When a manufactured home park closes, it can create a crisis for park residents, since it is often impossible or at least very difficult to move older homes. That’s why the Minnesota legislature required park owners to give residents nine month notices of park closings. A recent HPP case illustrates, however, that residents may need lawyers to ensure their rights.
In March 2012, residents of the Northern Terrace Manufactured Home Park in Ely, Minnesota received a notice suggesting the park would be closing at some future undetermined date. They later received a notice indicating that they should not consider the earlier notice to be a park closure notice. Imagine their surprise, then, when they were informed by the park owner they would have to move on short notice at the end of the year�some Christmas present. The residents sought HPP’s help and we filed a lawsuit seeking to block the park closure on the grounds the closing notice did not comply with state law. The lawyer for the park owner responded not by defending the notice but by challenging the residents’ ability to sue to enforce their rights.
The legal arguments in the case highlighted an unsettled area of Minnesota law. Minnesota statutes creating rights and protections for manufactured home park residents provide that residents can enforce those rights in court by relying on what is known as the private attorney general statute, Minn. Stat. 8.31. This statute spells out where and when the Minnesota Attorney General can take legal action on behalf of Minnesota residents, but one part of it also spells out circumstances where private citizens can legally enforce rights under a series of specified laws (including those involving MH parks). Typically, consumer rights under Minnesota law get enforced by citizens under this same provision. The catch is that in order to be able to sue under this authority, the plaintiff must demonstrate a “public benefit ” from the case. For years, the public benefit test was fairly easy to satisfy, but in 2000, the Minnesota Supreme Court adopted a very restrictive interpretation of “public benefit,” making the law very difficult to use in many situations. Since this law provided the only basis to sue it has meant that in many cases citizens had no way to enforce rights that had been violated.
In the Northern Terrace case, the Court struck a blow for resident rights and common sense by holding that the public benefit test had been satisfied. The Court reasoned that when a plaintiff sues to alter a defendant’s conduct, rather than seeking money damages, this is typically considered to be in the public interest. The Court also noted that the point of the MH park statute was to protect certain members of the public, MH park residents. The Court went on to hold the park closure notice invalid, providing the hard pressed residents with at least nine more months to find a new place for their homes. Christmas arrived in Northern Terrace after all.