Court of Appeals Rejects Tenant's Argument in Delivery-of-Premises Case

11/30/2015 / Inga K. Schuchard

The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently decided an issue of interest to residential landlords in Minnesota – whether a tenant who paid a security deposit and first month’s rent, but had not moved into the leased premises, was a “residential tenant.” The court of appeals said “no” in Cocchiarella v. Driggs, which means that even though the tenant paid, the tenant cannot force the landlord to deliver possession of the premises under a certain Minnesota statute. Section 504B.375 prohibits “actual or constructive removal or exclusion of a residential tenant” and allows certain aggrieved tenants to “recover possession of the premises.” In other words, a tenant may compel a landlord to deliver possession of the very unit from which the tenant is being excluded. For the residential landlord, the ruling in Cocchiarella is that, at least under section 504B.375, no prior possession means no claim for possession under the statute.

The facts before the court included that Mr. Driggs, a landlord of a multi-unit apartment building, agreed to rent a unit to Ms. Cocchiarella. She completed rental paperwork and, two days later, advanced a security deposit and the first month’s rent. Despite numerous communications between Mr. Driggs and Ms. Cocchiarella, and repeated attempts by Ms. Cocchiarella to take possession, Mr. Driggs did not allow her to move into the apartment. Eleven days after advancing the deposit and rent to Mr. Driggs, Ms. Cocchiarella filed a petition for unlawful exclusion, seeking an order compelling possession of the apartment under section 504B.375.

At issue, both in the lower courts and on appeal, was whether Ms. Cocchiarella, who had paid rent but not moved in (despite attempts to do so), had the right to possession of the apartment.

The appellate court’s decision turned on whether Ms. Cocchiarella was a “residential tenant” within the meaning of section 504B.375. This phrase is defined as “a person who is occupying a dwelling in a residential building under a lease or contract . . . that requires the payment of money or exchange of services,” Minn. Stat § 504B.001, subd. 12 (emphasis added). The lower courts determined Ms. Cocchiarella was not a residential tenant, and therefore, did not have a right to possession of the apartment, relying upon the fact that she never actually occupied the leased premises. The Court of Appeals agreed, noting that the statute specifically discusses “recover[ing] possession of the premises.” Id. (emphasis added).

The decision of the Court of Appeals was bolstered by its reasoning that section 504B.375 was intended to guarantee a tenant’s access to personal property within the abode and avoid the potential risks to a tenant’s personal safety from being excluded from the tenant’s occupied home. By contrast, a person would not have personal property in an apartment that he or she had not lived in, and likely would not face similar risks to personal safety from being excluded. Each court also specifically noted that Ms. Cocchiarella possibly had other remedies against Mr. Driggs other than section 504B.375. The Court of Appeals recognized that Ms. Cocchiarella could still possibly bring a claim for damages under section 504B.231, which gives a tenant the remedy of damages for “ouster” by the landlord. Consequently, the Court of Appeals remanded to the district court for consideration of her damages claim.

The lesson from Cocchiarella is clear: although residential landlords may be subject to civil liability for excluding a tenant, they cannot be compelled to deliver possession if a tenant never had possession. While the decision should not be read as the courts sanctioning exclusion of tenants, it does provide landlords reassurance that, if for some reason they are unable to deliver possession of a particular leased premises to a tenant after they have reached agreement with a potential tenant to do so and even accepted rent, they cannot be compelled to deliver possession of the particular premises.

One question raised by Cocchiarella, is whether the term “tenant” as used in the statute providing “damages for ouster,” section 504B.231, has the same meaning as “residential tenant” in section 504B.375 – the statute under which Ms. Cocchiarella tried to compel possession of the premises. The damages statute allows “a tenant [to] recover [damages] from the landlord” if they are “unlawfully and in bad faith remove[d], exclude[d], or forcibly [kept] out . . . from [a] residential premises.” The term “tenant” is not defined in the chapter. The door appears to remain open for landlords to argue that “tenant” should not be recognized as applying to those who have not previously occupied the leased premises. However, section 504B.231 does not include the same contextual cues as section 504B.375. It does not specifically depend on a tenant occupying the premises. And it provides for broader relief than “recover[ing] possession of the premises.”

So landlords beware. While Cocchiarella limits the ability of a tenant to compel possession of premises from a landlord, damages for a landlord excluding a tenant may still be available to those who have not previously possessed the property.