Ex-tenant sues Mpls. landlord over house where five died

Minneapolis firefighters
Firefighters worked the scene of a north Minneapolis house fire in February 2014.
Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP

The owner of a north Minneapolis duplex where a February fire killed five children faces a lawsuit from a former tenant of the building.

Dianna Shonville Jones, who moved out of the upstairs apartment at the end of September, alleges Paul Bertelson acted with "deliberate disregard for her rights" during the eight months she lived there.

While the bulk of the suit filed earlier this month deals with alleged financial malfeasance, it also contains allegations about the condition of the building's electrical system, which has not been ruled out as a possible cause for the fire. An investigation was unable to pinpoint what sparked the blaze.

Jones claims "electrical sockets sparked and produced electric shocks when lights were switched on" but that repairs were never made despite repeated calls to Bertelson and his maintenance man. Other tenants have also complained that Bertelson failed to make timely repairs.

Jones also alleges she was billed for her neighbor's electricity as well as her own, resulting in high bills she could not afford to pay. The suit says her power was shut off in July and "in the following months, electricity at the property was sporadic."

In a court filing last week, Bertelson countered that Jones tampered with the building's electrical meter and used an extension cord to steal power from the downstairs apartment after Xcel Energy shut off her utilities.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

Bertelson denied the other allegations in Jones' suit, as well.

City records show an inspector cited the property for lack of electricity in August and threatened to condemn it. The inspector also noted "additional electrical problems." The city marked those violations as "resolved" in September. It's not clear from the documents what those problems were. The most recent electrical repair permit for the property was pulled in August, according to records from the state Department of Labor and Industry.

Most of Jones' suit focuses on an unusual -- and her lawyers claim, illegal -- provision of her lease, which included the requirement that she give Bertelson the debit card she used to receive federal disability benefits. Her suit alleges that violated the Social Security Act of 1935, which says benefits can't be transferred to another person.

Jones further claims that Bertelson or someone working for him drained almost all the money from the account in February, March and April, which exceeded what she owed in rent by more than $2,000.

Bertelson acknowledges taking control of Jones' debit card "as a way to rebuild her rental history" and ensure she paid rent after several evictions, but he denies stealing from her.

In his legal filing, Bertelson said he withdrew all of Jones' money each month on her behalf, kept what she owed in rent, and returned the rest to her "within 24 hours." Her suit says that didn't happen.

After three months, Jones canceled the debit card and refused to give the replacement card to Bertelson.

Bertelson claims that far from overcharging Jones, she still owes him more than $1,600 in unpaid rent and late fees. He also says he incurred costs repairing the apartment after she left, including the electric meter.