When can a state be sued? At least in Minnesota, that’s an issue that will have to be considered anew starting at the District Court level, thanks to a decision last week by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The case in question had to do with a job hire gone wrong and whose fault it was. In October 2011 Joan Nichols responded to an online posting for a job as communications director with the Minnesota Office of the Secretary of State. Nichols, who lived in Ohio at the time, was invited to come to Minnesota and interview for the job the following month.
At the interview in November 2011, Nichols met with then-Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and then-Director of Governmental Affairs Beth Fraser. In her suit, Nichols said that the online job posting and things said during the interview by Ritchie and Fraser conveyed knowingly false information about the duties involved in the job. Nichols alleged those misrepresentations were meant to get her to quit her job in Ohio and take the job at the Secretary of State, which she did.
Nichols took the job, but maintained later that she wouldn’t have had she known the employer’s statements were false. She began working at the Secretary of State’s office in January 2012, and her employment ended after a six-week probationary period when her contract was not renewed.
The following September, Nichols sued the state, the Secretary of State’s office, Ritchie and Fraser in Ramsey County District Court. In addition to common-law tort claims, Nichols alleged statutory claims for “false statements as inducement to entering employment.”
Sovereign immunity at issue
At issue was whether the State of Minnesota may be sued in tort under Minnesota statutes 181.64 and 181.65. Nichols’ suit was based on those two statutes. The statute makes it unlawful for any person, partnership, company, corporation, association, or organization to induce someone to move to Minnesota for the sake of accepting a job if that inducement contains knowingly false representations.
The state and other respondents in the case moved to dismiss all claims, saying that claims against the state under those statutes are barred by sovereign immunity — the so-called “king can do no wrong” principle — because the statutes in question neither name the state nor unmistakably apply to the state, as required by the statutes. Because the statutes do not specifically waive sovereign immunity, the respondents argued, the state cannot be sued under them.
After the Ramsey County District Court denied the respondents’ motion to dismiss parts of the claim, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the broad language of statutes 181.64 and 181.65 was insufficient by itself to subject the state to a lawsuit. The high court granted review on the issue of whether the state is immune from such claims.
Statute still under construction
Minneapolis attorney Daniel J. Cragg, filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the Minnesota Association for Justice. He said that the association had problems with the Court of Appeals opinion, thinking that it reinvigorated the issue of sovereign immunity in a way that was inconsistent with previous Minnesota Supreme Court rulings that seemed to abolish it.
The court held that Nichols cannot sue the state under sections 181.64 and 181.65, but allowed that that holding doesn’t foreclose the possibility that a statute may waive sovereign immunity without explicitly naming the state.
“The Legislature has provided two methods by which it may waive sovereign immunity, so we must give effect to the ‘plain, clear, and unmistakable’ language of Minn. Stat. 645.27,” wrote Justice G. Barry Anderson in his opinion. “We simply hold here that the language in Minn. Stat. 181.64 and 181.65 is insufficient to satisfy the specific requirements of section 645.27.”
Statute 645.27 holds that he state is not bound by the passage of a law unless it’s named therein. The court concluded that the state Legislature did not plainly, clearly, and unmistakably waive sovereign immunity for claims brought under that statute.
“Really, this was a statutory construction case,” Cragg said. “The Supreme Court essentially said we were both right, which is a little odd because they did go on to say that this rule is under construction in (Minnesota statute) 645, but sovereign immunity still exists for statutory claims.
“It’s a little more clear now as far as the state’s potential liability for statutory claims,” Cragg said. “But at least they reaffirmed the abolition of sovereign immunity for common-law claims.”