Dr. Brittany Lewis’s research used to successfully win Minnesota Supreme Court case on landlord retaliation
In the Minneapolis Innovation Team’s Evictions in Minneapolis report it states that nearly 93% of the city’s eviction filings were for nonpayment of rent. Similarly, of the 68 tenants who were interviewed in Dr. Lewis’s study, 81% (55) of their evictions were filed for nonpayment of rent. However, Dr. Lewis’s research findings highlighted a need to demystify what nonpayment of rent really means from the perspective of those most impacted. From the perspective of landlords (both nonprofit and for-profit), most stated that because they cannot get the support from local law enforcement to appear in Housing Court, particularly for lease violations, filing nonpayment of rent becomes the easiest way to get rid of “problem tenants.” What is not captured in this analysis and the existing literature, however, are the ways that nonpayment of rent is being used by many to disportionately evade tenants’ rights to be free from retaliation. Two Minnesota laws protect tenants from retaliation by landlords. One applies when a landlord seeks to terminate a tenancy as a penalty for a tenant’s attempt to enforce rights. The other bans retaliatory evictions under the Tenant Remedies Act (TRA).
On August 3, 2018, Dorsey & Whitney, LLP, submitted an amicus curiae (Latin for Friend of the Court; a legal brief submitted on behalf of a party outside of a case that has expertise which may inform the case). On behalf of InquilinXs UnidXs por Justicia (“United Renters”) in support of Aaron Olson to the Minnesota Supreme Court in an appeal. Dr. Brittany Lewis was sought out for her research findings and proceeded to analyze the 38 tenant interviews that had been completed at the time and wrote an official declaration for the amicus curiae.
“We are attorneys with Dorsey & Whitney LLP and had the pleasure of working with Dr. Brittany Lewis in the landmark decision for landlord-tenant law,Cent. Hous. Assocs., LP v. Olson, No. A17-1286, 2019 Minn. LEXIS 314 (June 12, 2019). Courts rarely create common law and has not done so in landlord-tenant law for a long time. In many cases, a landlord will evict a tenant for requesting repairs and, in some, even for declining sexual advances. In Olson, the court held that a tenant has a retaliatory eviction defense from an unlawful detainer action under the common law. Dr. Lewis’s research showed the court the need to protect tenants from retaliatory eviction from unscrupulous landlords. Her work specifically helped Mr. Olson keep his housing and potentially many others in our community.”
— Tien Cai and Larry McDonough, Associates at Dorsey & Whitney LLP
After completing analysis of all 68 interviews, considering the anti-retaliation provision of the TRA and looking closely at those cases that fell outside its provision, Dr. Lewis found that there is much more behind nonpayment of rent that no current data has yet to uncover.
- Of the 68 tenants interviewed, 21% (14) reported cases that could fall under the anti-retaliation provision and 10% (7) fall outside of the limiting framework of the provision but provide insight into potential gaps in the current provision. Those 7 cases were inclusive of tenants who reported retaliation, because they refused sexual advances by their landlords, landlords refused to accept payments after an agreement was made, and landlords prematurely anticipated tenants not paying due to their plans to move. Although the landlords’ conduct violates the law, since they filed the evictions as nonpayment of rent cases instead of seeking to formally end the tenancies, Minnesota’s anti-retaliation statutes—in their current form—do not apply.
- Even when the anti-retaliation statutes do apply, existing eviction procedures make them nearly impossible for many tenants to access. Courts have not created an accessible way for tenants to assert the defense of retaliation outside an eviction action itself. Many tenants are unwilling to take the risk of losing an eviction case in hopes they might convince the judge that the retaliation defense applies. And those who do face a confusing, extremely fast eviction process to make their cases. And there are not enough lawyers to represent them all.
Of the remaining 47 interviews that did not fit within the anti-retaliation provision, a majority of whose cases were filed for nonpayment of rent, tenants stated that in fact their eviction filing was spurred by other factors, challenging our common-sense notions of why tenants are finding themselves one crisis away from becoming evicted.
- 22% (15) of the tenants stated that their eviction filing was spurred by job loss, decreased income, or lack of resources.
- 18% (12) of the tenants stated that their eviction filing was spurred by landlord mismanagement, such as filing an eviction for nonpayment when rent had actually been paid in full, or landlord disputes, such as landlords making verbal agreements regarding tenant repairs.
- 13% (9) of the tenants stated that their eviction filing was spurred by domestic violence and/or trauma, crisis, or deaths of close family and friends most often connected to issues with mental, physical, and medical health.
- 7% (5) of the tenants stated that their eviction filing was spurred by a conduct on premise issue most often connected to damage or nuisance caused by guests or a roommate.
- 7% (5) of the tenants stated that their eviction filing was spurred by them simply not paying rent.
- 1% (1) of the tenants stated that their eviction filing was spurred by a housing program failing to pay the rent on their behalf.