In a battle of dictionaries, MN Supreme Court expands tenant’s rights

In 2014, Mary Cocchiarella gave Donald Driggs $2,400 for the first-month’s rent and security deposit for an apartment in Spring Park. 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.

Minnesota has a law that governs these sorts of problems when landlords take your money.

As with many Minnesota laws, the dispute is over the meaning of a word or phrase; in this case the dispute is over “residential tenant,” a requirement of the law that provides protections for tenants.

How can you be a residential tenant if you can’t get into the apartment for which you’ve paid money to rent? When I wrote about this case a year ago — “Justice is blind, but it can read a dictionary” (NewsCut – 9/18/15) — the Minnesota Court of Appeals had ruled, basically, “you can’t.”

Today, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled “you can.”

In a divided decision, Justice Christopher Dietzen, writing for the majority, provided a deep dive into the dictionary to determine whether the law, which applies to people who are occupying an apartment, can be used in this case.

The word “occupying” derives from the verb “to occupy,” which has a variety of meanings depending on the context in which it appears. Specifically, the dictionary definition of “occupy” includes: “1. To fill up (time or space)”; “2. To dwell or reside in”; “3. To hold or fill (an office or a position)”; “4. To seize possession of and maintain control over by or as if by conquest”; and “5. To engage or employ the attention or concentration of.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 1215 (4th ed. 2000). The derivative word “occupancy” is defined as “[t]he act, state, or condition of holding, possessing, or residing in or on something; actual possession, residence, or tenancy, esp. of a dwelling or land”; and “[t]he period or term during which one owns, rents, or otherwise occupies property.” Occupancy, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) (emphasis added). “Hold[ing],” in turn, can be defined as “[t]o be the legal possessor of,” lending some support to an interpretation of “occupying” that includes legal possession. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 836 (4th ed. 2000).

In other words: Once you pay your money, you’re “occupying” the apartment even if you’re not physically occupying it.

He said to rule otherwise would mean someone who leased a property and then found severe housing code violations making it uninhabitable, wouldn’t be protected under Minnesota law, or at least: this Minnesota law.

That set up a debate between Dietzen and Justice G. Barry Anderson, who wrote in his dissent, which was joined by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea, “Cocchiarella never occupied the leased dwelling, as she explicitly admitted before the housing court. She never gained actual possession by any means—she never obtained a key, entered the dwelling, or deposited any of her belongings.”

Having never occupied the apartment, she was never a residential tenant, he reasoned, calling Dietzen’s interpretation of “occupying” unreasonable, thus setting off a dictionary debate.

As the other courts involved in this case have concluded, the common and ordinary meaning of “occupying” refers to actual, physical possession or residence, not merely a legal right to possession. This is shown by definitions from numerous, common dictionaries. E.g., Webster’s Third New International Dictionary Unabridged (3d ed. 2002) (defining “occupy” as “to take up residence in : settle in”; “to fill up (a place or extent) . . . ”; and “to hold possession of ”); Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed. 2009) (defining “occupy” as “to take up (a place or extent in space) ”); The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed. 2011) (defining “occupy” as “[t]o fill up” and “[t]o dwell or reside in (an apartment, for example)”); Oxford American Dictionary (3d ed. 2010) (defining “occupy” as to “reside or have one’s place of business in (a building)”; and to “fill or take up (a space or time): two long windows occupied almost the whole of the end wall”). Applying these definitions, the word “occupying” in section 504B.001, subdivision 12, plainly requires a “residential tenant” to have physical possession of the leased premises.

That, Dietzen countered, is unreasonable.

… if a landlord unlawfully “locks out” a resident by throwing her things away and changing the locks on the door, the tenant would no longer be able to show evidence of a key or items in her home, and would not qualify as a “residential tenant” under the dissent’s interpretation of the statute. Further, if a landlord accepts money for rent but refuses the tenant the key well after the effective date of the lease, the tenant would
not qualify as a “residential tenant” under the dissent’s interpretation.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Minnesota Housing Court, where the residential tenant could be awarded three times the amount she put down for rent and security deposit.