Immigration, biting dogs, church and state and a basketball coach

A dozen decisions grace this unofficial list of the top cases of 2012.

As is customary, the compilation does not consist of only the most important cases, nor solely the more interesting.  Rather, it is comprised of cases combining those features decided by the Federal and state appellate courts in Minnesota during the past year.

Collateral consideration

The vexing issue of retroactivity of judicial ruling was encountered by the state Supreme Court in Campos v. State, 816 N.W.2d 480 (Minn. 2012), which distinguished between the rights of individuals seeking to withdraw their pleas with those challenging prior pleas on collateral review.  The case was brought on collateral review by a Nicaraguan immigrant who pled guilty to a juvenile delinquency offense without being informed of the consequences of deportation.

The  court held that the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Padilla v. Kentucky, 130 S. Ct. 1473 (2010), establishing the right of criminal defendants to be informed about the deportation consequences of a guilty plea, does not apply retroactively to cases on collateral review. The Padilla doctrine does not extend to collateral appeals because it “announced a new rule of criminal procedure.”  As a result, immigrants who pled to offenses that could lead to deportation prior to Padilla may be ejected from the country, even though they are not informed of that consequence at the time of the plea.  But those whose pleas have been made since Padilla can seek withdrawal under that doctrine established by that case.

Dog days

A 48-hour span during the dog days of last summer, among the hottest on record in Minnesota, witnessed a pair of cases decided by the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals involving rights of dogs, their owners and victims of canine aggression.

In Anderson v. Christopherson, 816 N.W.2d 626 (Minn. 2012), the Supreme Court allowed a dog bite case to proceed under the strict liability statute, Minn. Stat. sec. 347.22, against both the dog’s owner and his father, who owned the home where the dog was temporarily staying at the time of the incident.

Applying a “proximate cause” analysis, it held that a jury could find liability if the injury occurred as a “direct and immediate” result of a tussle between two dogs.  The father also might be liable under the statute for “harboring” the biting dog because he let the son stay at his home with the dog.

Dog owners fared better in Nelson v. City of St. Paul, 2012 WL 2873845 (Minn. App. July 16, 2012)(unpublished), in which the Court of Appeals reversed a “potentially dangerous” classification by the City of St. Paul because the determination was based “solely on hearsay evidence,” consisting of reports of two animal control officers who did not actually witness the incident, as well as an out-of-court statement by the person who was injured during the incident, which contained several inaccuracies and inconsistencies.

Religious reversals

A pair of Federal and state court reversals dealt with religious rights.

A group of students was entitled to participate in after-school programs at a public elementary school in Minneapolis in Child Evangelism Fellowship of Minnesota v. Minneapolis Special School District No. 1, 690 F.3d 996 (8th Cir. Aug. 29, 2012).  Overturning a decision of U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim, of Minnesota, who denied injunctive relief to the organization, the 8th Circuit held that the school district violated the group’s First Amendment rights by precluding its use of the school facilities for after-school activities because of the school’s “viewpoint discrimination” removing the group from its after-classes program while allowing facilities to be used by secular programs.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals granted unemployment benefits to an employee who was terminated because of her refusal to work Saturday shifts, her Sabbath Day as a Seventh Day Adventist in Nyabogad v. Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, 2012 WL 3641017 (Minn. App. Aug. 27, 20212) (unpublished).  Setting aside a decision of the Department of Employment & Economic Development (DEED), the appellate court held that it was “impermissible” under the First Amendment “to deny unemployment benefits to an applicant who was forced to choose between religious beliefs and employment.”

Triumphant trio

The University of Minnesota experienced a trio of triumphs in 2012.

In Tatro v. University of Minnesota, 816 N.W.2d 509 (Minn. 2012), a U Mortuary Science student who was disciplined, including a failing “F” grade for a class, after she posted threatening messages on Facebook lost her bid to overturn the discipline on First Amendment grounds.  The student was properly disciplined for violating academic policies proscribing violence, or threats of violence, which were “narrowly tailored” and directly related to the establishment of appropriate professional conduct standards.  Within a week of the decision, the student died of natural causes, leaving the sanctions intact, but now moot.

The other two triumphs involved athletic coaches at the U.  The women’s golf coach unsuccessfully challenged the school’s refusal to renew her contract and reassign her to a different position in Brenny v. Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota, 813 N.W.2d 143 (Minn. App. 2012).  The Court of Appeals dismissed her claim for tortious interference on grounds that it must be brought in a certiorari proceeding through the court of appeals, not through the district court because the claim is “inextricably linked” to the “discretionary decision of the University” “not to renew her employment contract and to alter her job duties.” However, a statutory gender discrimination claim remained intact.

The University’s men’s basketball coach, Tubby Smith, was relieved of a $1 million verdict by a Hennepin County District Court jury on grounds of negligent misrepresentation when the Supreme Court overturned the determination in Williams v. Smith, 820 N.W.2d 807 (Minn. 2012).

The long saga, dating back five years to the University’s hiring of Smith to take over its troubled men’s basketball program, arose out of an overture the new coach made to Jimmy Williams, a former assistant coach, to leave his position at Oklahoma State University and join Smith’s staff.  But the proposition was scuttled when Smith’s boss, Athletic Director Joe Maturi, yanked it due to prior sanctions that had been imposed upon the University during Williams’ earlier employment for the Gophers.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding that, as a matter of law, the doctrine of negligent misrepresentation did not apply because there was no “duty” owed by Smith to Williams in the absence of any “special relationship” between the parties. Although the University’s treatment of Williams was “unfair and disappointing,” a narrow 3-2 majority of the Court, following recusal of some judges with University ties, upheld the University’s position and reversed the large verdict against Smith.

Employment enigmas

A pair of Minnesota employment enigmas yielded rival rulings by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In Nunn v. Noodles & Co., 674 F.3d 910 (8th Cir. 2012), it reversed and remanded dismissal by U.S. District Court Judge Joan Ericksen of a claim for obstruction workers compensation benefits by a woman injured while riding her motorcycle to a meeting that the employer and compensation carrier asserted was non-business related.  But it was reinstated by the Eighth Circuit due to evidence that the employer and compensation carrier may have wrongfully denied the claim, even though they knew the meeting was “primarily work-related.”  Following remand, the case was rapidly settled without trial.

A purported whistleblower suffered a setback in Hill v. St. Jude Medical, 687 F.3d 375 (8th Cir. 2012).  A laid-off sales executive, eliminated as part of a Reduction-In-Force (RIF) at a medical device company, claimed she was let go because she reported violation of an anti-kickback law by sales personnel.  Summary judgment entered by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kyle was affirmed because of the absence of “sufficient evidence” to demonstrate that the RIF “was a pretext for a retaliatory motive.”

Unsuccessful unemployment

Two unemployment compensation claimants were among the many unsuccessful employees before the Court of Appeals.

In Carrotty v. LeeAnn Chin, Inc., 2012 WL 426583 (Minn. App. Feb. 13, 2012)(unpublished), a man who quit his job as general manager for a restaurant in the Twin Cities area to become an office manager for a food supplier, then had his offer withdrawn before starting the new job, was denied unemployment compensation benefits. Upholding a decision of an Unemployment Law Judge (ULJ), with the Department of Employment & Economic Development (DEED), which oversees the unemployment compensation process in Minnesota, the appellate court denied benefits because the claimant did not quit his job for “substantially better terms and conditions of employment,” as required under Minn. Stat. sec. 268.095, subd. 2.

In a case of first impression, the Court rejected a claim of retaliation for filing unemployment compensation benefits in Dukowitz v. Hannon Security Services, 815 N.W.2d 848 (Minn. App. July 9, 2012).  Affirming a decision of the Stearns County District Court, the appellate court rejected the doctrine of “public policy.” It also refused to find an implied private cause of action for retaliation under the unemployment compensation statute because the purpose of the unemployment compensation system is not to prevent employees from becoming unemployed, but rather to “provide them with monetary benefits when they do.”

These dozen cases reflect the dimensions and diversity of litigation in the Federal and state courts in Minnesota during 2012.

Originally published in the December 31, 2012 edition of Minnesota Lawyer.