Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office has filed a lawsuit against a landlord of an Apple Valley property alleged to have illegally forced tenants to vacate during the COVID-19 peacetime emergency in violation of an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz
The lawsuit alleges Joanna Wentzlaff, who rented out a townhome in Apple Valley, falsely claimed she or her family member needed to move into the rental property, which is an exemption under the executive order. The landlord allegedly kicked her tenants out in order to put the property up for sale, a news release from Ellison’s office says.
“Most landlords are complying with the governor’s orders to allow tenants to remain housed during the peacetime emergency, and I thank them for it: they’re doing their part to keep our fellow Minnesotans safe from a deadly virus that has already killed nearly a half-million Americans,” Ellison said in a statement. “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. This case should serve as a warning to any landlord even thinking about it: 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.”
According to Ellison’s office, Wentzlaff hired a real estate agent to sell her townhome and directed the agent to tell her tenants that they needed to vacate within days so she could put it on the market. Concerned they were being kicked out of their home during a global pandemic, her tenants reported Wentzlaff to the Attorney General’s Office. After the Attorney General’s Office informed Wentzlaff that her conduct was prohibited under Executive Order 20-79, she allegedly falsely told her tenants that she met an exemption to the Executive Order because she or her family member needed to move into the home. Instead of moving in after her tenants left, however, Wentzlaff promptly put the home up for sale. The complaint asserts that Wentzlaff’s actions “constitute multiple separate violations of Emergency Executive Order 20-79.”
Under Executive Order 20-79, property owners are prohibited from filing eviction actions, terminating residential leases, or issuing notices of non-renewal for the duration of the COVID-19 peacetime emergency. An exemption to the executive order permits property owners, however, to terminate or not renew a lease “due to the need to move the property owner or property owner’s family member(s) into the property” as long as the “property owner or property owner’s family member(s) move into the property within 7 days after it is vacated by the tenant.” Ellison’s office has the authority to enforce this Executive Order.
In its enforcement action, the Attorney General’s Office is seeking permanent injunctive relief to prevent Wentzlaff from violating Executive Order 20-79 or any future executive orders relating to residential landlords during the peacetime emergency, civil penalties of up to $25,000 per violation, restitution for the tenants, and its costs and fees, the news release states.
As of Feb. 16, the Attorney General’s Office had a filed a total eight enforcement actions against landlords for violating Executive Order 20-79 or its predecessor orders and had settled six, with all but the lawsuit against Wentzlaff and one against a Pine County landlord who forced his way into his tenants’ home and disconnected their electricity in an effort to force them out of the home currently in litigation.
Residents can report suspected violations of the executive order, which suspends evictions and lease terminations during the COVID-19 peacetime emergency, by filling out the dedicated Tenant Eviction Complaint Form on the front page of the Attorney General’s website. Minnesotans can also report violations by calling Attorney General Ellison’s office at 651-296-3353.