Winona, MN rental ordinance case dismissed as moot by Minnesota Supreme Court

by Andrea Vaage and Gary Taylor

Dean v City of Winona
Minnesota Supreme Court, August 5, 2015

This is an update on the Winona, MN case from last year, which can be found here. To recap, homeowners wishing to obtain a rental license in Winona cannot do so if 30% of the properties on their block are already rental properties. The question before the court was whether the 30% rental rule was a valid exercise of the city’s police power, and whether the ordinance was a violation of their equal protection rights under the Minnesota Constitution. The district court granted summary judgment to the City of Winona and the court of appeals affirmed. The applicants then filed a petition for review, which was granted in May 2014.

The City moved to dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that the case was moot. Minnesota courts have established “an appeal should be dismissed as moot when a decision on the merits is no longer necessary or an award of effective relief is no longer possible.”  Of the three original plaintiffs in the lawsuit, two no longer owned their properties, and the third received a rental license from the city.  While acknowledging that their claims were technically moot, they nevertheless argued that they fell within either or both of two narrow exceptions to the mootness doctrine: (1) that the issue being litigated is capable of repetition, yet likely to evade review, and/or that the case is “functionally justiciable” and of “statewide significance.”

The first argument was quickly dispatched by the court since the ordinance, which is continuing to be enforced by the city, is open to challenge at another time.  The claims against the ordinance, therefore, are still capable of being reviewed by the courts.

As for the second argument, the Court concluded that the case is not of statewide significance.  Although other cities do have rental ordinances they do not all operate in the same manner as the Winona ordinance. While the right to rent is an important property interest, the only population affected in this case was the homeowner’s pursuing a rental license in this one municipality, hardly an urgent or impactful case calling for the application of a narrow exception to the mootness rule.

The appellants’ claims were considered moot and the case was dismissed.

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