AGs In A Pandemic: Ellison Talks Minnesota Housing

By Keith Ellison
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Law360 (October 28, 2020, 11:38 AM EDT) -- The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new compliance risks and considerations for companies and individuals. In this Expert Analysis series, state attorneys general share their enforcement priorities.

Keith Ellison

Earlier this year, a mother in Sandstone, Minnesota, was sheltering in place with her young daughter who had preexisting health conditions that made the child especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Then her landlord told her he wanted to sell their residence, and demanded that they leave.

Because she and her daughter had nowhere else to move to, they told the landlord they needed to stay. The landlord became enraged and took matters into his own hands. He tried to force them out by coming into the home — putting her daughter at risk — and ripping out the electrical panel. This left them with no heat, water or electricity, at a time when temperatures in that part of Minnesota were still no higher than the 40s.

Not knowing where else to turn, she called the Minnesota Attorney General's Office. We immediately filed a complaint and a motion for a temporary restraining order. Four days later, a court ordered the landlord to restore her utilities and stop all efforts to force the tenants out. The mother and daughter are still in their home today.

My job as Minnesota attorney general is to help people afford their lives and live with dignity, safety and respect. During the COVID-19 pandemic, both of those are much harder to do. My office has risen to that challenge.

We've focused on making sure Minnesotans can stay safe and secure in their homes during the pandemic without threat of eviction, don't fall victim to pandemic profiteering, are protected from COVID-19-related scams and take home every dollar they earn. We're also doing our part to make sure all Minnesotans stay safe from the spread of COVID-19.

Helping Tenants Stay Safely in Their Homes During the Pandemic

As I mentioned, one area where we've taken strong action to protect Minnesotans is in enforcing Minnesota's landlord-tenant laws, and two executive orders that prohibit landlords from filing eviction actions or terminating residential leases for the duration of the COVID-19 peacetime emergency.

To date, more than 1,300 tenants have reported potential violations to us. Many of them have reported they fear they'll be removed from their home with no place to shelter during the ongoing pandemic.

Many have told us they're behind on their rent and can't catch up until the emergency passes and they can go back to work like before. Others, including those current on rent, may have previously agreed to vacate their home when their lease ended, but are now unable to move or find a new home, or don't want to have to move during a pandemic.

A dedicated team of attorneys and investigators responds to these complaints by educating the landlord on the law, in order get the landlord's agreement to comply with the executive orders. In almost all cases, landlords have agreed to stop trying to evict tenants from their homes or forcing them to vacate. In a few cases, however, landlords have refused to comply.

When they have, my office has swiftly filed enforcement actions in court. In all those cases, we've won temporary restraining orders that have allowed tenants to keep sheltering in place in their home after their landlords have illegally attempted to force them out through cruel tactics like disconnecting their electricity, heat or water, or by changing the locks.

Tenants have told us our enforcement efforts have changed their lives, because they had nowhere else to turn during the pandemic. I'm proud that our involvement has prevented families having to lose their belongings, move into a homeless shelter and potentially be exposed to COVID-19, instead of being able to safely shelter in place. We'll keep taking swift action to protect the rights of tenants so they can afford their lives and shelter safely during the pandemic.

Fighting Pandemic Profiteering

One of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz's first executive orders was a ban on essential item price-gouging, and giving my office the authority to enforce it. We've been aggressively fighting pandemic profiteering on essential items like face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, toilet paper and food staples during the COVID-19 emergency. To date, Minnesotans have filed more than 2,200 complaints of price-gouging through our COVID-19 price-gouging complaint form.

Another dedicated team of attorneys and investigators have made countless calls to businesses and consumers, conducted secret shopper visits, and sent numerous enforcement and resolution letters to sellers. They've also established direct channels of communication with online sales platforms like Facebook Inc., Inc. and eBay Inc., in order to quickly share information and stop price-gouging by third-party sellers.

When we've needed to, we've also taken legal action. For example, we stopped an eBay reseller that was selling 3M Co. N95 face masks at a markup of more than 1,000% over their normal retail price. We similarly put an end to price-gouging by a Minnesota egg producer that had increased its price by more than 150% over the company's preemergency egg pricing.

We've only had the authority to do it, however, because of the governor's executive order. Minnesota is one of only 14 states without a general anti-price-gouging statute. Now that so many Minnesotans have experienced the harm that price-gouging can do during this pandemic, it's time for the Legislature to pass a law to prohibit it.

Protecting People From Scams

People's fear and anxiety are higher than normal during the pandemic — and fear and anxiety are exactly what scammers prey on. That's why alerting the public and putting a stop to COVID-19-related scams has been a high priority for me.

We've had great partners in the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Minnesota County Attorneys' Association, both of whom have joined us in the Minnesota COVID-19 Action Team. It's been an effective way to share information and resources and coordinate enforcement.

We've seen scams run the gamut — from hawkers of fraudulent health-related cures, products and treatments, to fraudulent websites selling personal protective equipment that is never delivered after consumers pay for it. Working together, we've stopped several chiropractic clinics from making deceptive representations about COVID-19 treatments, such as the claim that their services are "way more effective than social distancing." We also stopped a company from representing that its supplements are a "COVID-19 prevention protocol."

People are usually embarrassed when they get scammed, and don't like to report it. I always encourage them to speak up and tell us what happened, rather than stay silent: After all, staying silent is exactly what scammers want their victims to do. We've made it easier for folks to speak up by adding a dedicated scam complaint form on our website.

Fighting Wage Theft

One of the basics of affording your life is making sure you take home every dollar you've earned at work. But one of the ways some people have found it harder to afford their lives during the pandemic is because they haven't been paid the wages they've earned.

The new wage theft unit in my office has sent numerous enforcement letters to various businesses to further investigate serious reports of wage theft we've received, and has already ensured that many employees have received back wages they were owed by employers. We're also investigating whether some restaurants have violated Minnesota law through COVID-19-related changes to their tipping structure.

Helping All Minnesotans Stay Safe

In addition to stepping up to help people afford their lives during the pandemic, my office has played a central role in helping Minnesotans stay safe from the spread of COVID-19. We've worked closely with the governor to make sure his executive orders pass legal and constitutional muster. We've also used the authority that the orders and state law give us to keep the virus from spreading. My office has worked constructively with scores of businesses and events to make sure they comply with their responsibility to operate safely.

On a few occasions when businesses have refused to comply, however, we've had no choice but to take action in court. We won a temporary injunction against Shady's, a chain of bar-restaurants that was about to open illegally,[1] and filed an enforcement action against North Star Ranch, a rodeo that operated with far more spectators than allowed, including one who was infectious at the time.[2] Not only is this part of my responsibility in stopping COVID-19, it's also important to the vast majority of Minnesota businesses that are complying to hold accountable those few that are not.

Across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the work of attorneys general is more relevant and vital than ever to helping people afford their lives and live with dignity, safety and respect. I'm filled with gratitude for the hard work of everyone in my office in pivoting seamlessly to the urgent new demands of helping Minnesotans during this unprecedented time — including that mother and her daughter in Sandstone. I've never been prouder to do the job.

Keith Ellison is the attorney general of Minnesota.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Portfolio​​ Media Inc. or any of its​​ respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes an​​d is​​ ​​not ​​intended to be and​​ should not be taken as legal advice.



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