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'Sweet' 16 cases top 2016 review

“Every sweet has its sour; every evil, its good.”

             - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays (1841)

Victory was sweet for the winners and defeat was bitter for the vanquished in Minnesota cases decided by the federal and state appellate courts in 2016.

Here is a review, fittingly, of 16 of them.

They represent some of the most important and interesting, or both, appellate rulings during the past year for Minnesota litigants and the lawyers representing them.

Defamation dominates

The past 12 months may go down in the annals of Minnesota law as the Year of Defamation.  A number of decisions involving libel and slander dominated 2016.  Four of them were particularly notable, even though none adjudicated the merits of the underlying defamation issues in the respective lawsuits.

Former Governor Jesse Ventura’s $1.8 million verdict from a Federal court jury in St. Paul in 2014  was reversed by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, but not on defamation grounds, in Ventura v. Kyle, 825 F.3d 876 (8th Cir. 2016).  The court overturned the largest portion of the award, of $1.35 million, for misappropriation of identity and in a 2-1 ruling, reversed and remanded the ex-professional wrestler’s victory on a defamation claim for the balance against the estate of the deceased author and publisher of a book that contained a demeaning passage about him.  The majority ruled that the verdict was tainted by remarks by Ventura’s counsel remarks about insurance during the course of the case, including a brief reference in closing argument, deeming the references to be prejudicial, a proposition that a dissenting judge refuted. and the full circuit refused to rehear the case en banc.

Another defamation case that did not address defamation was in Pfeil v St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church877 N.W2d. 528 (Minn. 2016).  The case was brought against a church in Worthington that made disparaging statements about a married couple expelled from the congregation. A 3-2 majority of the Minnesota Supreme Court held the claim not subject to defamation adjudication because of the “ecclesiastical doctrine” which requires courts to abstain from judicial inquiry into religious matters under the religious “entanglements” proscription of the First Amendment.  But a vigorous dissent by a pair of judges, written by Justice David Lillehaug and joined by Chief Justice Lori Gildea, would have allowed the case to proceed on at least some of the remarks, particularly one accusing them of embezzling funds, because that determination could be made on “neutral principles of law.”

High level state government officials received a formidable privilege for defamation in Harlow v. State Department of Human Services, 883 N.W2d. 561 (Minn. 2016).  A state deputy commissioner was granted an “absolute” immunity from suit by a discharged state hospital psychiatrist for making disparaging statements about the doctor’s performance, although the administrator of the facility was only granted a lesser qualified privilege, resulting in remand of the dispute to the trial court to determine if that privilege can be overcome by common law malice or ill will.

A newspaper reporter was not required to disclose the identity of a confidential source in Range Development Co. of Chisholm v. Star Tribune,   885 N.W2d. 500 (Minn. 2016).    The state’s shield law, Minn. Stat. §  595.025,  said that a reporter could not be compelled to divulge how he  obtained an internal report by the Department of Health concerning alleged neglect of a resident at a disabled living facility in Chisholm.  The statute generally allows journalists to refuse to disclose confidential sources and identification of the source was not required because there was no “concrete” evidence that doing so would lead to developing “persuasive evidence” on the defamation issues of the falsity of the report and any “actual malice” as required under the New York Times v. Sullivan standard.

By year’s end, two of these cases, Ventura and Pfeil, were before the U.S. Supreme Court with pending certiorari petitions. The likelihood of the high court taking the cases is strategically slight, since fewer than 1 percent of all certiorari petitions are granted. But, for them, and other high court litigants, hope springs eternal in the upcoming New Year.

DWI decisions

A trio of important driving-while-intoxicated (DWI) decisions was rendered in Minnesota cases in 2016.

In a case from Dakota County, the U.S. Supreme Court in Bernard v. Minnesota, 136 S.Ct. 2160 (2016) ruled that breath testing of suspected DWI drivers does not require a warrant because it does not “implicate privacy concerns,” unlike more intrusive blood testing, which the High Court barred without a warrant in the consolidated case of Birchfield v. North Dakota.  The Bernard – Birchfield duo was followed by a decision of the state supreme court this fall requiring a warrant for urine testing in State v. Trahan, 886 N.W2d. 216 (Minn. 2016), as the court equated the forced urination in Birchfield more like the extraction of blood than the breath testing in Bernard because of its “greater invasion of privacy in terms of embarrassment.”

The Court of Appeals then weighed in with Johnson v. Commissioner of Public Safety, 2016 Minn. App. LEXIS 75  (Minn. App. 2016), holding that the Minnesota implied consent law invalidates due process when involving a potential urine test.  The panel proclaimed that the criminalization of suspected drunk drivers for test refusal is “not law and, … just as inoperative as if it had not been enacted.”     It deemed the decision consistent with evolving case law, opening up the possibility of retroactive invalidation of many DWI cases and license revocation proceedings.

Facial features

A pair of cases featuring facial challenges to sex-related statutory prohibitions in Minnesota experienced different fates.   In State v. Washington- Davis881 N.W2d. 531 (Minn. 2016), the law criminalizing the promotion and solicitation of prostitution was challenged by the convicted operator of a sex trafficking ring on First Amendment grounds.

The Court of Appeals held that the measure, Minn. Stat. § 69.322, is valid because it does not constitute a “substantially overbroad” restriction on freedom of expression.

But the electronic solicitation law proscribing the online creation of sexually explicit materials that might arouse children less than 16 years of age, known as “grooming,” was held facially unconstitutional by the appellate court in State v. Muccio881 N.W2d. 149 (Minn. 2016).   The law, Minn. Stat. § 69.352, subd. 2a (2) is constitutionally infirm under the First Amendment because of its lack of “connection … [to] any resulting child abuse.”

Fee fights

Fights over attorney’s fees always attract the attention of lawyers and, this year, the appellate courts, as well.

The 8th Circuit overturned a sanction of nearly $282,000 by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis in a Native American tribal land dispute in Wolfchild v. Redwood County824 F.3d 761 (Minn. App. 2016).  It reasoned that the award was improper in the “long, complicated” litigation because the “unsuccessful class action claimants “made good faith, non-frivolous, albeit unsuccessful, arguments” about their entitlement to 12 square miles of land in southern Minnesota under an 1863 treaty.

An acrimonious fee splitting fight resulted in a bittersweet result arising out of $6.35 million personal injury settlement, following successful litigation in Soderberg & Vail v.Meshbesher & Spence, 2016 Minn. App. LEXIS 1 (Minn. Ct. App. 2016) (unpublished). The court upheld a $20,000 quantum meriut award to a workers’ compensation law firm, along with $3,400 in costs and disbursements as the prevailing party, that had referred the case to trial with a personal injury firm.

But it denied the referring law firm a larger share of the fee because referring the matter “without doing further work … does not entitle [the referring firm] to enormous compensation in the absence of a detailed, signed fee sharing arrangement.”

Rare reversals

Unemployment appeals take up a large portion of the docket of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, more than 10 percent in some years, but reversals are quite rare.  However, a pair of the tribunal’s noteworthy decisions in 2016 overturned denial of benefits.

In Quade v. City of Minneapolis, 2016 Minn. App. LEXIS 118 (Minn. Ct. App. Feb. 1, 2016) (unpublished), it remanded a claim for a rehearing on behalf of a municipal employee who claimed that she was denied a “reasonable accommodation” for a leave of absence to care for her ailing mother under the “medically necessary” provision of the unemployment compensation law, Minn. Stat. § 268.095, subd. 1(7).

Similarly, a rehearing was ordered for an employee in White v. University of Minnesota Physicians875 N.W2d. 351 (Minn. 2016), because the unemployment law judge failed to inquire into the role depression may have contributed to the termination of an administrative assistant for a medical clinic in Minneapolis.  Since clear and sufficient evidence raised that inference, the ULJ should have reasonably helped the pro se claimant in developing the record on this central issue.

Split suits

Three concurrent decisions of the state Supreme Court last winter reflected another rarity, 4-3 votes from that tribunal.  The trio concerned a diverse set of suits, an appeal from an administrative agency ruling, a civil medical malpractice case and a first degree murder matter.

In Marks v. Commissioner of Revenue, 875 N.W2d. 321 (Minn. 2016), the court, in a decision written by Justice David Lillehaug, aggrieved Minnesota snowbirds by upholding a decision of the Commissioner of Revenue, which the appellate court had reversed.  Minnesotans who split their time between Florida and Minnesota in a particular tax year were required to pay state income taxes on all of their income because they spent extensive time in Minnesota, which is sufficient to be considered residing here.

The decision, which drew three dissents, turned on the interpretation of “resident” under the state tax laws, which Lillehaug felt had been interpreted in a “reasonable way” by the commissioner, a view that the centers deemed to be contrary to the “intent” of the Legislature.

The defective service of process because the pleadings were signed by an out-of-state lawyer, not admitted in Minnesota, was allowed to be cured in DeCook v. Olmsted County Medical Center, 875 N.W2d. 263 (Minn. 2016).  The 4-3 majority decision upheld the ruling of the trial judge in Rochester to permit amended pleadings to be served, although three of the jurists felt the pleadings were improperly furnished to the individual defendants, who had not authorized service upon an agent who was personally served.

A first-degree murder conviction was upheld by a 4-3 vote in Troxel v. State, 875 N.W2d. 302 (Minn. 2016), on grounds that the trial judge in Hennepin County did not err in refusing to allow the defense to introduce an alternate perpetrator defense.  The exclusion was proper because the defendant failed to meet the “foundational requirement … [of] an inherent connection between the claimed alternate offender and the victim.”

The mixture of these issues and series of split decisions reflect the wide variety of closely- contested and consequential Minnesota cases considered and decided in 2016 by the appellate courts.

Happy 2017!


A dozen more notable 2016 appellate rulings

  • Olson v. Fairview Health Services: 8th Circuit upholds dismissal of qui tam claim for evading Medicaid rate cuts;
  • Morris v. BSNF Railway: Obesity not covered by ADA, 8th Circuit says, and Supreme Court declines review;
  • Jackson vOld EPT: Overtime claim denied by 8th Circuit for “doffing and donning” time by Iowa production workers;
  • State vFawcett: State Supreme Court allows expanded search for substances with search warrant for  alcohol DWI;
  • Melillo vHeitland: Supreme Court  rules certified mail not effective service or process;
  • Expose v. Thad Wilderson & Associates: No immunity for unlicensed intern therapist for disclosing threat of  violence;
  • Mobile Diagnostic Imaging v. Hooten: Anti-SLAPP law ruled unconstitutional by Court of Appeals;
  • State vLiebl: Court of Appeals requires warrant for GPS tracking of deer poachers;
  • City of Golden Valley vWiebesick: Appellate Court holds no probable cause needed for administrative rental inspections;
  • Toyota Life vAmerican Warehouse: Court of Appeals denies  employer offset for statutory wage claim by employee;
  • Doe vColumbia Heights School District: Court of Appeals rejects vicarious liability   for school district in sex abuse claim  by employee;
  • Burt v. Rackner: Employee fired for refusing to share tips with co-workers allowed by appellate court to pursue claim under state mini-FLSA.


Published originally in Minnesota Lawyer.