The Minnesota Attorney General has won a lawsuit against a Minneapolis landlord accused of an eviction for-profit scheme whose rental units had infestations of "Biblical plague proportions," court documents state.
After an eight-day trial, Hennepin County Court Judge Patrick Robben ruled Monday that Steven Meldahl, and his business S.J.M. Properties, "knowingly and in bad faith" violated the rights of 267 families who rented from him, Attorney General Keith Ellison's office said in a news release.
Ellison claimed Meldahl failed to make repairs to his properties and would prevent his tenants from contacting city health and safety inspectors for help. He would charge tenants late fees of more than 8% when they were behind on their rent, which is against the law, and evict tenants in order to keep their security deposits.
During the trial, the court found Meldahl's former tenants' testimony "credible and compelling," including "extensive testimony" that described living conditions at his rental property as "appalling" and had "infestations suggestive of Biblical plague proportions — squirrel, mice, rats, gnats."
The court order continues in describing what tenants experienced:
"Tenants being resigned to simply keeping the bathroom door closed to try and isolate a squirrel infiltration. Ongoing water damage destroying property, in one instance even causing a ceiling to collapse. A common credible refrain from tenants was of a landlord that was alternatively unresponsive or blamed tenants for the problems. The court heard testimony about a landlord who had a tortured relationship with the truth, and would make up stories to try and deflect tenants. Meldahl has repeatedly bragged about his record of evicting a large proportion of his tenants. Meldahl’s efforts to paint himself as a gruff-talking benefactor making rental properties available to those lacking credit to get approved for leases elsewhere rang hollow given the horrible rental conditions described, and his seeming indifference to his tenants’ plight."
The court declared his conduct illegal and entered into a permanent injunction that prevents him from engaging in deceptive practices and orders him to comply with all existing city inspection orders, as well as not to make any changes to his business structure to attempt to avoid doing so. It also fined him $500 for each of the 267 families who rented from him, totaling $133,500, as well as paying attorneys fees and costs (an amount that's still TBD).
“I am thankful for the brave tenants who did not back down to a landlord trying to take advantage of his power over the tenants and shared their powerful stories. Minnesota landlords are required to provide habitable homes and ensure that they are safe for our renting families,” Ellison said. “The landlord's behavior is appalling and unacceptable and I am glad the court agreed.
"Tenants in Minnesota have rights under the law and the majority of landlords comply with those laws. I will continue to enforce the law against those landlords who take advantage of their power over tenants and violate the law," Ellison added.
Ellison's office filed a lawsuit against Meldahl and S.J.M. Properties in September 2019 and secured an injunction against his practice of barring tenants from contacting health and safety inspectors. Later that year, the court granted the state's request to have all his properties inspected — the inspections revealed 383 housing code violations at 27 of his properties, which the city ordered he fix.
Back in February 2021, the court ruled Meldahl's practice of charging tenants an extra $50 per month in "rent" on top of the 8% late fee when tenants paid rent late violated state law that caps late fees at 8%.
Also at that time, a trial was set for the AG's office's claims that Meldahl's practices were deceptive, which violates state consumer-protection laws.
Tenants in Minnesota who believe their landlord is violating their rights are encouraged to file a report with the Attorney General’s Office, or to call 651-296-3353. For information about tenant rights, click here.