Landmark Supreme Court Decision on Concept of Legal Occupancy

Mary Cocchiarella saw an advertisement for a rental home, and after looking at the apartment, agreed to rent it.  She paid the landlord $2,400 to cover first month’s rent and a security deposit.  When she went to move into her home, the landlord denied her access and made excuses that it wasn’t ready.  He continued to deny her access for a period of days.  With nowhere to live, she sought relief in court for the landlord’s unlawful exclusion of her from her new home.  With Legal Aid’s help, she brought separate claims for possession and statutory penalties.  The trial court denied her request for relief and dismissed both of Ms. Cocchiarella’s claims, finding that – because she had not yet moved in – she was not “occupying” the rental home and thus was not a “residential tenant” as defined in landlord-tenant statutes.

Legal Aid helped Ms. Cocchiarella appeal the decision.  The Court of Appeals reversed part of the trial court’s judgment, finding that Ms. Cocchiarella was entitled to pursue her claims for statutory penalties regardless of whether she physically occupied the rental home.  But the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s judgment that Ms. Cocchiarella could not seek possession of her home for this reason. 

Legal Aid helped Ms. Cocchiarella seek relief on this important issue in the Supreme Court of Minnesota.  The Supreme Court took the case.  After reviewing arguments presented by Legal Aid and landlord/tenant interest groups in briefs, the Supreme Court of Minnesota ruled in Ms. Cocchiarella’s favor.  The Supreme Court held that “occupying” a rental home within the meaning of landlord-tenant law includes the legal right of possession, even in the absence of physical occupancy.  Because Ms. Cocchiarella presented evidence of a lease, with payment of rent and a security deposit, she had pleaded a case for possession under that lease.  Following this landmark decision on the concept of legal occupancy, the case is headed back to the trial court for Ms. Cocchiarella to put forth her evidence in support of her claims for possession and statutory penalties. Read the decision. Contact: Gary Van Winkle,