St. Paul ordered to pay $99,000 for attorneys who challenged tenant ordinance

15December 2021

St. Paul is still paying for a short-lived tenant protection ordinance that succumbed to a legal challenge from landlords nearly six months ago.

A federal judge this week ordered the city to pay $99,000 to attorneys who challenged the ordinance in court. The sum is about a third of the amount requested by Cozen O’Connor, the international law firm representing local landlords.

“We respect the Court’s decision and remain committed to supporting our community amid this ongoing public health, economic and housing crisis,” Peter Leggett, the city’s communications director, said in a statement.

Cozen O’Connor did not respond to a request for comment.

In July 2020, City Council unanimously approved new tenant screening guidelines that would limit how landlords use applicants’ prior evictions, credit scores or criminal histories when considering whether to rent to them.

A group of landlords sued in April, arguing that the ordinance violated their speech, due process and property rights. Two months after the policy took effect, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ordered St. Paul to stop enforcing it.

The council voted 4-3 to repeal the ordinance June 23.

The plaintiffs — Lamplighter Village Apartments and about 20 landlords and rental agencies — agreed to drop their lawsuit in September but still sought legal fees.

The landlords asked for an award of more than $295,000 in attorneys’ fees, an amount that the court found too lofty.

The court found that the work the landlord’s counsel claimed to have done in the case exceeded “what is reasonable.” Lawyers claimed to have spent more than 450 hours on the case, though St. Paul repealed the ordinance before much litigation could occur.

The attorneys failed to be specific about time spent and line items on invoices, Magnuson said in his order.

“A particularly glaring oversight in the record seeks more than a thousand dollars in attorney’s fees, yet merely describes the attorney’s task as ‘E’— demonstrating an inattention to the invoices submitted,” the order read.

The court granted the plaintiffs $98,372 in attorneys’ fees and $714 in court costs.

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