Keith Ellison champions tenant housing rights during pandemic. Sues landlord for illegally forcing tenant to vacate during pandemic

March 1, 2021

CAIR-George Floyd
Attorney General Keith Ellison is sworn in at the Fitzgerald Theater, St Paul MN

In February, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed another lawsuit against a landlord for illegally forcing tenants to vacate during the COVID-19 peacetime emergency in violation of Gov. Tim Walz's Emergency Executive Order 20-79. 

The lawsuit enforces the executive order against a Dakota County landlord for falsely claiming she or her family member needed to move into the rental property, which is an exemption under the order. However, in reality, the landlord kicked her tenants out in order to put the property up for sale. 

"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. “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.”

The landlord, identified as Joanna Wentzlaff, rented out a townhome in Apple Valley. She 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, Ellison's office said. Concerned they were being kicked out of their home during a global pandemic, her tenants reported Wentzlaff to the Attorney General's Office. After Wentzlaff was informed that her conduct was prohibited under the executive order, she changed tactics, telling her tenants– falsely–that she met an exemption to the order because she or her family member needed to move into the home. 

Instead of moving in after her tenants left, however, Wentzlaff put the home up for sale. The complaint reaffirms that Wentzlaff's actions "constitute multiple separate violations of Emergency Executive Order 20-79."

Under the executive order, property owners are prohibited from filing eviction actions, terminating residential leases, or issuing notices of non-renewal for the duration of the peacetime emergency.

The attorney general's office is seeking permanent injunctive relief to prevent Wentzlaff from violating the order 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. 

In total, Ellison's office has filed a total of eight enforcement actions against landlords for violating the order or its predecessor orders and has settled six. The other two are Wednesday's lawsuit 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. 

Ellison encourages Minnesotans to report any suspected violations of the executive order, which suspends evictions and lease terminations during the peacetime emergency, by filling out the dedicated Tenant Eviction Complaint Form. Minnesotans can also report violations by calling the attorney general's office at 651-296-3353 (metro) or 800-657-3787 (greater Minnesota). 


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