Attorney General Ellison obtains refunds for Greater Minnesota tenants illegally charged fees
New unit in AGO reaches settlement that requires landlord Suite Liv’n to refund 877 tenant households in Marshall, Willmar, New London, and Spicer a utility surcharge the company imposed on its tenants in violation of Minnesota’s utility billing law
February 3, 2022 (SAINT PAUL) — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced today that Willmar-based landlord and management agent Suite Liv’n will refund 877 tenant households a utility surcharge that it imposed on them in violation of Minnesota law, and will refund late fees it improperly imposed on tenants who did not pay the illegal surcharge or whose rent was late because of the surcharge. The refunds will put approximately $50,000 to $60,000 total back in the pockets of tenants who rented from Suite Liv’n at locations in Marshall, Willmar, New London, and Spicer. The settlement with Suite Liv’n was reached by attorneys of the new Special Outreach and Protection Unit in the Attorney General’s Office.
“These days, it’s hard enough to afford your life. When your landlord improperly imposes an illegal fee on you and you’re already struggling to make ends meet, even a small, unexpected increase can be enough to break the bank,” Attorney General Ellison said. “My office stepped into this case because tenants are consumers of housing and protecting consumers of all goods and services in every part of Minnesota from fraud and abuse is my job. I’m proud of the team that quickly secured this settlement for these tenants that will put much-needed money back into their pockets where it should have been in the first place.”
The 877 tenant households of Suite Liv’n live or lived in multi-unit apartment buildings that have only one utility meter. Under Minnesota law, landlords of multi-unit apartment buildings with only one utility meter who bill tenants for utility costs on top of rent are required, among other provisions, to: inform tenants of the total utility cost for the building for each month of the most recent calendar year; put in writing an equitable way to apportion the building’s utility costs and the frequency of billing tenants for them; and provide actual utility bills upon a tenant’s request.
Suite Liv’n, however, told tenants it intended to impose an extra monthly utility fee without taking any of these steps as required by law. Tenants of Suite Liv’n who objected to the illegal fees contacted Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid for assistance. Because Suite Liv’n barred its tenants from being part of any class-action lawsuit, Legal Aid referred the case to the Attorney General’s Office.
The new Special Outreach and Protection Unit of the Attorney General’s Office investigated the company. Over a period of several months, the Office repeatedly warned Suite Liv’n that it would be illegal under Minnesota law to attempt to impose the fees because it was not in compliance with the notice requirements under the law. Nonetheless, in December 2021, Suite Liv’n imposed the fee on all its tenants — not only on tenants whose leases required them to pay utility costs separately even though they had not received the written notices required by Minnesota’s utility-billing law, but also on tenants whose utility costs Suite Liv’n had agreed to include in their rent, and on some tenants who were already paying their own utility costs independently of their rent.
In addition, Suite Liv’n inappropriately charged late fees to tenants who did not pay the illegal utility surcharge or paid their rent late because of the surcharge.
The Attorney General’s Office quickly intervened and reached a settlement with Suite Liv’n. Under the terms of an Assurance of Discontinuance filed today in Ramsey County, Suite Liv’n agrees to refund the illegal utility fees, which were often as high as $60-70 per household, and the improper late fees and agrees to comply with Minnesota’s utility-billing law in the future. It will be liable for an additional $45,000 civil penalty if it violates the terms of this agreement.
About the Special Outreach and Protection Unit
The new Special Outreach and Protection Unit in the Attorney General’s Office is designed to expand the Office’s consumer-outreach and -protection efforts into historically disenfranchised communities. These communities are facing consumer-protection issues that make it hard for them to afford their lives and live with dignity, safety, and respect, but lack the resources to solve those issues on their own and often lack the awareness that they can contact the Attorney General’s Office for help. Staff of the Unit will go into those communities and into communities disproportionately harmed by the pandemic to meet people in their languages where they live, find out directly from them what their consumer-protection needs are, and build enforcement around them. The Unit’s first focus will be building on the tenant-protection work that is already underway in the Office, including the recent landmark court victory against Minneapolis landlord Steven Meldahl’s “brazen and deplorable” practices.
Tenants who believe their landlord is violating their rights can submit a Tenant Report Form online on the Attorney General’s website or can call the Attorney General’s Office at (651) 296-3353 (metro area) or (800) 657-3787 (Greater Minnesota).