The Minnesota Court of Appeals today settled (pdf) — at least for now — a Catch-22 problem for a woman who tried to rent an apartment in Spring Park, Minn., last year.
Mary Cocchiarella gave Donald Driggs $2,400 for the first-month’s rent and security deposit. But he told her he still had some work to do on the apartment and she wouldn’t be able to move in for another day. Another day — and many days after that — came and went and still she couldn’t move in.
She filed suit for unlawful exclusion under the state law, which reads:
This section applies to actual or constructive removal or exclusion of a residential tenant which may include the termination of utilities or the removal of doors, windows, or locks. A residential tenant to whom this section applies may recover possession of the premises as described in paragraphs…
Do you see the catch? It’s the phrase “residential tenant,” which is defined as “a person who is occupying a dwelling in a residential building under a lease or contract, whether oral or written, that requires the payment of money or exchange of services.”
A district court, at Driggs’ request, threw her claim out because she wasn’t a residential tenant. How could she be if she couldn’t get into the apartment to be a residential tenant?
That sent the judges on the Minnesota Court of Appeals to, perhaps, the most important manual in law: a dictionary, three of them in this case.
In this appeal, the key word in the definition is “occupying”; a “residential tenant” is “a person who is occupying a dwelling in a residential building.” The common meaning of the word “occupy” in the context of residential real property is “to take or enter upon possession of; to seize,” Webster’s New International Dictionary 1684 (2d ed. 1934), “to take up residence in: settle in,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1561 (3d ed. 1961), or “[t]o dwell or reside in,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 1218 (5th ed. 2011). These definitions indicate that a person satisfies the definition of “residential tenant” in chapter 504B only if the person actually had taken possession of rental property and had begun residing there before the filing of a petition pursuant to section 504B.375.
This interpretation is bolstered by the legislature’s use of the word “recover” in section 504B.375, subdivision 1(a), which states, “A residential tenant to whom this section applies may recover possession of the premises as described in paragraphs (b) to (e).” Minn. Stat. § 504B.375, subd. 1(a) (emphasis added). The common definition of the word “recover” is “to get renewed possession of; to win back; to regain, as in lost property, territory,” Webster’s New International Dictionary 2081 (2d ed. 1934), or “[t]o get back (something lost or taken away),” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 1470 (5th ed. 2011). This language indicates that the remedy provided by section 504B.375 is available only to a person who had possession of rental property and seeks to recover possession.
So the Court of Appeals rejected Cocchiarella’s claim, saying she has other remedies available to her.
It ordered the Housing Court to return the rent money to the Cocchiarella, and sent her claim for additional damages — she spent more than $1,000 fighting for the apartment — back to a lower court. It said another law — this one — doesn’t require her to be a residential tenant to be awarded up to three times the amount she lost in damages.