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Perspectives: 18 cases top the list for past year

Marshall H. Tanick//December 21, 2018

Perspectives: 18 cases top the list for past year

Marshall H. Tanick//December 21, 2018

Marshall H. Tanick
Marshall H. Tanick

“A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.”

Greek Philosopher Plato

(427 B.C. – 347 B.C.)

Befitting the end of 2018, there are 18 cases constituting the list of top cases decided by the federal and state appellate courts for Minnesota.

While not necessarily all of the most important or interesting ones, the 18 represent an eclectic collection of highlights of Minnesota jurisprudence in 2018.

Supreme suits

A pair of constitutional law cases from Minnesota reached the U.S. Supreme Court after going through the federal judicial system this year.  Both resulted in reversals of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, 138 S.Ct. 1876 (2018), the high court, by a 7-2 vote, invalidated the Minnesota law under Minn. Stat. § 211B.11, subd. 1 barring the wearing of “political” badges, buttons, and other apparel or insignia at election voting polls.  Overruling four prior rulings of the U.S. District Court in Minnesota and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, the justices, in a decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, deemed the proscription too vague to withstand constitutional scrutiny under the First Amendment on grounds that the law was not susceptible to reasoned application.

But a constitutional challenge failed in Sveen v. Melin, 138 S.Ct. 1815 (2018), upholding a Minnesota law providing for automatic revocation of a spouse designated on a life insurance policy following a marital dissolution.  In an 8-1 ruling, written by Justice Elena Kagan, the court, again, overturned the 8th Circuit, upholding a lower court decision by Judge David Doty of Minnesota, that the statute, Minn. Stat. § 524.2-804, subd. 1, does not constitute a “substantial impairment of a contractual relationship” under the clause in Article I, § 10 of the U.S. Constitution, forbidding any state law “impairing” the obligation of contracts.

Attorney appeals

Litigation involving attorneys as parties, rather than advocates, tends to attract particular attention from the bar, which saw a proliferation of these cases appealed during the past year.

The exposure of attorneys to liability for malpractice was expanded by the Supreme Court in Frederick v. Wallerich, 907 N.W.2d 167 (Minn. 2018).  An attorney who drafted a prenuptial agreement failed to secure the necessary signatures from two witnesses, making it legally invalid, a year before drafting a will for the husband that did not leave any assets for his wife on grounds that the prenuptial agreement already specified what assets would go to her upon her husband’s death. When the spouse subsequently sued and the husband’s antenuptial agreement was deemed meaningless, he sued the attorney for malpractice.

Although more than six years had passed since execution of the prenuptial agreement, which placed it outside the statute of limitations, the lawsuit was nonetheless timely because the will was drafted within the statute of limitations.  Since the invalid antenuptial agreement “significantly” diminished the husband’s position in connection with the subsequent will, the lawsuit was timely and could proceed.

But another legal malpractice case failed on grounds of lack of standing in Security Bank & Trust Company v. Larkin, et al., 916 N.W.2d  491 (Minn. Sup. Ct. 2018).  The lawsuit was brought by a trust that had to pay more than $1.6 million in taxes due to an improperly drafted trust document.   Because no “concrete harm” occurred before the death of the creator of the trust, no cause of action existed at the time of death.  Therefore, the personal representative lacked standing to pursue a claim arising from the drafting of the instrument.

Three cases involving attorney’s fees also attracted attention.   In Faricy Law Firm, P.A.  v. API, Inc., Asbestos Settlement Trust, 912 N.W.2d 652 (Minn. Sup. Ct. 2018), the Supreme Court promulgated guidelines to be used when determining the attorney fees owing on a contingency fee arrangement to a law firm that was terminated before the case settled.  Deferring to a set of eight factors in “balancing the equities,” the ruling reassured terminated lawyers that they “should not necessarily walk away empty handed” after discharge by the client.

In Hufnagel v. Deer River Health Care Center, 915 N.W.2d 747 (Minn. Sup. Ct.  2018), the Supreme Court, affirming the Worker’s Compensation Court of Appeals, held that an employee’s lawyer should be entitled to reasonable fees for representation of a worker’s compensation claimant when a dispute exists between multiple employers or insureds regarding their respective liability for a work related injury “for the value of the representation provided.”

But an unsurpassable obstacle barred collecting attorney fees from a corporate client because the retainer agreement was only in the name of an individual, not the company in Christensen Law Office v. Ngouambe, 2018 WL 229342 (Minn. App. Ct. May 1, 2018) (unpublished).   Claims of breach of contract and unjust enrichment could not be made against the corporate client because the corporation’s owner only signed the retainer fee agreement in his individual capacity.

Academic actions

Cases involving academic matters had real-life effect and were hardly academic.

In Cruz-Guzman v. State, 916 N.W.2d 1 (Minn. 2018), the Supreme Court held that “separation of powers” does not bar a determination whether the Minneapolis and St. Paul Public School Districts violated the provision in the state constitution assuring “adequate” public  school education.  Overturning a ruling of the Minnesota Court of Appeals which had set aside a Hennepin County District Court ruling, the tribunal held that the lawsuit did not present a “nonjusticiable” issue in determining whether the school systems complied with Article 13, § 1 of the Minnesota State Constitution which requires a “general and uniform system” of public schools which will provide a “thorough and efficient system” for education in the state.  The case has been returned to Hennepin County District Court to determine the adequacy of education provided to student on those school districts and the outcome could have profound effect on the school system in Minnesota.

A high school student in Scott County who posted Tweets on the account of an autistic classmate, urging her to use anthrax to commit suicide, was properly adjudicated as a juvenile offender in In The Matter of the Welfare of A.J.B., 910 N.W.2d 491 (Minn. Ct. App. 2018).  The appellate court rejected a First Amendment challenge to stalking and harassing charges as being unconstitutionally overly broad, either on its face or as applied.  The student’s conduct was not protected by the First Amendment “simply because it is carried out by means of speech.”

Arbitration actions

A pair of unusual decisions by the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned arbitral awards reinstating employees to their jobs.

In City of Richfield v. Law Enforcement Labor Services, 910 N.W.2d 465 (Minn. App. 2018), the appellate court overturned an arbitration decision in favor of a terminated Richfield police officer who allegedly used excessive force in an encounter with a Somali youth and failed to report it.  Although the arbitrator reinstated the officer, the court reasoned that the dissemination was “contrary to public policy,” an issue pending before the Supreme Court, which heard the case in mid-September and is expected to issue a ruling soon.

Similar reasoning, although not explicitly using the “public policy” terminology, resulted in the reversal of an arbitration decision reinstating the warden of the Men’s Corrections facility at Stillwater in Dept. of Corrections v. Hammer, 2018 WL 2769165 (Minn. App. Ct. June 1, 2018) (unpublished),   based upon his improper behavior directed to women employees. Because his behavior violated the facility’s policies, the administration erred in reinstating him, and the prison was allowed to terminate him for the blatant wrong doing.

Employment enigmas

A pair of employment enigmas was answered favorably for employees.

Overturning an appellate court ruling, the Supreme Court released an employee working for a medical device company from a noncompete clause in St. Jude Medical, Inc. v. Carter, 913 N.W.2d 678 (Minn. 2018).  It rejected the former employer’s contention that the boilerplate language in the noncompete agreement, presuming that it would suffer irreparable harm and, therefore, entitling it to injunctive relief, in the absence of “any proof [of] circumstances … justifying an inference of irreparable harm.”

An employee who lost her job because of child care difficulty was entitled to unemployment compensation benefits in Diaz v. Three Rivers community Action, Inc., 917 N.W.2d 813 (Minn. Ct. App. 2018).

The appellate court determined that the employee fell within the “loss of child care” exception under Minn. Stat. § 268.095, subd. 1.   Judge Michael Kirk, however, would have allowed benefits on grounds that the employee did not quit, but was terminated when she was told that she would lose her job if she could not work a scheduled shift because of her lack of child care.

Criminal cases

A series of unusual criminal cases were decided by the Minnesota courts in 2018.

One of the oddest was Glaze v. State,   909 N.W.2d 322 (Minn. 2018) in which the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal seeking to clear the name of a notorious convict who had been found guilty of killing three women in 1989 and died in prison three years ago.  An effort by lawyers from the Minnesota Innocence Project sought to introduce new evidence to exonerate the decedent was rejected because the convict had died and his lawyers who were “not aggrieved parties, themselves, [lacked] … standing to pursue … postconviction claims on appeal.”

A criminal defendant was required to provide a finger print needed to unlock a cell phone in State v. Diamond, 905 N.W.2d 870 (Minn. 2018).  The Supreme Court rebuffed the defense claim that the requirement violated his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, reasoning that the provision was inapplicable because furnishing a fingerprint elicited only physical evidence and “did not reveal the contents of his mind,” which negated any violation of any Fifth Amendment privilege.

A similar rejection of privilege occurred, on different grounds in State v. Atwood, 914 N.W.2d 422 (Minn. Ct. App.  2018), in which the appellate court reversed a suppression motion granted by the Murray County District Court brought by a criminal defendant suppressing a blood sample that had been taken from him by a medical professional on grounds that the seizure of the patient’s blood sample, pursuant to a search warrant addressed to the hospital was not protected by the physician patient privilege because it did not constitute information to privilege under the “plain language” of Minn. Stat. § 595.02, subd. 1(d).

The defense of “necessity” could be invoked against criminal conduct arising out of an effort to shut down two oil pipelines, carrying material from Canada to Minnesota and other states in State v. Klapstein, 2018 WL 1902473 (Minn. 2018) (unpublished).  rev. den’d. (Minn, July 17, 2018).  A divided court of appeals held by a 2-1 unpublished ruling that there was no “critical impact” allowing the state to appeal a determination by the Clearwater County District Court that allowed 11 protestors who were charged with felony criminal damage to public service facilities to argue that their action was excused because of “necessity.”   The ruling precipitated acquittal of three of the activists by the trial judge after presentation of the prosecution’s case and before defenses allowed by the trial judge ever reached the jury.

In another bizarre case, a third degree murder conviction of a suicidal woman in Hennepin County District Court was reversed in State v. Hall, 915 N.W.2d 528 (Minn. 2018).  The convicted woman had caused the death of a passenger by intentionally driving her car into a parked vehicle that killed one of the occupants.  Because the woman was intending to commit suicide, she could not be convicted of third degree murder. Noting the “unique and tragic circumstances” of this case, the decision by Judge Edward Cleary overturned the conviction because the evidence showed that the woman intended to kill herself, not someone else, although the driver may be culpable for some other offense.  The determination that drew dissent from Judge Carol Hooten, who opined that intent to cause death of a person, is not a necessary element of a third degree murder charge.

 Trademark tussles

A pair of trademark cases, one high profile and one less so, was reversed by the Eighth Circuit.

In Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Inc. v. Rushmore Photo and Gifts, 908 F.3d 313 (8th Cir. 2018),   an entity created by the local chamber of commerce to promote the 80-year old motorcycle event in Sturgis, South Dakota, could not prevent a local business from using the “Sturgis” phrase in the sale of its merchandise.  The claimant failed to establish that its trademark for Sturgis was valid and protected under federal trademark law or a state deceptive trade practices measure.  As a result, it overturned an injunction that had been entered by the trial court after the judge had overturned a jury award of more than $900,000 in damages.

In a trademark case of less visibility, the court also set aside a trial court’s determination of trademark infringement by a company that marketed dog waste bags as “one pull” in ZW USA, Inc., v. PWD Systems, 889 F.3d 441 (8th Cir. 2018).  The court upheld dismissal of a contention of confusion under the federal Lanham Act, but remanded the case to determine whether the trademark was so generic or descriptive as to invalidate any protection for that phrase.

The Philosopher, Plato, whose observation keynoted this review, made another perceptive observation applicable to it:  “Wise people speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.”

Happy New Year, no fooling!

Marshall H. Tanick is an attorney with the Twin Cities law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.


Ten more ‘top’ cases in 2018

  • Hanson v. Seaver (8th Cir.): Property tax refund not exempt in bankruptcy;
  • EEOC v. North Memorial Health Care (8th): Employer may rescind job offer because employee refuses to work on Sabbath;
  • Johnson v. City of Minneapolis (8th): Immunity denied to police for false arresting of bystanders on emergency call to home;
  • Flowers v. State (Minn. Sup. Ct.): Consecutive life imprisonment sentences may be imposed upon juvenile for multiple first-degree murder convictions;
  • State v. Holloway (Minn. Sup. Ct.): Mistake of law defense limited to 10-year age gap in criminal sex with minor case;
  • Otto v. Wright County, (Minn. Sup. Ct.): Counties may have private audits, rather than by State Auditor;
  • Nationwide Housing Corp. Skoglund (Minn. Ct. App.): 4th Amendment exclusionary rule for illegal search not applicable to civil evictions;
  • Kramer v. Kramer, (Minn. Sup. Ct.): Antenuptial agreement invalid for lack of adequate consideration and due to duress;
  • Olson v. One 1999 Lexus (Minn. App. Ct.): DWI vehicle forfeiture law deemed unconstitutional without prompt judicial review;
  • Rodriguez v. State Farm (Minn. Ct. App.): Workers compensation cut off for chiropractic payments does not preclude a claim against no-fault insurer.

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