Landlord Retaliation under Minnesota Statutes: What it is and what it isn't.
March 12, 2018
I get calls from renters pretty frequently who think their landlord is retaliating against them, know it's "illegal" under Minnesota statutes, and want to know what I can do for them. Unfortunately, my answer most of the time is "not much." If we look at the text of the statute we can see why:
"Subd. 2.Retaliation defense.
It is a defense to an action for recovery of premises following the alleged termination of a tenancy by notice to quit for the defendant to prove by a fair preponderance of the evidence that:
(1) the alleged termination was intended in whole or part as a penalty for the defendant's good faith attempt to secure or enforce rights under a lease or contract, oral or written, under the laws of the state or any of its governmental subdivisions, or of the United States; or
(2) the alleged termination was intended in whole or part as a penalty for the defendant's good faith report to a governmental authority of the plaintiff's violation of a health, safety, housing, or building code or ordinance.
If the notice to quit was served within 90 days of the date of an act of the tenant coming within the terms of clause (1) or (2) the burden of proving that the notice to quit was not served in whole or part for a retaliatory purpose shall rest with the plaintiff.
Subd. 3.Rent increase as penalty.
In any proceeding for the recovery of premises upon the ground of nonpayment of rent, it is a defense if the tenant establishes by a preponderance of the evidence that the plaintiff increased the tenant's rent or decreased the services as a penalty in whole or part for any lawful act of the tenant as described in subdivision 2, providing that the tenant tender to the court or to the plaintiff the amount of rent due and payable under the tenant's original obligation." Minn. Stat. §504B.285.
The first thing to look at is the context. "Retaliation" isn't its own section within Minnesota Statutes; instead, it's two subdivision contained within the section on eviction.
Second, subdivision 2 is titled "retaliation defense" (subd. 3 doesn't have the same title, but it has the same effect.) What this means is that this law doesn't give a tenant a private cause of action against their landlord or allow them to bring a lawsuit for some affirmative form of relief. Instead, it affords tenants a means by which they can defend themselves once an eviction is brought against them.
Finally, retaliation is only a defense in an eviction that is brought for holding over after the termination of the tenancy. It is not a defense to an eviction for non-payment of rent or breach of lease. In case that's unclear, subdivision 4 of the same statute goes on to tell us:
"Nothing contained in subdivisions 2 and 3 limits the right of the landlord pursuant to the provisions of subdivision 1 to terminate a tenancy for a violation by the tenant of a lawful, material provision of a lease or contract, whether written or oral, or to hold the tenant liable for damage to the premises caused by the tenant or a person acting under the tenant's direction or control."
Basically, the prohibition on landlord retaliation in Minnesota statutes is extremely limited. The statute simply allows a tenant to argue that a lease termination was motivated to get back at a tenant after that tenant asserts his or her rights under law or contract, and for that reason, the tenant should not be evicted. This isn't to say retaliatory motives aren't relevant to landlord conduct in other areas; however, the retaliation statute is a limited scope protection and is best understood as such.