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Court of Appeals Digest: Aug. 7, 2023

Minnesota Lawyer//August 10, 2023

The Minnesota Judicial Center stands in the Capitol complex in St. Paul. (File photo)

Court of Appeals Digest: Aug. 7, 2023

Minnesota Lawyer//August 10, 2023

Civil Precedential


Eminent Domain

Attorney Fees

The state condemned a portion of an owner’s land in an eminent-domain proceeding to construct a highway, offering the landowner $43,000 in compensation. After the landowner rejected the offer, court-appointed commissioners heard his challenge and awarded him $92,000. The landowner, who was represented by legal counsel under a contingency-fee arrangement based on a percentage of the damages obtained, moved the District Court to recover his attorney fees under Minn. Stat. § 117.031(a). The District Court determined the landowner’s fee award using the lodestar method, ordering the state to pay the landowner an amount that exceeded the contingency-fee amount. The state appealed the award, arguing that § 117.031(a) limits attorney fees to a landowner’s out-of-pocket payments.

The Court of Appeals held that a District Court awarding attorney fees in an eminent-domain proceeding under Minn. Stat. § 117.031(a) is not limited to the amount specified in the landowner’s attorney-fee agreement. Affirmed.

A23-0036 State by Comm’r of Transp. v. Schaffer (Dakota County)



Civil Nonprecedential



Breach of Implied Warranty

In this construction dispute, appellant-contractor argued that the District Court erred in determining that respondent-homeowner was entitled to recover on his counterclaim for breach of implied warranty because appellant was prevented by respondent from completing the project without justification. Appellant further argued that the recovery to respondent was erroneous because the cause of action for breach of the implied warranty had not yet accrued and because appellant did not have a chance to cure the defective work. Noting that appellant had numerous opportunities to fix the identified defects, the Court of Appeals declined to impose a requirement that causes of action for breach of implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose can be brought only after completion or substantial completion of the project. Appellant’s remaining arguments were forfeited because it failed to assert them before the District Court. Affirmed.

A22-1455 Liberte Constr., LLC v. Smith (Hennepin County)



Domestic Relations

Child Protection; Termination of Parental Rights

Appellant-mother challenged a District Court order terminating her parental rights, arguing that the District Court abused its discretion in ruling that a statutory basis existed to terminate her rights and violated her due-process rights by holding a hearing in appellant’s absence when she failed to appear for the scheduled hearing. The Court of Appeals concluded that appellant had substantially, continuously, or repeatedly refused or neglected to comply with parental duties, that appellant was palpably unfit to be a party to the parent-child relationship, that reasonable efforts failed to correct the conditions leading to child’s placement, that the child was neglected and in foster care, that termination was in the child’s best interest, and that appellant’s due-process rights were not violated by the hearing taking place in her absence. Affirmed.

A23-0280 In re Welfare of Children of M.M.G. (Cottonwood County)



Domestic Relations

Dissolution; Parenting Time

Respondent and appellant were married for approximately five years before their marriage was dissolved. They have one joint child. This appeal was focused primarily on the issues of parenting time and child support. The Court of Appeals concluded that the District Court did not err by ordering a parenting-time schedule that limited appellant’s parenting time to less than what he requested. The Court also concluded that the District Court did not err by not deviating downward from the presumptive child-support obligation. But the District Court erred by assigning responsibility for certain debts to appellant, and by not making the findings of fact that were necessary for a ruling on respondent’s request for need-based attorney fees. Affirmed in part as modified, reversed in part, and remanded.

A22-0390 Russell v. Russell (Ramsey County)




Appraisal Awards

Appellant insurer challenged summary judgment confirming an appraisal award in favor of respondent townhome association relating to storm-damaged buildings. Insurer argued that (1) the appraisal panel improperly required it to pay to replace the shingles on all 37 townhomes even though the shingles did not match before the storm and (2) the District Court erred by directing entry of judgment before the shingles were replaced. Noting that insurer could have but did not exclude coverage for undamaged portions of covered property due to mismatch with damaged portions replaced with new material, the Court of Appeals concluded that the appraisal panel’s award was consistent with the insurance policy and law, and there was no error in entering judgment before the shingles were replaced. Affirmed.

A22-1775 Meadows of Bloomfield Assoc. v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. (Dakota County)



Landlord & Tenant

Emergency Tenant Remedies Actions

In this appeal from judgment in consolidated emergency tenant remedies action (ETRA) petitions, appellant-landlords challenged the denial of their pretrial motion to dismiss and the District Court’s posttrial factual findings concerning damages. The Court of Appeals was not persuaded to adopt a new rule that would permit landlords to violate the covenants of habitability when a tenant fails to pay rent. Affirmed.

A22-1038 Smith v. Temple Corp., Inc. (St. Louis County)




Attorney Fees

Pro se appellant challenged the District Court’s order awarding the personal representative of an estate attorney fees. Appellant argued the District Court erred when it: (1) granted, in part, the personal representative’s motion for attorney fees, (2) found the fees claimed by the personal representative’s attorney fair and reasonable, and (3) denied appellant’s motion for attorney fees. Noting that the record was replete with examples of the personal representative and his attorney acting in good faith to benefit the estate, the Court of Appeals found no error. Affirmed.

A23-0289 Estate of Kellett (Hennepin County)




Undue Influence

Appellant unduly influenced his cognitively declining parents to sign documents in order to undermine their estate plan and procure for himself a substantial part of their wealth, which they had arranged in their wills and trusts to be divided evenly among appellant and his two siblings. Appellant’s siblings sued him in this civil action about seven years after their father died and two years after their mother died. The District Court found that appellant breached his fiduciary duties as attorney-in-fact, trustee, personal representative, and trusted son. It entered judgment against appellant totaling nearly $1.8 million, including damages and prejudgment interest. Appellant challenged that decision on appeal, contending that he could not be liable under a probate theory and his siblings lacked standing to sue him as trustee, attorney-in-fact, or in probate because neither he nor they were appointed personal representative, and contending that his siblings failed to invoke the District Court’s in personam jurisdiction necessary to prevail against him in his capacity as trustee. He argued alternatively that recovery for most of the damages was barred by the applicable statute of limitations and that, in any event, the District Court erroneously awarded prejudgment interest from the time appellant misappropriated the funds rather than from the time the siblings commenced the suit. The Court of Appeals concluded that appellant waived his jurisdictional challenge, that the siblings had standing to sue as trust beneficiaries, and that the siblings sued within the operable statute-of-limitations deadline. But the Court also held that the District Court erred in calculating prejudgment interest. Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

A22-1652 Jorgensen v. Jorgensen (Washington County)



Real Property Sales

Contracts for Deed

In this dispute between parents and daughter and son-in-law over a contract for deed for the sale of a family farm, appellant-vendors argued that the District Court (1) erred by granting partial summary judgment for respondent-vendees; (2) erred by denying appellants’ summary-judgment motion; (3) erred in making factual findings about the treatment of excess sale proceeds from the sale of equipment following a trial on this issue; and (4) abused its discretion in awarding attorney fees. Noting that the uncontested evidence showed that vendors gave a substantial portion of the value of the farm to respondents as a gift, and that vendor’s argument that the gift should not be considered final until the time for lawfully amending the tax return has passed did not find support in caselaw, the Court of Appeals concluded that summary judgment was proper. Affirmed.

A22-1843 Kollmann v. Garding (Stearns County)



Unemployment Benefits


Relator challenged the decision of an unemployment-law judge (ULJ) dismissing his appeals and denying his request for an additional evidentiary hearing after relator failed to participate in the scheduled hearing. Relator argued that he had good cause for failing to participate in the hearing and that the hearing notices were inadequate. The Court of Appeals concluded that relator’s explanation that he noticed the date change for the hearing but not the time change did not amount to good cause. Affirmed.

A22-1726, A22-1728 McGrane v. Airgas USA, LLC (Dep’t of Emp’t & Econ. Dev.)



Civil Order Opinions


Breach of Contact


In this dispute involving appellant’s failure to repay bank under a credit agreement, appellant appealed the grant of summary judgment entered in bank’s favor. Appellant argued that because the credit card was unsolicited, he should not be liable for the debt. The Court of Appeals concluded that the grant of summary judgment to the bank was appropriate. Affirmed.

A23-0179 Wells Fargo Bank, NA v. Metzler (Sherburne County)



Civil Commitment

SDP; Findings

Appellant challenged his adjudication as a sexually dangerous person (SDP). The District Court ruled that appellant “should” be placed at a nonsecure Community Preparation Services (CPS) facility. Noting that its reading of the judgment left it unsure whether the decision to adjudicate appellant an SPD was based on the criteria in Minn. Stat. § 253D.02, subd. 16, or based, at least partially, on the District Court’s belief that, if it adjudicated appellant an SDP, it could direct the commissioner to place appellant at a nonsecure CPS facility, the Court of Appeals concluded the placement decision was defective. Reversed and remanded.

A23-0431 In re Civil Commitment of Winsky (Olmsted County)



Domestic Relations

Dissolution; Appeals

On appeal from a judgment and decree dividing the marital estate of appellant-husband and respondent-wife following their divorce, husband raises several issues, including the District Court’s decision to award an unspecified amount of conduct-based attorney fees to wife. The Court of Appeals concluded that the District Court’s judgment and decree did not fully adjudicate wife’s request for conduct-based attorney fees, and thus the appeal was premature. Appeal dismissed.

A22-1301 Smittkamp v. Smittkamp (Dakota County)



Sufficiency of Findings

In this appeal arising out of a conciliation court replevin action in which respondent sought the return of equipment from appellant related to the placement of a shed on appellant’s property, appellant challenged the evidence supporting the District Court’s judgment following a bench trial. The Court of Appeals concluded that the evidence in the record sustained the findings of fact, and the findings sustained the conclusions of law and judgment. Affirmed

A22-1713 Rossow v. Kremer (Kandiyohi County)




Criminal Nonprecedential



Probable Cause

Defendant challenged his convictions for fifth-degree drug possession and introducing contraband into a jail, arguing, inter alia, that the District Court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence because his mere presence in a vehicle containing a controlled substance did not establish probable cause to arrest him. Noting that the record lacked evidence linking defendant to the methamphetamine other than his proximity to the glove box in which it was found, the Court of Appeals concluded that there were insufficient indications that defendant exercised dominion and control over the substance and thus law-enforcement officers did not have probable cause to arrest defendant. Reversed.

A22-1512 State v. Olson (Aitkin County)


Jury Instructions

Voluntary Intoxication

Defendant challenged his convictions for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and arson, arguing that the District Court abused its discretion and committed reversible error when it declined to give a voluntary-intoxication jury instruction. The Court of Appeals concluded that defendant did not provide overwhelming evidence of his intoxication that would have absolved him from making an explicit offer of proof to the District Court offering intoxication as an explanation for his actions, as required to be entitled to the voluntary-intoxication instruction. Affirmed.

A22-1212 State v. Mooney (Renville County)



Plea Withdrawal

Adequate Factual Basis

Defendant pleaded guilty to felony driving while impaired after she crashed her car into a highway guardrail. She sought to withdraw her Norgaard plea, claiming it was invalid because she could not recall the events that form the basis of her plea and her counsel used leading questions during her plea hearing. Noting that defendant acknowledged in her testimony that the state’s evidence against her was true and satisfied all the elements of the crime, the Court of Appeals concluded that defendant submitted a valid plea and the use of leading questions is only disfavored—not prohibited. Affirmed.

A22-1338 State v. Hewitt (Hennepin County)



Plea Withdrawal

Fair & Just

Petitioner challenged the postconviction court’s denial of his requests for pre- and post-sentence plea withdrawal to charges including felony fifth-degree drug possession. The Court of Appeals concluded that this was not a rare case justifying reversal of the District Court’s discretionary decision not to allow pre-sentence plea withdrawal, and defendant failed to present evidence of coercion that would support a determination that his guilty pleas were invalid. Affirmed.

A22-1380 Brown v. State (Mower County)




Aggravating Factors

In this direct appeal from a conviction of felony driving while intoxicated (DWI), defendant argued that his prior license revocation following an operating-while-intoxicated (OWI) conviction in Wisconsin should not have been used to enhance his current DWI. The Court of Appeals concluded that defendant’s Wisconsin license revocation conformed with Minnesota’s DWI laws and qualifies as a prior driving incident to enhance defendant’s current DWI charge under Minn. Stat. § 169A.24, subd. 1(1). Affirmed.

A22-1549 State v. Brown (St. Louis County)




Aggravating Factors

Defendant challenged the use of a prior impaired-driving-related license revocation as an aggravating factor enhancing her driving while impaired (DWI) conviction to a third-degree offense. Noting that defendant did not timely challenge her license revocation, the Court of Appeals concluded that this was not a unique case justifying a collateral attack on the prior impaired-driving-related license revocation. Affirmed.

A22-1456 State v. Wilson (Crow Wing County)



Traffic Stops

Reasonable, Articulable Suspicion

In this direct appeal from the judgment of conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm, defendant argued that the District Court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence seized from his car and that the evidence was otherwise insufficient to prove his guilt. The Court of Appeals concluded that the record evidence supported the District Court’s factual findings that defendant was driving on a public road when he failed to yield to an emergency vehicle with active lights and sirens. Furthermore, the evidence was sufficient to prove defendant knowingly possessed the firearm. Affirmed.

A22-1254 State v. Moore (Hennepin County)




Sufficiency of the Evidence

Defendant challenged his first-degree assault conviction, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to establish venue and identity. Noting that the victim’s testimony supported the conclusion that defendant stabbed the victim in the vehicle while they were parked outside a party in Moorhead, the Court of Appeals concluded that the circumstantial evidence, taken as a whole, supported a reasonable conclusion that venue was in Moorhead and did not support a rational hypothesis that the stabbing occurred in Fargo. Affirmed.

A22-1269 State v. Johnson (Clay County)



Witness Tampering

Jury Instructions

Defendant challenged his witness-tampering conviction, arguing that the District Court’s jury instructions violated his right to a unanimous verdict. Defendant argued that the District Court violated his right to a unanimous verdict by instructing the jurors such that they could find him guilty of the sole witness-tampering charge but internally disagree about the “factual scenario” that the state proved—with which “person” defendant intended to tamper. The Court of Appeals concluded that it was sufficient that all jurors unanimously agreed on their ultimate conclusion that defendant was guilty of witness tampering even if they disagreed about the intended victim. Affirmed.

A22-1354 State v. Porte (Olmsted County)




Criminal Order Opinions


Postconviction Relief

Knaffla Bar

In this challenge to the denial of a petition for postconviction relief, the Court of Appeals concluded that the petition was procedurally barred under Knaffla, noting that that petitioner had sought relief in 2018 raising identical issues set forth in the petition under review. Affirmed.

A23-0237 Inselman v. State (Hennepin County)

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