A coalition that successfully sued the city of Saint Paul to block a residential tenant protection ordinance will receive $99,000 in compensation from the city for legal fees and court costs. U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson ordered the compensation on December 13.

The amount is about one-third of what the group sought as compensation for its work that challenged the city’s SAFE (Stable, Affordable, Fair and Equitable) Housing ordinance. The ordinance, which was passed in 2020 and took effect in March 2021, was hailed at the time by advocates and city officials as providing sweeping and needed protections for tenants.

However, landlords and property management companies challenged the ordinance last February in federal court, claiming that some of its provisions violated their constitutional rights.

In mid-April, Magnuson ordered the city to cease enforcing the ordinance. He ruled that the provisions limiting the criteria for screening tenants and requiring landlords to explain “just cause” in writing for not renewing a lease may indeed be unconstitutional and that the city was likely to lose the case if it went to trial.

   

“In the court’s experience, a reasonable hourly rate is less than the $725 that plaintiffs’ counsel seeks,” Magnuson said.

The Cozen O’Connor law firm represented the landlords. Attorneys indicated they would drop the lawsuit if the city repealed the ordinance. The City Council did so on a 4-3 vote in June. Thus far, no replacement ordinance has been brought forward.

The December 13 ruling covered $700 in court costs and $98,300 in attorney’s fees. Regarding the latter, Magnuson countered the law firm’s financial claims. Cozen O’Connor indicated it put in 450 hours in the case at a rate of $725 an hour, which the judge found to be excessive.

 

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“In the court’s experience, a reasonable hourly rate is less than the $725 that plaintiffs’ counsel seeks,” Magnuson said. He also questioned some of the expenditures listed, citing a lack of details on some items.

Magnuson added that the legal action ended before the actual court process got underway. Another issue that he raised is that Cozen O’Connor was involved in a similar legal action against the city of Minneapolis, and that some of the same work was used in the Saint Paul lawsuit.

Peter Leggett, communications director for Mayor Melvin Carter, said the city respects the court’s decision and remains “committed to supporting our community amid this ongoing public health, economic and housing crisis.” 

Cozen O’Connor could not be reached for comment.

— Jane McClure

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