Rey and Pat Mattson’s Ordeal: The Lawsuit from Hell
(This story illustrates misbehavior by a litigious tenant, a politically ambitious attorney, and racially biased jurors in Minneapolis, Minnesota.)
Reynold Mattson died suddenly on August 16, 2000. He was 63 years of age. The last three years of his life were marked by tension and distress brought on by a court case related to his ownership of rental properties in north Minneapolis. He leaves a widow, Pat, his partner both in life and in management of the properties. To understand the unusual circumstances of this situation, we need to backtrack to the summer of 1997.
On August 13, 1997, Melissa Hortman, an attorney with Central Minnesota Legal Services, which is a taxpayer-supported agency to provide free legal help for the poor, announced that a jury had awarded her client, Stormy Harmon, $490,181 for emotional distress and injury from housing discrimination based on race, gender, disability, and the fact of receiving public assistance. Her landlord, Reynold and Patricia Mattson, had rented half of a duplex in north Minneapolis to Ms. Harmon since 1995. The award was said to be the largest of its kind in the country for a racial complaint of this nature.
With respect to issues in the case, an article in the Star Tribune newspaper reported: “Reynold Mattson was accused of calling the girls ‘niggers’ and Harmon ‘a crazy nigger’. The Mattsons also failed to schedule maintenance in advance, and Reynold Mattson let himself into Harmon’s duplex without her knowledge. Harmon is black and mentally retarded and receives Supplemental Security Disability Income. Reynold Mattson and his wife are white.”
Was the accusation of racism true?
Did Rey Matson call Harmon’s three daughters “niggers” and Stormy Harmon herself “a crazy nigger”. Mattson told this reporter “I didn’t say it ... I never used the N-word.” The court accusation is based on allegations by Stormy Harmon herself and three witnesses. The witnesses were Harmon’s brother, a friend of hers named “Aunt Piero” and a man named Johnson. All are black. At the trial, it was alleged that Mattson had used the racial slur during an argument with Harmon on October 3, 1996.
One “witness”, Johnson, testified at the trial that he never heard anyone say “nigger’. Aunt Piero was in the basement of the duplex at the time that the argument was taking place on the second floor. The third witness, Harmon’s brother Larry Curry, was present at the argument between Harmon and Mattson. He testified that Mattson started to say “nigger” but that Aunt Piero (who was in the basement) immediately said something like “hold your tongue” and Rey Mattson had checked himself before completing the word. Stormy Harmon, however, testified that Mattson actually said the full word. Lost in the shuffle is Mattson’s allegation that Stormy Harmon called him a “honky” (the white equivalent of “nigger”) numerous times.
Rey Mattson did not believe that Stormy Harmon was mentally retarded. This was an issue introduced by Harmon’s attorney, Melissa Hortman. Harmon did not disclose that she was mentally retarded when she filled out an application for the apartment. She did disclose that she and one of her three children were receiving SSI disability payments. At the time, Harmon explained that she was suffering from asthma and another physical condition.
It should be noted that Stormy Harmon’s clever misuse of the legal system and her mastery of victimhood language belies the claim that she was mentally retarded. The August 13th press conference quoted her: “I’ve been treated unfairly. It was important (for me) to do what I did. He violated my civil rights. He told me I was crazy and stupid.” Harmon’s 8-year-old daughter was quoted: “He made me feel people shouldn’t treat other people like that.” Such quotations betray a sure-footed sense of using the jargon that elicits public sympathy in today’s political world.
the maintenance issue
With respect to the allegation that Mattson “failed to schedule maintenance in advance” and “let himself into Harmon’s duplex without her knowledge”, one should first note that Minnesota landlords are legally permitted to enter a tenant’s unit without prior notice or permission to do reasonable maintenance work.” The standard lease issued by Minnesota Multi-Housing Association contains this clause. (21. MANAGEMENT’S RIGHT TO ENTER: Management and its authorized agents may enter the Apartment at any reasonable time to inspect, improve, maintain or repair the Apartment, or do other necessary work, or to show the Apartment to potential new residents or buyers.”
Stormy Harmon’s accusation follows her repeated refusal to allow furnace technicians to enter her half of the duplex to make repairs in response to complaints which she herself had made. She may have had two ulterior motives in seeking to present the repairs from taking place: She had put part of her rent into escrow because of a claim that the furnace was not working property. If Mattson had fixed the furnace, she would have had to pay him the back rent immediately. (2) A malfunctioning furnace allowed Harmon to make a complaint to Housing Inspections. Normally the Housing Court will not evict a tenant for 90 days after a tenant has made such a complaint, on the theory that the landlord might be retaliating. Therefore, each such complaint to inspections would bring Stormy Harmon ninety days of protection from eviction even if she did not pay the rent.
standing there in her underwear
A rough chronology if events leading up to the court case is as follows:
The Mattsons accepted Stormy Harmon as a tenant in their duplex located in the 2300 block of 4th Avenue North in Minneapolis in April 1995. Rent was $650 per month. Harmon paid $442 of this amount. A rent subsidy paid the rest.
Harmon did not have her full first month’s rent; she was $97 short. Mattson accepted her on condition that she make up the deficiency in subsequent months.
Harmon did not pay the $442 rent for June 1995 because of claims of the malfunctioning furnace. She put June’s rent into escrow. Shortly after being informed of the problem, Mattson arranged for heating contractors, Richard and Pauline Anderson, to fix the furnace.
The Andersons arrived at the duplex on June 5, 1995. Stormy Harmon let them and Mattson into the building. They first began working in the basement. Richard Anderson asked Mattson to check the thermostat setting in the upstairs living room. Mattson knocked on the door and yelled “Stormy”. There was no response. He then entered the apartment and went straight to the thermostat.
Mattson then saw Stormy Harmon standing in the bathroom in her underwear. She was furious, accusing him of trespassing. Her boyfriend’s car was parked on the street. Mattson supposed that he might also be in the bathroom. The Andersons were unable to complete their work.
Mattson took Harmon to Housing Court in July 1995 to recover the $97 in rent from the first month and the $442 in escrow from June. The court referee ruled that Harmon had not filed the escrow properly. She had called the Housing inspector to complain of the furnace on May 31st. Proper procedure required her to wait for two weeks to allow the landlord to complete the inspector’s work orders. But Harmon put June’s rent in escrow on June 1st. Therefore, the referee ordered the money returned to Harmon. She was supposed then to pay Mattson his rent for June. Harmon simply refused to do this. “Sue me,” she told Mattson.
Mattson did file for an Unlawful Detainer in December and sought to recover the $442 plus $97. The judge ruled that Harmon must pay Mattson the $442 for rent. Harmon later complied. The judge ruled, however, that Mattson had waived his right to recover the $97 for April because he had accepted rent payments in subsequent months without giving the tenant written notice that she still owed the $97.
In the summer of 1995, Stormy Harmon’s mother applied to become a tenant in the other half of Mattson’s duplex. Mattson accepted her application. In checking references, however, he discovered that the mother had given a fictitious name for the owner of the building where she was currently living. Mattson learned this by checking property listings. He located the real owner and was told that Harmon’s mother was three months behind on her rent. Mattson therefore rejected the application. Stormy Harmon was furious.
the furnace issue
Stormy Harmon repeatedly complained about the furnace. In August 1995, Mattson had the furnace fixed by Gary Pang of All American Heating and Air Conditioning. However the complaints continued. Mattson next brought in a Minnegasco technician to service the furnace in September 1995.
Harmon complained on several occasions where there was no problem. In some cases, she simply turned the thermostat down and claimed that the furnace was broken. She also closed the vents. Mattson found that the pilot light was out several times. In December 1995, Harmon filed suit against Mattson seeking damages for the inconvenience which she had suffered from the malfunctioning furnace. Mattson later learned that Harmon’s mother and her sister had also made complaints about “malfunctioning” furnaces.
The furnace problems continued into 1996. Mattson thought he could avoid trouble by signing up with Minnegasco’s Service Plus. He asked Minnegasco to do a complete servicing of the furnace in the spring of 1996. In the fall of that year, Harmon called a Section 8 inspector to check the furnace. He found that the level of carbon monoxide was too high in the furnace chamber. Harmon also complained of the furnace to the city housing inspector in September 1996. The inspector noted a loose connection and issued a work order. The order required that a licensed heating contractor do the work.
Mattson contacted Minnegasco on October 3, 1996 to do the work. He made arrangements through Harmon’s attorney, then Joseph Genereaux, to enter the building. When the technician arrived, Stormy Harmon refused to let him into the building. Mattson wanted also to repair a leaky toilet in the basement which was running continuously. Harmon refused to let him into the basement for that purpose.
That was the occasion when Harmon and Mattson had a heated argument and the word “nigger” was allegedly used. At length, Mattson told Harmon that he owned the building and would make the repairs to the toilet, which he did. On the other hand, the Minnegasco technician was frightened away by the incident and did not complete his work.
On October 4, 1996, Stormy Harmon received a restraining order against Mattson that forbad him to enter her part of the building. Because Harmon would not allow the furnace repairman or Mattson to enter the building, the Housing inspector’s work orders remained unfulfilled. The city condemned Mattson’s building on October 12th. The condemnation order meant that tenants had to vacate the building immediately.
Mattson had the necessary work done on the furnace on October 15th. The city lifted the condemnation on October 18th. Meanwhile, Harmon was living at Mattson’s expense in a motel. She had a receipt for $200 from Aunt Piero for charges related to living with her.
shopping around for attorneys - Stormy finds Melissa Hortman
During 1996, Stormy Harmon was shopping around for attorneys. Mattson received a letter from an attorney named Michael Dougherty proposing that Harmon, his client, would drop all claims against Mattson if he would pay $10,000. Mattson regarded this as extortion. Harmon hired attorney Genereaux and then fired him on October 8, 1996. Her next attorney, Udiobok, called Mattson to discuss the case. Mattson made several suggestions which Udiobok accepted. A few days later, Udiobok called to report that Harmon would not cooperate. “I’m off the case,” he informed Mattson.
Harmon also tried to enlist the help of Rowena Hicks, the SAFE officer with the Minneapolis police. She, too, found Harmon uncooperative. Finally, on October 11, 1996, Harmon found an attorney willing to satisfy her needs. This was Melissa Hortman, who was with Central Minnesota Legal Services.
Ms. Hortman called Mattson on October 11, 1996, to suggest that he and his wife come to the courthouse in Minneapolis to file for emergency relief, which would stay the condemnation order. Mattson agreed, waiving his right to 24-hour notice. At the courthouse, however, Hortman served papers on the Mattsons for a new lawsuit against them. This lawsuit sought $800 in rent abatement plus expenses for her client in having to leave the condemned building for a week.
Rey and Pat Mattson were irked at having been lured to the courthouse under false pretenses. Pat Mattson accused Hortman of “unprofessional conduct”. Hortman claimed later that Rey Mattson had called her “stupid”, but Mattson had apologized saying that he considered her dishonest, not stupid. There was bad blood from that moment between Hortman and the Mattsons.
The new lawsuit against the Mattsons was heard by Judge Beryl Nord. Judge Nord denied the $800 request for rent abatement and denied additional compensation for lodging. She also ordered Harmon out of Mattson’s condemned building immediately. She said that she lacked authority to stay the condemnation and refused to do so.
Melissa Hortman filed a new lawsuit on behalf of Stormy Harmon on December 4, 1996, alleging various types of discrimination. The suit included a laundry list of complaints, including a total of 15 counts. The judge threw out the three counts against Section 8, plus three others. That left nine counts relating to alleged discrimination on the basis of race, welfare status, and several other categories.
The charge of discrimination on the basis of race and welfare status was based, in part, on Mattson’s having once asked Harmon if she was on public assistance. Mattson understood that recipients of public aid were eligible for assistance through Minnegasco’s weatherization program. Such funds could be used, for example, to repair or purchase furnaces. Harmon said that she was not interested in applying for weatherization funds to replace Mattson’s furnace because she intended to purchase her own home some day and the program could be used only once.
Nevertheless, this was the basis of the discrimination complaint against Mattson. It was discrimination on the basis of welfare status simply because he had asked the question; employed persons were not eligible for assistance under Minnegasco’s weatherization program. It was racial discrimination because Mattson had not asked a white tenant to whom he rented in Andover, Minn., if he was on public assistance. Mattson argued that he did not ask all the tenants about their public-assistance status because he had learned that the Minnegasco program had run out of funds.
The Mattsons owned ten rental units in six different buildings, mostly in north Minneapolis. Eight out of their ten tenants were African Americans. It would therefore seem rather ungrounded to be accusing the Mattsons of racial discrimination unless, perhaps, it were against persons other than African Americans.
At the trial, however, someone suggested that the Mattsons might be discriminating against African Americans because “it was a known fact that landlords could charge higher rents for African American as opposed to Caucasian tenants.” The Mattson’s preponderance of African American tenants might then be a reflection of their greed rather than of racial fairness. However, the Mattson’s level of rent for all their tenants was below average.
The trial against the Mattsons lasted for seven days. The case was heard by a jury. The judge was a black female. Eleven out of the twelve jurors were white, and one was black. The Mattsons were represented by attorney William Dickel. They incurred $65,000 in legal fees to defend themselves against Harmon’s charges. Harmon’s representation was free.
The Mattsons were found guilty of eight counts of discrimination. The huge jury award attracted much public attention. The city’s big commercial television stations covered attorney Hortman’s press conference. The Star Tribune published an article about it.
The reason that the Mattsons lost the court case may have as much to do with attitudes of jury members about race as with the facts of the case. Most were white females. The fore person, employed by a social-service agency in St. Paul, was asked about this aspect by a reporter with the Minnesota Journal of Law and Politics. Her response was to remark that for the reporter even to ask such a question betrayed his own racial bias.
Another jury member, an alpha female, seems to have been quite effective in whipping the others into line. Judge LaJune Lange presided over the case. An African American female judge, she regularly ranks at the bottom of the list in the Hennepin County Bar Association’s poll of best judges. After the trial, Judge Lange’s court employee, also African American, went up to Harmon and gave her a big hug.
The Mattsons appealed the verdict. Their first “good news” was that Judge Lange reduced the jury award from half a million dollars to a lesser amount which approximated their net worth. Then it went to the Court of Appeals. By the time Rey Mattson died, the award itself had been reduced to approximately $85,000. However, the Mattsons had spent $200,000 in attorney fees fighting this case.
Rey and Pat Mattson were active members of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee. They were also active in their church and in community affairs. Rey Mattson disclosed, before his death, that shortly after her court victory Stormy Harmon had gone to a furniture store and ordered the top-of-the-line merchandise on a number of items, saying that she had come into a large sum of money; it was like winning the lottery.
Hortman’s political ascendance
Melissa Hortman quickly became a celebrity in left-leaning political circles. Endorsed by the DFL party and by Progressive Minnesota, she ran for the state legislature in the following year in a district which included Champlin but lost the general election. Her Republican opponent told the Mattsons that it was one of the dirtiest campaigns that he had ever experienced. In 2004, she was elected to the legislature. Hortman is a darling of Star Tribune editorial writers who extol her “business experience.” (Apparently her parents own an auto-parts business.)
Now Rey Mattson has peace. Pat Matson, his widow, must live on without the real-estate nest egg that they had counted upon to support them in their retirement years. She has become a stalwart of the Minneapolis Property Rights group.
Note: Melissa Hortman currently serves as DFL minority leader in the Minnesota House of Representatives. Recently (April 2017) , she criticized “white male” Republican legislators for playing cards during a house debate. Asked to apologize for the needless, unflattering reference to their gender and racial identity, Hortman refused. “I have no intention of apologizing,” she said, adding that she’s “really tired of watching women of color in particular being ignored. So I’m not sorry.” For her, it was just another political day.