By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
That's an unreasonable burden to place on these companies, counters Thavis, who adds that Rental Research warns landlords against taking the information it supplies at face value. The company's disclaimer advises landlords and building managers that the "information may not pertain to the subject of this report." Thavis argues that what is really at stake here is a "statutory interpretation question," and that it is the state Legislature, not screening companies or landlords, who should address the predicament.
Hennepin County District Court agreed with Thavis, and the lawsuit was dismissed. Ramp then took his case to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, and on January 19, the appellate court ruled that Wilson is entitled to a new trial on the grounds that Rental Research violated its "duty of accuracy" under the Federal Credit Reporting Act and that its practices are unfair to those it investigates.
Jack Horner, a lobbyist for the landlord trade group Minnesota Multi Housing Association, says it's long been his position that landlords have the right to protect their investments; one of the ways they do this is by filing eviction notices against "bad tenants." When it comes to the issue of landlord's precluding applicants with UDs on their records, Horner casts a skeptical eye: "Good tenants aren't being turned down for housing," he says; what he calls bad tenants, on the other hand, are being refused housing for reasons often unrelated to UDs--among them, criminal convictions, spotty work histories, and financial instability.
Landlords do differentiate between applicants, he says. "If someone has fallen on hard times, that's one thing, but if they've destroyed property or have been caught dealing drugs, no one in their right mind wants to rent to them. Landlords don't believe that all UDs are the same." He points to a 1994 bill passed by the state Legislature that requires tenant-screening outfits to include a brief summary of all outcomes in UD cases. "Now," Horner says, "if the tenant prevails, it'll say so right on the report."
So what? asks attorney Tom White. In his five years of representing clients in housing court, he has found little evidence that the notations make a whit of difference. Landlords these days, he says, have the luxury of picking from a long line of applicants, and as a rule prefer renting to those with spotless records. "Landlords don't read those things," he says. "They look and see the words 'unlawful detainer' and then go on to the next applicant." UDs, he adds, look bad in a landlord's eyes no matter their resolution: Whether a landlord wins or loses in court, UDs are costly and full of headaches for property owners; allowing someone with them on their record is simply inviting trouble through your door.
The only remedy against this brand of discrimination, White reasons, is to automatically erase UDs from tenants' records when a housing court judge rules in their favor.
According to statistics compiled by Hennepin County Housing Court, only nine of the 8,846 unlawful detainers filed in Minneapolis in 1997 were expunged. During that same year in Ramsey County, over 4,400 UDs were filed and none was erased. (Neither county, say court clerks, keep track of which party prevailed.) Except under rare circumstances, White says, "once an unlawful detainer is on a tenant's record, it will stay there for the next seven years." When it comes to finding housing with a UD on your record--even if the case was dismissed--all White can say is, "Good luck."
Under pressure by local housing activists, the situation has improved recently, if only slightly, says Hennepin Housing Court referee Thomas Haeg. "If you applied for an expungement two years ago, it would have had little effect. But there's definitely been an increase since then." A total of 23 expungements were granted during the first nine months of 1998, though housing court clerk Sue Nelson admits that the increase could be just a glitch: "We only started tracking the number of expungements in the last two years."
Even if the courts are starting to erase UD information, says tenant advocate Hill, those who can't afford an attorney to pursue the matter or don't qualify for free legal aid "might as well forget about it." He and other housing advocates are holding out hope that the Minnesota Legislature will address some of their concerns this session.
That hope seems well-placed. Nancy Mishel, a lobbyist for Legal Services Advocacy Project (LSAP), an advocacy group for low-income Legal Aid clients across the state, says, "The issues of unlawful detainers and expungements have been given a high priority by my organization this session." Among LSAP's proposals: creating a grievance procedure by which a tenant who has been threatened with a UD can alert the court, and instituting guidelines that would direct housing and district court judges to expunge UDs when the case is dismissed or the tenant prevails.
As might be expected, Minnesota Multi Housing Association is planning a full-tilt counter to altering the current laws. "We oppose any broad use of expungements," lobbyist Horner says. "They are used almost exclusively in criminal cases, and it make us nervous to extend it to civil [ones]." Mishel welcomes the fight, even while cautioning that "we don't have a lead author in the House or the Senate yet." Her staff at LSAP has been actively hashing out details with several legislators known to support expungement when tenants win in housing court, among them Rep. Dan McElroy (a third-term Burnsville Republican who chairs the Jobs and Economic Development committee) and Sen. Steven Novak (a fifth-term DFLer from New Brighton and chair of the Jobs, Energy and Commmunity Development committee), both of whom have signaled their willingness to sponsor legislation this session.