Court of Appeals 08.25.09

The Court publishes an opinion in an insurance dipute resulting from a City of Cyrus auto accident – a city firefighter struck another car en route to a call.  The decision is made on straight insurance law, no immunity defenses or other municipal-law quirks here.

In another case, Douglas County fails to obtain a zoning injunction preventing the vacation rental of single-family homes.  The Court engages in a plain zoning ordinance interpretation, indicating that the County has no specific ordinance or limitation on the rental of property, vacation or otherwise.  This case is an instructive example that while the zoning ordinances control “use,” the term “use” is very crude in this context – a single family house is a single family house, whether owner-occupied or rented out as a whole.  All text has to be read in concert – apparently, an earlier swing and miss at the house-rental issue led to some tweaking of the PUD section of the ordinance to include “resorts” as a conditional use.  Unfortunately, PUD is defined elsewhere in the ordinance as multiple structures on a single parcel of land – not applicable to single-family houses developed independent from one another.  Tackle problems head-on; if the publis support is not there to tackle the “problem,” then make peace with the problem. 

Continuing the bad day for local code enforcement, the City of Ramsey loses an appeal of a City Council nuisance-abatement action.  The opinion is one-sided to the extent that you know that there is more to this story, but that happens when local officials: a) bring a charge on facts that quickly turn out to be less than 100% correct; and b) layer a flawed reading of local ordinances on top of the factual mistake.  Mistakes happen.  If you’ve ever wondered why citizens grumble about local enforcement options, though, think of this case: while the Court obliterates the City’s case in about a sentence (van on a driveway = no violation), from December 2007 until last Tuesday the wrong answer ruled the day.  Mistakes linger for a long time when the only relief is the appellate courts.

Cert granted in Eagan condemnation case

In trial last week, catching up …

The Supreme Court granted the City of Eagan’s petition for review in the Cedar Grove condmnation and redevelopment effort.  The Court of Appeals ruled in May that the City’s Economic Development Authority failed to meet a prerequisite (the City’s resolution authorizing the takings required an approved development agreement, which wasn’t in place when the judicial takings were filed in 2007), rendering the condemnation invalid.  The City presumably is arguing that the scope of the condemnation power is not affected by delegation of the task of getting the takings done to an EDA.

The Court denied review of the airport dispute between the City of Owatonna and a fixed-base operator at the airport.  The Court of Appeals applied straight contract law in reaching its decision in June; no quirks of municipal law or airport law played a role.

Court of Appeals 8.18.09

Two unpublished opinions on our topics in today’s releases.  Both have useful discussions of their core legal issues, even if they don’t break new ground.  A firefighter suing the city of Owatonna survives a motion summary judgment on vicarious official immunity; in the majority’s opinion, the underlying facts weren’t sufficiently established to allow a clear decision on whether a fire chief’s act was ministerial or discretionary.  The dissent argues that immunity applies unless the city has adopted a policy explicitly limiting its official’s discretion.  Both majority and dissent do a good job of checking off precedent – this opinion functions as an encyclopedia entry, good for filing away to save research time in the future.

The other item is a court review of a civil-service discharge hearing, an increasing rarity as government bodies increasingly move away from civil service style rules and procedures.  On this type of appeal, the court is charged with identifying the substantial evidence supporting the administrative decision.  As a result, the opinion serves as a good roadmap for anyone facing a performance-based termination or discipline hearing, pro or con.  While the employee must have put on decent evidence on her own behalf, this gives you an idea of the facts that float to the top of a discipline/discharge case.

Court of Appeals 08.11.09

Today’s releases include a published opinion holding that immunities, either under the Municipal Tort Claims Act or official immunity, do not apply in mandamus actions.  The short version of the facts in Pigs R Us, LLC v. Compton Township: company applies for swine facility building permit, Town grants permit, citizens complain, Town pulls permit, Town hastily passes a zoning revision, Court grants writ of mandamus and awards damages.  The case on damages (Pigs R Us sought over $1.7 million) is where things got interesting.  The Court engages in a detailed discussion of statutory immunity and mandamus, reaching a clear conclusion that mandamus is outside the MTCA.  Less attention is paid to a vicarious official immunity claim, as it’s logically inconsistent to concede that a non-discretionary duty exists supporting mandamus (as the Town does here), but then claim official immunity, which only exists for discretionary acts.  The case came to the Court on a denial of summary judgment, so the opinion only reaches the questions of immunity. 

I don’t think the Court is trying to mock Compton Township, but it’s odd that the unpublished opinions can be read to say “hey, here’s how it’s done.”    The City of Rochester fares better making an immunity argument to the Court, obtaining a reversal for entry of judgment on a failure-to-warn claim.  The opinion follows the line of cases (Minder v. Anoka County, Krieger v. St. Paul) requiring actual knowledge of a defect to defeat statutory immunity.  Pawn America applied for an available pawnbroker license in St. Louis Park, citizens panicked, the City adopted a moratorium, studied and revised its zoning several months later, Pawn America gets no license.  City wins the lawsuit – the key difference likely being the adoption of a moratorium for study (reasonable) instead of an immediate rewrite of zoning ordinances (arbitrary).

And I didn’t get to it when it came out (real writing assignments always crowd out the blog assignments), but congratulations to my law school classmate Roy Christensen, who won a 60-day rule appeal for his landowner client last week.