Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed an enforcement action this week against a Pine County landlord attempting to get tenants to vacate their home by shutting off their utilities, said a news release Friday.
Howard Mostad, of St. Croix, Minnesota, faces up to $25,000 in fines and additional penalties after he was cited for violating a governor's executive order which prohibits property owners from filing eviction actions or terminating residential leases for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and the state's peacetime emergency.
Mostad also broke Minnesota’s landlord-tenant laws by entering his tenants’ home in Sandstone, Minnesota, against their wishes, disconnecting their electricity service, and attempting to pressure them to vacate the property, the news release said.
“Now is the time for Minnesotans to turn toward each other, not away from each other," Ellison said in the news release. "Most people, businesses, and landlords are doing the right thing during the crisis. For those landlords who aren’t, let this case serve as a warning to you: if you take illegal actions to force your tenants to vacate their property during this emergency, my office will take swift and strong action against you.”
The tenants were sheltering in place in the home with a 4-year-old daughter who has an underlying health condition that makes her especially vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure.
The Attorney General’s Office is seeking emergency relief in the form of a temporary restraining order from District Court in Pine City, Minnesota, to restore the tenants’ utility services and prevent the landlord from interfering with their continued residency.
Under Governor Tim Walz’s Executive Order 20-14, property owners are prohibited from filing eviction actions or terminating residential leases for the duration of the COVID-19 peacetime emergency.
The tenants, whose names were redacted from the report, had been on a six-month lease according to the complaint filed in District Court.
On March 4, Mostad provided them with a written notice to vacate the property, stating that they were required to move out of the property by April 1. The family had been unable to find another residence, the complaint said.
On April 2, Mostad knocked on the door and said he was going to show the house to potential new tenants.
He was refused by a tenant telling Mostad that "she did not want to let anyone into the home due to fears of COVID-19 exposure to her daughter," the complaint said. Mostad pushed his way into the house, walked to the home’s fuse box and removed numerous breakers from the fuse box, disconnecting the electricity to the home, the complaint said.
It is illegal under Minnesota’s landlord-tenant laws for a landlord to interrupt or cause the interruption of electricity, heat, gas, or water services to a tenant and the disconnection of such services is considered a constructive eviction.
During a phone call with an assistant state attorney, a defiant Mostad admitted to disconnecting the electricity, and refused to restore it, saying he did not believe tenants should be allowed to continue to reside in the home despite hearing about the governor's order, the complaint said.
Mostad concluded the call by referring to the assistant state attorney with a profanity, the complaint said.
“I encourage any Minnesotan who believes they are being wrongly forced out of their home during this emergency to contact my office immediately," Ellison said. "We are committed to putting a stop to conduct like this so that Minnesotans can live with the dignity, safety, and respect we all need to navigate our way through this crisis.”
In its enforcement action, the Attorney General’s office is seeking permanent injunctive relief, civil penalties of up to $25,000 per violation, restitution for the residents, damages under Minnesota’s landlord-tenant laws, and its costs and fees, pursuant to state law.
Attorney General Ellison encouraged Minnesotans to report suspected violations by filling out the dedicated complaint form on the office's website.