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Cupid’s arrow targets Minnesota litigation

By

“Valentine’s Day is only as good as you want it to be.”
Musician Prince Royce

Tuesday, Feb. 14, is Valentine’s Day, a 24-hour period dedicated to love and  a $20 billion day of commerce. But affection gives way to Valentine-related litigation in the federal and state courts for Minnesota. Cupid’s arrow has targeted a variety of legal issues in Minnesota, ranging from constitutional law to unemployment compensation, with a heavy dosage of criminal cases, too.

Religious ruling

The inclusion of Valentine’s Day in a school district’s policies regarding observance of religious-related holidays did not infringe on the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, 619 F.2d 1311 (8th Cir. 1980).

Following a controversy about Christmas celebrations in its schools, South Dakota’s largest school district promulgated rules allowing use of religious symbols “as a teaching aid or resource … [reflecting the] ‘cultural and religious heritage’  of particular holidays,” which included Valentine’s Day, along with Christmas, Hanukkah, Easter, Passover, and Thanksgiving,  St. Patrick’s Day, and Halloween.

Affirming the District Court, in a ruling that split a pair of liberal jurists, the 8th Circuit in an opinion written by the late Judge Gerald Heaney of Minnesota, said that the rules do not “unconstitutionally entangle” the school district with religious institutions or otherwise were impermissible under the First Amendment.

Dissenting Judge Thomas McMillian was particularly disturbed by treating Valentine’s Day on a religious basis.  He thought that the religious origin of the day is “remote . . . and its contemporary religious significance minimal.”  His “scrupulous” scrutiny of the School District’s policy led him to opine that it unconstitutionally infringed on the First Amendment.

Commemorative cards

The sending of cards is probably the most well-established tradition of Valentine’s Day, dating back to the 17th century.  This commemorative practice was central to the outcome of four diverse federal and state cases.

The exchange of Valentines sparked a sex harassment lawsuit by a woman against her former employer and foreman in Cram v. Lamson & Ession Co., 49 F.3d 466 (8th Cir. 1995).  Her claims for discriminatory discharge, sex harassment, retaliation, and a hostile work environment were dismissed by the trial court, and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The key basis in upholding the dismissal was the exchange of Valentine’s Day cards by the employee and her foreman after their “consensual romantic affair” had ended.  Giving the foreman a Valentine undermined her claim because it “indicates that whatever non-sexual advances [the foreman] made were not unwelcome.”

But giving a Valentine to a co-worker supported denial of unemployment compensation benefits in Harvey v. Wackenhut Corporation, 2005 WL 3529197 (Minn. App. 2005) (unpublished).  The employee was fired for engaging in sex harassment and refusing to cooperate in an investigation, which the Department of Employment & Economic Development (DEED) deemed to constitute disqualifying “misconduct,” and the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed.  The employee was ineligible for unemployment compensation benefits because of his conduct, which included getting a “Valentine and a romantic poem” to a pair of women at his worksite, which led them to file a sex harassment complaint.  The employer, pursuant to its policies, instructed him to provide information about the incident, either orally or in writing, but he refused to do so.  His “refusal to abide by [the employer’s] request reflected intentional disregard for his obligation as an employee and constituted employment misconduct.”

Sending Valentines also got a litigant into trouble in In Re Nadeau, 407 N.W.2d 406 (Minn. App. 1987), rev denied (Minn. 1987).  The Court of Appeals upheld commitment of a mentally ill person based, in part, on stalking activities, which included sending a pair of Valentines to a man she met when she worked as a secretary at the school he attended.  The woman had been committed as mentally ill on two prior occasions, but the second determination was reversed because of insufficient evidence that she posed a substantially likelihood of harm to herself or others.  She continued to have mental difficulties, highlighted by increasing agitation and repeated stalking activities.  The most recent incidents included sending two Valentine cards to the man, signed by her in the name of his non-existent son.  This behavior indicated that she could not care for herself and had become dangerous and could no longer live safely in freedom.

A father who participated in a television news report about family law and visitation issues, which embarrassed his children, was barred from future publication of their pictures in the media based, in part, on the Valentine’s Day impact it had on the children in Geske v. Marcolina, 642 N.W.2d 62 (Minn. App. 2002).  The Ramsey County District Court enjoined the husband from further publishing the names and images of the children in the media.  The appellate court upheld the injunction because of the “emotional damage to the children,” coupled with the “detrimental effect that such publication would have on the reunification process.”  The children “suffered embarrassment, emotional upset, and anger” following the television broadcast, which included both the names and a photograph of his two daughters, aged 9 and 8.  The older girl felt that the father should not have their pictures, while the younger one “no longer wanted to give her father a Valentine that she had made” at the suggestion of her therapist.  The impact on the “girl’s tenuous emotional state” warranted prohibiting the father from further dissemination of their photographs to the media although he could use their names as reflected in the court file.

Cupid criminality

Cupid’s Day is rife with criminal litigation.

An inflammatory closing argument by a prosecutor did not constitute misconduct in a prosecution for domestic assault that occurred the night before Valentine’s Day in State v. Littlewolf, 2003 WL 22187058 (Minn. App. 2003) (unpublished).  Affirming a conviction for assault by the Beltrami County District Court, the Court of Appeals examined the prosecutor’s statements which recounted the origin of Valentine’s Day and apprised the jury that the victim, “remembers Valentine’s Day” when she wakes up every morning and “it’s not just the color of red or pink anymore.  It is blood red, ladies and gentlemen, for her.” 

Although the prosecutor’s remark “falls in the category of inflaming and prejudicing the jury . . . [it] does not require a reversal.”  The “Valentine’s Day story” was short, composing only one-half page of the 20-page transcript of the prosecutor’s closing argument.  Its brevity reflects “that the state did not dwell on the Valentine’s Day story nor used it as a theme for the closing argument.”  Although “the isolated Valentine’s Day story may have been improper,” in light of the argument in whole, it did not constituted prosecutorial misconduct, warranting reversal.

Cupid reared his head in another Valentine’s Day brouhaha in State v. Boogaard, 2003 WL 897207 (Minn. App. 2003) (unpublished), featuring a reversed conviction for third-degree sexual conduct with an underage girl, whom the defendant met at a Valentine’s Day dance.  A Renville County District Court jury acquitted the defendant of one count of third degree criminal sexual conduct involving force or coercion but found him guilty of statutory rape based upon admitted sexual conduct with the underage girl.  The defendant challenged his conviction on grounds that the trial court failed to instruct the jury on the defense of mistake of age, based upon his belief that the 14-year old girl with whom he had a sexual encounter was 16 years old.

The Appellate Court agreed and reversed.  There was evidence that the girl, who met the defendant at a junior high school Valentine’s Day dance, had told him that she was 16 years old, which predicated a defense of mistake of age.  Although the defendant’s counsel did not request an instruction that mistake of age was a defense, the jury should have been told about the defense because counsel notified the court before trial of the request of mistake of age instruction and because there was testimony at trial that the girl told the defendant and others that she was 16 years old.  Due to the testimony that the girl lied about her age, the jury may have acquitted [the defendant] of statutory rape had the mistake instruction been given.  The trial court’s failure to do so was plain error because it constitutes an affirmative defense and the defendant had given pre-trial notice of the defense.  Therefore, the conviction was reversed and remanded.

A man who was aided by his wife in a staged robbery at a motel where he worked in Moorhead unsuccessfully asserted spousal privilege derived from their Valentine’s Day marriage in U.S. v. Gianakos, 415 F.3d 912 (8th Cir. 2005).  A few weeks after the incident, the couple married so that the man could utilize the spousal privilege law in Minnesota in the event they were charged with robbery.  He was later tried and convicted for robbery in state court, but the conviction was reversed because the testimony of his Valentine’s Day wife was used against him, which transgressed the spousal evidentiary privilege under Minn. Stat. §595.02, subd. 1(a).

But he was subsequently prosecuted in federal court for kidnapping and murdering a witness in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1201(c).

A federal court jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.  The Eighth Circuit affirmed, rejecting the husband’s claim that his testimony in his prior state court trial was improperly admitted.  He testified in the state court case in his own defense after his wife, waiving the privilege, testified against him.  Although his testimony was inadmissible under state law because of the marital privilege, its later admission in the federal case did not violate his right against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment because his testimony in the prior state proceeding was not illegally obtained and hence was not constitutionally suspect.  Accordingly, his testimony in the state court case, although improper, was properly used against him in the federal proceeding.

Valentine’s Day is set aside for romance and love.  But, as these cases reflect, it also is a day characterized by rancor and litigation in Minnesota.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

The Business of Valentine’s Day in the United States

  • Number of Valentine’s cards exchanged:  190 million;
  • Amount spent on candy:  $1.9 billion;
  • Amount spent on flowers:  $4.4 billion;
  • Total spent on Valentine’s Day:  $20 billion.

As published originally by Minnesota Lawyer.