This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Dominium Management Services, Inc.,
Filed December 9 2003
Hennepin County District Court
File No. HC021106500
Malcolm P. Terry, Messerli & Kramer, P.A., 1800 Fifth Street Towers, 150 South Fifth Street, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for appellant)
Amber M. Hawkins, Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, Northside Office, 2100 Plymouth Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55411 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Schumacher, Presiding Judge, Lansing, Judge, and Poritsky, Judge.*
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
In a consolidated eviction and disability-discrimination action, the district court found that the tenant’s retaliation defense defeated the eviction action and that the tenant is disabled within the meaning of the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subds. 2, 2a(2) (2000), and the federal Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(B) (2002). Because Minn. Stat. § 504B.441 (2002) prohibits eviction or a decrease of services in response to a residential tenant’s complaint of a housing violation, and because the tenant established a prima facie case of disability discrimination which was not rebutted by the landlord, we affirm.
F A C T S
Dominium Management Services, Inc. is the manager of a Richfield apartment complex in which C.L. has been a tenant since 1996. C.L. receives Social Security disability benefits, and her rent payments are subsidized under the federal Section 8 housing program.
C.L.’s last lease with Dominium extended from November 1, 2001, to October 31, 2002. The lease contains a section specifying that the landlord and tenant shall determine not less than two calendar months prior to the expiration of their agreement whether or not the occupancy will continue and on what terms. Under that provision either the landlord or the tenant may elect not to continue the occupancy on written notice at least two calendar months before the end of the term. The lease also requires C.L. to provide access at reasonable times for Dominium to make repairs.
In 1996, at the inception of the tenancy, Dominium received a letter from C.L.’s doctor asking that she be allowed to keep her dog in the apartment for therapeutic mental-health reasons; Dominium acceded to the request. C.L. also asked that Dominium make appointments in advance for maintenance. Dominium agreed to her request that she be contacted only in writing about scheduling maintenance at her apartment.
In 1998, C.L. filed a HUD complaint, alleging disability discrimination for Dominium’s failure to make appointments in advance, failure to make requested repairs, falsely accusing her of paying her rent late, and discriminatorily charging her higher rent. She also alleged that Dominium would not renew her lease because she was disabled. In February 2002 HUD issued a determination of no probable cause on these allegations.
During 2002, C.L. complained to the City of Richfield that Dominium had violated several code provisions (including occupancy provisions), failed to provide screens for ground-floor windows, failed to remove obscene graffiti etched on one of the back doors, and failed to replace burned-out light bulbs around the building. As a result of these complaints, Richfield notified Dominium to correct the problems and issued a criminal citation for the missing screens and the etching on the door. In June 2002, C.L. chaired a meeting of the tenants’ residents’ council, which was attended by forty to sixty people, to discuss tenants’ issues, including a rodent and insect problem. In August she helped circulate flyers in the complex to provide notice of an upcoming tenants’ rights meeting with the mayor of Richfield.
On August 9, 2002, Dominium notified C.L. that it would not renew her lease. About a month later, C.L. notified Dominium that she suffered from schizo-affective disorder and requested a discussion with Dominium to obtain reasonable accommodations. C.L. filed a disability-discrimination action in district court. Dominium filed an eviction action on November 6, 2002, and C.L. asserted a defense of retaliatory eviction. The district court consolidated the actions.
At the close of evidence in the consolidated hearing, the referee denied Dominium’s motion for a directed verdict on the issue of disability. In a written order, affirmed by the district court, the referee dismissed the eviction action, finding that C.L. had established a statutorily protected tenant action that gave rise to a presumption of retaliation that Dominium had not rebutted. The order stated that C.L. was disabled within the definitions of the federal Fair Housing Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. To accommodate the disability, the court required Dominium to submit all nonemergency requests to C.L. through C.L.’s case manager. Dominium appeals both determinations.
D E C I S I O N
A landlord is entitled to recover possession by eviction when a tenant holds over “contrary to the conditions or covenants of the lease or agreement under which that person holds.” Minn. Stat. § 504B.285, subd. 1(B)(2) (2002). A decision in an eviction proceeding requires a determination of whether the facts alleged in the complaint are true or not. Minn. Stat. § 504B.355 (2002); Minneapolis Pub. Hsg. Auth. v. Lor, 591 N.W.2d 700, 704 (Minn. 1999). It is a defense to an eviction action that the termination of tenancy was intended in whole or part as penalty for the tenant’s good-faith report of a code or housing-related violation. Minn. Stat. §§ 504B.285, subd. 2(2), .441 (2002).
In response to Dominium’s eviction complaint, C.L. asserted retaliatory eviction under both Minn. Stat. § 504B.285, subd. 2(2), and Minn. Stat. § 504B.441. The district court, relying on Minn. Stat. § 504B.285, found that Dominium’s actions within ninety days of C.L.’s assertion of protected rights created a presumption of retaliatory action that Dominium failed to rebut. Dominium contends that the defense of retaliatory eviction under Minn. Stat. § 504B.285 does not apply because C.L.’s lease was not terminated by a “notice to quit” within the meaning of that statute. C.L., however, alleged retaliatory eviction under both Minn. Stat. § 504B.285 and § 504B.441. Although Minn. Stat. § 504B.441 has elements parallel to those required in Minn. Stat. § 504B.285, it applies to all residential tenancies and is not predicated on receipt of a notice to quit. It is therefore unnecessary to determine whether a notice to quit includes a notice of nonrenewal.
The corresponding statute, Minn. Stat. § 504B.441, provides that a residential tenant may not be evicted, nor may the residential tenant’s obligations under a lease be increased or the services decreased, if the eviction or increase of obligations or decrease of services is intended as a penalty for the residential tenant’s or housing-related neighborhood organization’s complaint of a violation. A “violation” includes not only noncompliance with an applicable governmental code, but the breach of habitability and repair covenants as well. Minn. Stat. § 504B.001, subd. 14 (2002). The burden of proving that the eviction, increase of obligations, or decrease of services was not intended as a penalty for the housing complaint rests on the landlord if the eviction occurred within ninety days after filing the complaint. Minn. Stat. § 504B.441.
In Parkin v. Fitzgerald, 307 Minn. 423, 430, 240 N.W.2d 828, 832 (1976), the Minnesota Supreme Court explained that: “A landlord must establish by a fair preponderance of the evidence a substantial nonretaliatory reason for the eviction, arising at or within a reasonably short time before service of the notice to quit.” Under Parkin, “a nonretaliatory reason is a reason wholly unrelated to and unmotivated by any good-faith activity on the part of the tenant protected by the statute.” Id. The court in Parkin observed that “even a legitimate business purpose must be closely examined to ensure that it is not contrived or colored in any way by tenants’ protected activities.” Id.
In determining the burden-of-proof issue, the district court found that in addition to C.L.’s earlier reporting of several violations, she engaged in protected tenants’ activities, including meetings convened for the purpose of asserting habitability covenant rights. At least one protected tenant activity occurred in early August: distributing flyers among the residents notifying tenants of a meeting with the mayor of Richfield to address tenants’ rights. According to C.L.’s unrebutted complaint, within ninety days of that activity, on November 1, 2002, Dominium, in anticipation of filing an eviction proceeding, deactivated her access card so that she was forced to ask a cleaning person for assistance in regaining access to her apartment. These actions, followed by the eviction proceedings, constitute a decrease of services within the meaning of Minn. Stat. § 504B.441. Therefore the burden shifts to Dominium, under the standard in Parkin, to show a substantial nonretaliatory reason for the action.
Dominium claims that it denied access to and sought to evict C.L. because it was too difficult to meet her particular demands for maintenance scheduling in a large apartment complex, and she refused to allow employees of color in her apartment. But the record supports the district court’s findings that Dominium had previously accommodated C.L.’s needs for written scheduling and appointments, and that although C.L. had sometimes refused to use the services of employees of color, most of the refusals could be attributed to her desire to deal with management rather than staff. C.L. testified that because of problems with repairs she asked the maintenance supervisor to perform the needed repairs. She also testified that when she acknowledged to Dominium’s regional property manager that she had made the over-occupancy complaint to the city, he told C.L. to “[m]ind your own business and just stay in your apartment.” It is significant that Dominium did not terminate C.L.’s year-to-year lease and file the resulting eviction action until 2002, after C.L. had reported numerous housing violations to the Richfield authorities and after the encounter with the regional property manager. The district court did not err in concluding that Dominium failed to establish a substantial nonretaliatory reason for the decrease in services to C.L. and for her subsequent eviction.
Dominium also challenges the district court’s denial of a directed verdict and the district court’s determination on the issue of C.L.’s disability-discrimination claim. On appeal from the denial of a motion for a directed verdict, the standard generally applied is “whether the evidence and its inferences could have reasonably sustained a contrary verdict.” Woodrow v. Tobler, 269 N.W.2d 910, 917 (Minn. 1978). We will overturn the findings of the district court only if they are clearly erroneous. Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.
The district court concluded that C.L. had a disability as defined by the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the federal Fair Housing Act. The court further concluded that Dominium had made reasonable accommodations for that disability until after the notice of termination, when it refused C.L.’s request that all communication be made through a case manager. The court concluded that the duty then arose to permit C.L. to continue her tenancy, conditioned on her compliance with the proposal to use a mental-health case manager in dealing with Dominium.
Under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA), 42 U.S.C. § 3604(f)(3)(B) (2000), it is unlawful to discriminate in the sale or rental of a dwelling on the basis of a person’s handicap by refusing to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies or practices, or services when the accommodations may be necessary to afford the person equal opportunity to use the dwelling. Similarly, the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) prohibits discrimination by refusal to make reasonable accommodations when these accommodations may be necessary to allow a disabled person equal opportunity to effectively use and reside in a dwelling. Minn. Stat. § 363.03, subds. 2, 2a(2) (2002). In analyzing disability claims, the FHA and MHRA are interpreted consistently with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12112 (2003). See, e.g., Shapiro v. Cadman Towers, Inc., 51 F.3d 328, 335 (2d Cir. 1995) (FHA); Snow v. Ridgeview Med. Ctr., 128 F.3d 1201, 1206 (8th Cir. 1997) (MHRA).
The Fair Housing Act defines a person with a handicap as one who has a “physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities,” or a record of such impairment. 42 U.S.C. § 3602(h) (2000). A person is disabled for purposes of the MHRA if the person “has a physical, sensory, or mental impairment which materially limits one or more major life activities.” Minn. Stat. § 363.01, subd. 13 (2002). Federal regulations define “major life activities” to include “functions such as caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2 (2003); cf. Hoover v. Norwest Private Mortgage Banking, 632 N.W.2d 534, 543 n.5 (Minn. 2001) (noting that the MHRA was amended in 1989 to make the state law definition of disability different from, and less stringent than, the federal definition).
We assign no error to the district court’s conclusion, on extensive findings, that C.L. had a disability within the statutory definitions of the Minnesota Human Rights Act. At trial, Dr. Seymour Gross, a psychologist who examined C.L. and reviewed her medical records, provided unrebutted testimony that she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and treated by a psychiatrist from 1994 to 2002. He reported that her schizophrenia, paranoid-type, substantially limited her ability to perform major life activities. C.L. works parttime in the evening because of her delusional belief that she needs to be home during the day to make sure that her dog will not be baked in the oven by an intruder. Although C.L. has normal intellectual functioning, normal motor skills, and a college degree, her interactions with other people are affected by her mental illness. The district court found that her isolative and mistrustful ideation prevents close social relationships, and that her mental impairment substantially limits her ability to work in any category requiring interaction with other people.
In support of its position that C.L. was not limited in major life activities, Dominium provided evidence that C.L. engaged in extensive correspondence about minor maintenance issues and participated in tenants’ rights activities. But her excessive preoccupation with these issues comports with Dr. Gross’s assessment of her as a paranoid-type schizophrenic who was limited in her ability to interact with others in a rational fashion. See McAlindin v. County of San Diego, 192 F.3d 1226, 1234 (9th Cir. 1999) (holding that “[b]ecause interacting with others is an essential, regular function, like walking and breathing, it easily falls within the definition of ‘major life activity’ [under the ADA]”). The record as presented supports the district court’s finding that C.L. fits the statutory definition of disabled.
The FHA imposes an affirmative duty on landlords to make reasonable accommodations for handicapped persons unless the landlord can show that the accommodation would provide an undue hardship. United States v. Cal. Mobile Home Park Mgmt. Co., 29 F.3d 1413, 1416-17 (9th Cir. 1994). The same may be said of the MHRA. The record in this case establishes that Dominium knew of C.L.’s disability when the eviction action began and in fact had previously accommodated her by allowing her to schedule maintenance requests by writing, in advance. The current request for a neutral third-party mental-health case manager for non-emergency dealings with Dominium, which was suggested by Dr. Gross, would not impose an undue hardship on Dominium, provided that C.L. also complies with suggested procedures. Thus the district court did not err in finding that this request constituted a further reasonable accommodation that Dominium was obligated to provide.
* Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.