Q My college-age son and his friends signed a lease for a rental in Winona and paid the first and last months' rent, plus damage deposit.
A month later the city inspections office evicted all tenants due to the building owner's failure to pay electric and water bills on the property.
No money has been returned to my son and his friends. The property owner has not responded.
My son filed a complaint in conciliation court and got a court date, but the date was canceled because the owner could not be served with the notice.
Certified letters were returned unclaimed. The sheriff's office was hired to deliver the notice, but they were also unsuccessful after numerous attempts. The owners did not answer their door. A new court date was set, but it is fast approaching and the notice has not been served.
What can be done to get the process moving?
A Under Minnesota Law, the utility company, including the city (if the city provides the water), should not have evicted your son and his friends. Your son and his friends could not have been responsible for any outstanding utility and water charges that were incurred before they moved in.
At most, they should have been responsible to pay for the month they were in the unit. Minnesota Statute 504B.215, subdivision 3 outlines the procedure that tenants may follow when they are notified of outstanding utility and water charges.
Basically, tenants have the right to notify the landlord that they intended to become the bill payers for the time they are in the unit, and then pay these amounts. They need not bring the bills current, other than for what they owe. They need not pay any arrearages or penalties that were incurred for charges prior to their tenancy.
If the landlord is not charging separately for utilities and water, the tenants may also deduct any payments related to those amounts from their rent.
Conciliation court is a small claims court that was set up to allow for quick resolution of cases involving amounts less than $7,500. As such, it has a special set of rules, which apply to conciliation court actions.
The rules of conciliation court allow for service by mail. If the claim is for $2,500 or less, then service may be effectuated by the clerk for the court, who can mail the summons and claim form via first-class mail. If the claim is for more than $2,500, then the plaintiff may serve the summons and claim forms by mailing those forms via certified mail. In both cases, the service is effective upon mailing. This means that you do not need to show that the defendant signed for the letter, only that the letter was mailed via certified mail. You should note that a party to a case may generally not serve process, but is allowed to serve a conciliation court summons by certified mail if they are over 18.
It seems like you have been trying to serve the defendant personally with a copy of the summons and claim form. While that form of service is certainly effective for conciliation court actions, it is not absolutely necessary (and may be impossible in your case).
I would suggest that you consider serving the defendant via certified mail.
Check with the court where the claim was filed to see when service has to be completed. If you still have time, mail the claim form to the defendant via certified mail, and then submit proof of service by properly completing form 508.1. If the date for service is past, reset the date and then serve the papers on the defendant via certified mail once you receive them from the court clerk.
Finally, your son and his friends may have an action against the officials who wrongfully evicted them from the property. They should consider talking to a lawyer. They may qualify for free legal advice based on their income.
In addition, the college they are attending should be notified of the situation. Most state universities have offices that assist students with landlord-tenant questions. All universities and colleges want to know when there are people out there taking advantage of students.
Kelly Klein is a Minneapolis attorney. Do not rely on advice in this column regarding a legal situation until you consult a qualified attorney; information provided by readers is not confidential; participation in this column does not create an attorney/client relationship, and no such relationship is created without a retainer agreement with Klein.
Read past columns and study rental market data at startribune.com/rent.