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Ellis v. City of Minneapolis

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 27, 2017

Andrew Ellis; Harriet A. Ellis Plaintiffs - Appellants
The City of Minneapolis, a municipal corporation; Betsy Hodges, individually and as Mayor of the City of Minneapolis; Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, individually and as Director of Minneapolis' Department of Regulatory Services; JoAnn Velde, individually and as Deputy Director of City of Minneapolis' Department of Regulatory Services Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: March 8, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - Minneapolis

          Before WOLLMAN, MELLOY, and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.

          MELLOY, Circuit Judge.

         Andrew and Harriet Ellis are for-profit, low-income rental housing providers in Minneapolis. The Ellises filed suit against the City of Minneapolis and city officials (collectively, "the City"), alleging the City's heightened enforcement of housing and rental standards has a disparate impact on the availability of housing for individuals protected under the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"), 42 U.S.C. § 3604(a). The City moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c), and the district court[1] granted the motion. In light of the Supreme Court's decision in Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., 135 S.Ct. 2507 (2015), we affirm.


         The Ellises' operative complaint spans 103 pages. An additional 193 pages of exhibits are attached to the complaint. Viewing the complaint in the light most favorable to the Ellises and accepting the facts alleged as true, we summarize the complaint's most significant allegations as follows. See McIvor v. Credit Control Servs., Inc., 773 F.3d 909, 912 (8th Cir. 2014).

         In Minneapolis, there is a shortage of over 20, 000 affordable housing units in the "very low income" category. In recent years, thousands of families have been on waiting lists for public housing and Section 8 vouchers. While a vacancy rate of 5% is considered healthy, the vacancy rate for affordable housing in Minneapolis was less than 1% in 2013. This rate remained substantially the same through 2015.

         Minority groups are disproportionately affected by the shortage of affordable housing. For example, in 2010, the City reported that African American families made up approximately 76% of those on public housing and Section 8 waiting lists. African Americans, by comparison, make up only 18% of the Minneapolis population. These percentages remained substantially the same through 2015.

         Additionally, African American families and individuals make up the largest percentage of those seeking homeless shelter in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Indeed, a disproportionate percentage of African Americans in Minneapolis are in the "very low income" category and in need of rental housing.

         In this context, the Ellises are for-profit, low-income rental housing providers. The Ellises own rental properties in inner-city areas where there is a high demand for affordable housing by individuals in minority groups. And, consistent with these demographics, most of the Ellises' tenants have been African American, mixed-race, or other minority families with children.

         Since 2012, the Ellises have owned and managed three single-family homes, five duplex homes, and five multi-unit buildings. While most of the Ellises' properties are older buildings built before World War II, the properties "have been at all times substantially compliant with all appropriate codes and habitable as defined by the Minnesota State Building Code." Nevertheless, the Ellises assert that, since July 2012, the City has "targeted" the Ellises' properties with "illegal" inspections and "heightened" housing-code enforcement; applied "above minimum" housing standards; threatened to revoke their rental licenses; and issued "false" or "invalid" citations and orders for "claimed code violations that did not exist."

         At one of the Ellises' duplexes, for example, a City inspector claimed six code deficiencies, but three alleged deficiencies were not deficiencies at all. The inspector claimed there was a rodent "infestation" when there were only "some mice droppings" and the first floor resident had not seen a mouse for over three months. The inspector also ordered the Ellises to hire a licensed exterminator even though "[t]here was no evidence of [a] 'widespread and severe' . . . mice infestation [as] required by the [housing code] for ordering an exterminator." Additionally, the inspector ordered the Ellises to hire a lead-abatement specialist even though only "three small areas" required touch-up paint.

         At a second duplex, a City inspector found 24 "claimed" violations after a tenant called the City to complain. At least some of these violations also did not exist. For example, the inspector claimed there was illegal wiring requiring an electrician; in reality, only a fuse needed to be replaced. The inspector also claimed a ceiling, toilet, and floor were out of compliance, but "the ceiling was in standard condition, " the Ellises' "workman found the toilet working properly, " and there was "nothing wrong with the floor."

         Regarding these purported code violations, the Ellises "attempted to comply" with the orders or "started to take corrective actions on the . . . claimed deficiencies that were specific and believed to be understood by [the Ellises] and their workman." (emphasis omitted). But, the Ellises assert, many of the City's orders were "vague" or "non-specific"-a violation of City ordinances. When the Ellises sought clarification of some of the City's orders, City officials were unresponsive. Further, when the Ellises attempted to appeal some violations, the City denied their appeal requests even though the City's orders informed the Ellises of their right to appeal. Regarding other citations, however, the City allowed appeals and admitted the Ellises were cited in error. For example, at two of the Ellises' ...

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