One of Minneapolis’ biggest landlords was held in contempt of court on Friday and ordered to jail for 90 days for defying orders by Hennepin County judges to turn over records in a dispute with tenants over conditions in an apartment house.
Stephen Frenz, who was slapped with an unprecedented $187,000 fine for misconduct in the case in February, has up to three weeks to comply with the latest order, issued by Housing Court Referee Mark Labine.
Frenz told Labine he will appeal the contempt citation to a district court judge.
A contempt order is “very rare” and even more unusual in housing court, said attorney Lawrence McDonough who has represented an estimated 9,500 landlords and tenants.
“I’ve been litigating housing cases for over 30 years, and I have only known of contempt orders being issued in two cases, and both were mine,” said McDonough, who oversees pro bono legal work at the Dorsey & Whitney law firm. He is not involved in the case.
“Judges and referees are not real fast to jump to contempt,” he said. “[It] is a last resort, a sort of a nuclear option and it’s basically a way to get the attention of someone who has been noncompliant.”
The case revolves around a lawsuit filed in January 2016 by a group of pro-bono lawyers led by Michael Cockson at Faegre Baker Daniels on behalf of a neighborhood organization supporting tenants at an apartment building at 3057 14th Av. S.
The tenants complained of heating problems, infestations of roaches, bedbugs and mice, rundown conditions and Frenz’s failure to make repairs.
Following a trial, Housing Court Referee Jason Hutchison ruled in favor of the tenants and at the request of Cockson, appointed James Bartholomew, an administrator, to collect the rents and oversee repairs. Hutchison ordered Frenz to turn over a substantial amount of documentation the administrator needed on the building.
But within days of the order, Frenz sold the building, then argued most of the records had been turned over to the new owner. On Nov. 2, Bartholomew, who remains the administrator despite the sale, listed a wide range of records he said Frenz refused to give him.
At a hearing earlier this month, Frenz insisted he provided the information.
However, Cockson argued in court filings that Frenz felt he was “above the law” and continued to refuse to hand over materials. He asked that Frenz be imprisoned.
Bartholomew testified Friday that he still needed the records including details on the building’s mortgage, so, if necessary, he can refinance the building to cover repairs.
In his ruling, Labine wrote that, “Conditional confinement is likely to produce compliance with this court’s order.”
Frenz, whose net income is $300,000 per month from his more than 60 Minneapolis apartment buildings, according to testimony, acted as his own attorney on Friday.
He grew angry during the hearing, blasting Cockson. “His mission in life is to destroy me,” he said, also leveling criticism at media coverage of his case.
At the hearing’s conclusion, he turned over a box of records that contained tenant files and other information he said that Cockson wanted.
Frenz declined to comment afterward. “I have nothing to say,” he said.
Labine ordered Frenz to comply with his order by April 7 and a hearing was set for April 10 to review his compliance.
Jennifer Arnold, an organizer and director at Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (Renters United for Justice), the tenants organization that sought out Cockson to sue Frenz, hailed Labine’s contempt order.
“It’s about time,” said Arnold. “The frustrating thing is that we still don’t have all the information we need and he has another three weeks to do that. He’s already had six months to comply.”
Frenz is also in danger of losing the right to rent in Minneapolis. The city’s regulatory division has moved to strip him of all his rental licenses after it was revealed during the trial over 3057 14th Av. S. that Spiros Zorbalas still had an ownership interest in all his apartment buildings. Frenz bought Zorbalas’ 62 buildings in 2012, after Zorbalas’ own long-running battle with city officials over housing violations. Frenz claimed at the time that Zorbalas was no longer an owner.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224 Twitter: @randyfurst