen. He did not pay anything, and testified that the parties understood that he would pay when he could. It is unclear when Anderson became aware that the appellant had moved in and when Anderson asked for payment.
At the end of September, the parties confronted each other and the appellant moved out and went to a hotel. Anderson paid for three nights’ stay and put Reimringer’s remaining personal effects in a storage facility.
Reimringer filed a lockout petition to be restored to the premises and seeking treble damages. The District Court denied relief because it considered that appellant was not a residential tenant and the respondent did not act in bad faith. The Court of Appeals affirmed.
Totality of the circumstances
Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling says the plain text of the Minn. Stat. § 504B.231 requires a showing of both unlawfulness and bad faith, the court said. The relevant part of that statute reads:
(a) If a landlord, an agent, or other person acting under the landlord’s direction or control unlawfully and in bad faith removes, excludes, or forcibly keeps out a tenant from residential premises, the tenant may recover from the landlord treble damages or $500, whichever is greater, and reasonable attorney’s fees. [Emphasis added.]
Having determined that both elements must be present, the court then turned to other landlord/tenant law and determined that “unlawfully” and “in bad faith” do not mean the same thing.
Minnesota’s landlord-tenant statutes do not expressly define bad faith, Thissen continued. Defining it is a legal question that the court reviews de novo. Relying on Black’s Law Dictionary, the court held that to show bad faith, a landlord has harmed or wanted to harm the tenant, in a way that goes beyond merely depriving the tenant access to the property.
To determine that, the justice writes, the court should address the “totality of the circumstances.”
“Some circumstances the factfinder may consider include the terms of the lease agreement; the timing of the removal; the means used to remove the tenant; and statements made by the landlord before, during, or after the removal. This list is by no means exclusive or exhaustive, but we provide these examples to emphasize that a tenant cannot simply assert a lack of honest mistake on the part of the landlord to establish bad faith. Under the standard that we adopt today, an unlawful, self-help removal, on its own, does not automatically establish that a landlord acted in bad faith,” the court said.
Continuing, the court turned to the appellant’s arguments. It turned back the argument that Anderson’s “post-ouster” behavior—paying for the hotel room after the eviction, for example—is irrelevant.
“When considering a claim for treble damages under Minn. Stat. § 504B.231, a factfinder may consider any landlord conduct that sheds light on whether the landlord acted in bad faith … regardless of whether that conduct occurred before, during, or after the ouster itself.”
It also said that a landlord who unlawfully removes a tenant based on a mistaken belief about the tenant’s rights cannot rely on that mistake to rebut a bad-faith allegation requesting treble damages. A different law would allow the landlord to escape liability simply by claiming a mistake, the ruling says.
But, the court said, the landlord may not be in bad faith if acting on a mistaken belief that the tenant had abandoned the property.
The court concluded by warning that self-help evictions remain unlawful.
“We address only the scope of one of several specific remedies for a tenant who has been unlawfully removed from a premises by a landlord: the circumstances under which a tenant may recover treble damages and attorney fees for unlawful and bad faith removal under Minn. Stat. § 504B.231(a),” Thissen wrote.
The State of Minnesota appeared in the case through an amicus brief. In it, the Attorney General’s office expressed concern that Reimringer could have significant impact, given that the state’s eviction moratorium inevitably will end.
In their brief, AG’s office attorneys Katherine Kelly and Leah Tabbert write:
“The Court’s ruling will impact innumerable low-income tenants throughout the state who fall behind in their rent. Section 504B.231’s deterrence is invaluable at any time, but is particularly crucial during and after the COVID-19 pandemic; without it the unprecedented number of landlords who are owed back-rent may feel emboldened to force their tenants out of their homes.”
Many landlords are already emboldened, the state wrote:
“Through its work enforcing the [moratorium] order, the Attorney General’s Office has received over 2,200 reports from the public that a landlord had terminated or threatened to terminate a residential tenancy in violation of the order.”
The brief continues:
“Since September 2020, when the [AG’s] Office began tracking self-help eviction threats, 25% of the reports of Executive Order violations indicated that the landlord was going to either lock the tenant out of her home or terminate her utilities.”
And when the eviction moratorium expires, the state continued, the need for tenant’s protection will increase.
“Without the threat of monetary damages it is conceivable—if not likely—that many Minnesota tenants will face non-peaceable ousters and have to resort to the court system to regain access to their own homes. Such repercussion will harm tenants, who will be exposed to homelessness and its potential disruptions of health, employment, education, and stability. It will also burden the courts, who will see a higher volume of tenants filing emergency lock-out petitions so that they can quickly regain access to their home.”
The Supreme Court’s April 13 remote oral arguments in the case can be viewed here.