Clinic Scores an Impactful Win Before Minnesota Supreme Court
Low-income tenants stand to benefit from Consumer Protection Clinic’s Precedent-Setting Effort
Minnesota Law's Consumer Protection Clinic scored a significant victory at the Minnesota Supreme Court last August in a ruling with statewide implications for low-income renters.
Professor Prentiss Cox ’90, who serves as the clinic’s supervising attorney, says the state high court decision in the clinic’s putative class action could lead to refunds of thousands of dollars in overcharges for many low-income tenants living in rent-controlled apartments in Minnesota.
The case exemplifies the kind of policy-changing litigation that student groups work on in the clinic, which Cox has helped lead since its inception 17 years ago.
“The student attorneys represent individuals dealing with things like consumer fraud and payment disputes with banks,” Cox says. “They also get experience working on bigger policy questions and impact litigation.”
The case—Linda Cobb Thompson v. St. Anthony Leased Housing Associates II, LP, et al., collectively referred to as Dominium—involves a dispute between residents of a rent-restricted housing unit and the project’s owner and manager. The clinic serves as co-counsel in the case along with the Housing Justice Center (HJC), a St. Paul, Minnesota-based nonprofit public interest law firm.
Clinic students have worked on the case for two years, gaining real-world legal experience through client meetings, researching legal issues, helping with briefing and, for one student, arguing the case before the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
A Matter of Limits
The dispute stems from a Minnesota program that issues state bonds to finance multi-family housing projects. In return for lower financing costs on the state-issued bonds, the developer must set aside 20% of the units for low-income tenants, with a rent limit on those units.
The question, according to Cox, was what rent limit should apply. The clinic contended that the “area fair market rent” limit in Minnesota, under state law, is based on a federal fair market rent figure published annually for each area—and that Dominium’s rent exceeded that limit. Dominium maintained that its rent did not exceed the limit set under a different standard by a local public housing authority.
The Supreme Court agreed with the clinic, finding that the federal fair market rent limit is the applicable standard.
Cox says the Clinic and HJC petitioned for Minnesota Supreme Court review on behalf of the putative class because they believed that the Court of Appeals had erred last year in affirming a district court judge’s dismissal of the case. The appellate court panel, ruling against the clinic, had concluded that the phrase “area fair market rent” was ambiguous because it was a technical term.
The clinic argued that the law of statutory interpretation has long been that technical terms are to be interpreted according to their acquired meaning.
“This was a technical term that had a very clear acquired meaning and is pervasively used in housing law,” Cox says. “The Supreme Court agreed with us that the term was not ambiguous, and we prevailed.”
Reversing the Minnesota Court of Appeals, the Minnesota Supreme Court sent the case back to district court. Cox argued for the clinic at the Supreme Court, which does not allow arguments from student attorneys.
Clinic student Jordan Hughes ’22 had the opportunity to argue the case when it went before the Minnesota Court of Appeals two years ago. Hughes credits experiential learning opportunities in the clinic with helping him prepare to appear before the state’s second-highest court.
“It put everything that I learned into practice in a really meaningful way,” Hughes says. “It made me feel like I was starting to become a lawyer.”
Cox says Hughes “did a great job at the court of appeals argument, and our co-counsel was very complimentary,” referring to attorneys from the HJC.
“I started law school with an intention to use my law degree to help people, to make lives easier, and to help make the law a little more understandable for folks,” Hughes says. “It was incredible to start doing that when I was still in law school and to get a result that I think will really help people.”
The ruling protects access to the courts for people who, like clinic client Linda Thompson, seek to enforce laws that are binding on a party with whom they have a contract but for which there is no express private right of action, Hughes says.
“Having that case law that says someone like Ms. Thompson can
sue and protect says interests and ensure that they’re being treated fairly and legally is important,” says Hughes, now clerking for Judge Keala Ede in Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial District. He hopes to litigate impact cases involving environmental and energy matters.
Former clinic student attorney John Goeppinger ’21 says he never dreamed he would help handle a class action as a second-year law student. Goeppinger is co-founder and director of the Legal Revolution, which helps incarcerated people pursue paralegal and law degrees.
“This was experience I wouldn’t have gotten if it weren’t for the clinic,” Goeppinger says. “The experiential learning piece was above and beyond my favorite part of law school. That was hands down the best experience I could have gotten as a student.”
Charlie O’Meara ’21, an associate at Nichols Kaster in Minneapolis, says his clinic experience on Thompson’s case built his confidence for private practice.
“I had my first client contact in the clinic,” O’Meara says. “Once I got to the cases I’m working on now, knowing a little bit of how that’s supposed to go made it a lot easier.”
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer based in Lake Elmo, Minnesota