Court of Appeals 08.24.10

A couple of cases of interest on the unpublished list today:

Dayspring Development, LLC v.  Little Canada:  A case on its third trip to the Court; this time, the Court holds that the LLC lacks standing to seek compensation for a regulatory taking that occurred between 2003 and 2005.  At the time of the taking, the principal officer of the LLC owned the property individually, only quitclaiming the property to the LLC after the City relented and granted a final plat and development agreement.  The Court determines that the interest in takings compensation is separate from the general ownership interest, and the transfer of property to the LLC failed to convey the right to takings compensation.  This is not the usual outcome for a regulatory takings case, but the Court felt that because the takings period was finite (ending with the plat approval), the right to compensation should be treated as a standard eminent-domain claim, accruing to the owner at the time of the taking, unless the interest is specifically conveyed.  The logic is simple enough, but don’t be surprised if the Supreme Court picks it up to chew over the need for a separate transfer of the right to compensation.

Otsego v. New River Hospital District:  What drives a judge to quote classic-rock standards in an opinion?  Read Judge Johnson’s concurrence in this case and decide for yourself.  I can’t decide whether it’s a stellar display of legal principle applying over personal opinion, or just a judge throwing a tantrum after being talked out of legislating from the bench.  The opinion certainly makes clear that launching an appeal when your only argument is “arbitrary and capricious” is normally a fool’s errand.  Where Judge Johnson loses me is that it’s not because of a weak legal standard or drafting problem in the Legislature; it’s the proper separation of powers in government that keeps the courts from playing Monday-morning quarterback with executive and legislative decisions.  In short, it’s a feature, not a bug.  This opinion should immediately go into the curriculum of high-school civics classes throughout the state.

Harmsen v. Minneapolis: Notable for the return of a normal application of the Ridgewood estoppel analysis.  “Normal,” in the sense that affirmative misconduct – malfeasance – is required to prevent the enforcement of otherwise valid law.   Last month, in North Oaks v. Sarpal, a different three-judge panel seemed to throw that requirement overboard when it held that “erroneous government advice” was enough to satisfy the test (or at least was enough to back up a trial court judge who thought so).  It’s not at all clear how “erroneous advice” differs from any other mistake a planning department employee might make, but that’s now the central holding of a published Court of Appeals opinion.  The facts in Harmsen don’t set up a great conflict between the opinions, but it shows that the Sarpal decision needs to be harmonized, somehow, with the Ridgewood-KMart line of cases on wrongful conduct.  If “malfeasance” is not the standard, then the standard effectively becomes “Does the judge blame the city or the owner for the problem?” – especially if the decision is only reviewed for abuse of discretion.

Court of Appeals 03.23.10

Well overdue for a new post.   The Court helpfully provides an opinion affirming a railroad-crossing closure in the Town of Lorain.  Perhaps to aid in my writing of an update/critique, the opinion is as atrocious as a correctly decided opinion can be.  I can re-write the opinion in 6 sentences:

The Town and Union Pacific agreed to close an at-grade crossing under Minnesota Statutes, 219.074.  Appellants argue that the Town should have vacated the road under Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 164, and awarded them just compensation through that procedure.  We find that 219.074 is the controlling statute in this case.  Appellant’s request for a writ of mandamus directing the Town to use Chapter 164 procedures was properly denied.  Minn. Stat. 219.074 does not contain a cause of action for compensation to nearby landowners.  Affirmed.

Clear, concise, and leads to predictable results in the future.  Instead, the Court decides to frame the writ request as moot, seizing on the appellant’s admission that the crossing was closed and would stay closed.  But this leaves the impression that if only appellants had sued earlier, the outcome might have been different.  That’s simply not the truth.  The Town used the correct procedure.  The outcome is the same no matter when the owners file their challenge.  Instead of simply saying that, and resolving the issue, the Court just invites someone else to try again.

The second half of the analysis is even worse.  Having found that ordering a road-vacation process under Chapter 164 is moot, the Court rubs salt in the wound by finding that the possibility of compensation only springs from – wait for it – the Town holding hearings under Chapter 164.  It’s not a compelling argument, and as noted above, it’s totally unnecessary.  The greater sin, again, is creating the impression that the outcome might have been different if appellants had just sued earlier.  In some cases decided on maddening procedural grounds, that might be true.  In this case, it clearly and unequivocally is not true.  There was absolutely no reason to dodge the merits in this case, but for some reason, the Court chose to do that.

It’s certainly not the case that we’re going to be overcome with a flood of at-grade rail crossing closure cases.  But we all have our part to play in making government more efficient, less expensive, and better for everyone.  Telling litigants, “gee, you should have sued earlier” when the answer is clearly “no, the Town did it right” is the exact opposite of those things, and it does impact operations and budgets at every level of government.

Court of Appeals 3.24.09

Two cases of interest released today:

– A published decision in Halla Nursery v. Chanhassen reversing a district court order preventing Chanhassen from enforcing its sign ordinance.  The facts are quite unique – most of the decision applies facts to a 1997 judgment between the parties, in place of ordinances.  The opinion eventually comes around to applying “vested rights” doctrine, both to the judgment and to the City’s attempts to enforce its sign ordinance.  In both realms, the Court of Appeals finds no vested rights – the owner is supposed to know the rules that apply to them, even when government officials do not.  This is the latest in a string of recent cases that have reinforced the notion that the government at large will not be held responsible for the mistakes and mis-statements of any of its officials. 

– An unpublished decision in Minnesota Commerical Railway Co. v. Rice Creek Watershed District, which applies the airport-noise (Alevizos) takings standard to water projects – here, whether an RCWD project caused damage to a railway bridge.  The analysis is light as the facts to pin blame on RCWD seem to be in short supply; the railway had a thirty-year gap in their maintenance records for the bridge from the early 70s to just before RCWD installed their project.  The opinion also briefly touches on statutory immunity and the value of a good administrative record.