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Berg v. Wiley

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff sued for wrongful eviction and asked for damages based on the landlord changing the locks to the premises in question.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The only lawful means to dispossess a tenant who has not abandoned nor voluntarily surrendered, but who claims possession and rights adverse to those claimed by landlord, is by resort to judicial process.

    Facts. Mr. Wiley, the Defendant (Defendant) and landlord leased land to Berg, the Plaintiff (Plaintiff), for use as a restaurant. The lease was for five years and required the tenant to bear all costs of repairs/remodeling and make no changes to the building structure without the Defendant’s approval. The relationship broke down when the Plaintiff allegedly remodeled the restaurant without the Defendant’s approval and allegedly operated the restaurant in violation of the state health code. Per the advice of his attorney, the Defendant changed the locks to the restaurant. The jury found that the Defendant had wrongfully locked the Plaintiff out and awarded damages. The jury also found that the Plaintiff did not abandon the premises by closing it for renovation as the Defendant alleged. The Defendant appealed.

    Issue. There are two issues for review:
    Whether the evidence was sufficient to support the jury’s finding that the tenant did not abandon or surrender the premises.
    Whether the trial court erred in finding that the Defendant’s reentry was forcible and wrongful as a matter of law.

    Held. Affirmed. The only lawful means to dispossess a tenant who has neither abandoned nor voluntarily surrendered, but who claims possession of the property, is by resort to judicial process.
    Minnesota has historically followed the common law rule that a landlord may rightfully use self-help to retake leased premises from a tenant provided that the (1) landlord is legally entitled to possession and (2) landlord’s means of reentry are peaceable.
    However there is a growing modern trend holding that self help is never available. This view is founded on the premise that the potential for violent breach of peace inheres in any situation where a landlord attempts by his own means to dispossess a tenant.

    Discussion. The court discussed first the historic approach Minnesota had taken with respect to self-help evictions by landlords. However, current trends demonstrate that any form of self-help has the potential to catalyze a violent breach of the peace. The court noted that state statute would allow a judicial proceeding that could have the tenant evicted within three to ten days. The court noted that this was a departure from the historic approach taken, but justified to avoid any future potentially violent encounters between landlords and tenants.


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