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Court OKs City’s Termination of Annexation Agreement

LAND USE

Annexation
In April 1980, Waterford Township and the City of Northfield entered into an orderly annexation agreement under which the township agreed to the annexation of 20 acres of property from the township into the city. In exchange, the city agreed to annually share with the township a set proportion of tax revenues it received from the property. The parties also agreed to the restriction of future annexation, as set forth in the agreement. The agreement did not include any language regarding the agreement’s duration or the methods for its termination.

Because no legislation existed in 1980 authorizing tax reimbursement payments under an annexation agreement, the parties sought and received special legislation (effective in 1981) that authorized the payments. The city made payments to the township from 1981 through 2010. In October 2010, the city adopted a resolution stating that the agreement had expired and ceased to have legal effect. As a result, the city stopped making payments to the town.

The township sued, claiming that the city had violated the agreement because the obligation to make tax-reimbursement payments is perpetual (continuing forever). The district court granted summary judgment (court-entered judgment without a full trial) in the city’s favor. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, reasoning that the parties had entered into an indefinite agreement, rather than a perpetual one, and that the city could terminate the agreement without the township’s consent. Waterford Township v. City of Northfield, No. A19-0234 (Minn. Ct. App. Aug. 12, 2019) (unpublished opinion).

GOVERNMENTAL IMMUNITIES

Qualified Immunity
William Anderson, the father of Jacob Anderson, a freshman at the University of Minnesota, sued the City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, and several city and county employees after his son died of hypothermia. On Dec. 14, 2013, Jacob left a party around 11:15 p.m. and was discovered the next morning, lying face down in the snow in a remote area near the Mississippi River. A passerby called 911 at 8:44 a.m. First responders with the Minneapolis Fire Department arrived 10 minutes later.

A first responder performed a 30-second check on Jacob’s pulse by holding his wrist. After failing to find a heartbeat, the first responder declared Jacob dead at 8:57 a.m. Ambulance paramedics arrived shortly later but left without separately evaluating Jacob’s condition. When Minneapolis police officers arrived, they treated the area as a potential crime scene, and notified the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office. The medical examiner’s office sent two investigators to the scene and later conducted an autopsy, which determined that Jacob had died of hypothermia. Hypothermia is a medical condition that occurs when a body falls below 95 degrees Fahrenheit and cannot produce enough heat to replace what it loses. Some medical guidelines advise treatment even to apparently dead hypothermia victims.

William Anderson claimed the city and county employees, by prematurely declaring Jacob dead and therefore cutting off possible aid, caused his death in violation of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The federal district court dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that the employees were entitled to qualified immunity. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, ruling that Anderson failed to show a violation of a clearly established constitutional right, and that the employees did not intentionally deny emergency aid to someone they believed to be alive. Anderson v. City of Minneapolis, 934 F.3d 876 (8th Cir. 2019).

ENVIRONMENTAL LAW

Mountain Bike Trail
Staff of the City of Minnetonka and the Minnetonka Park & Recreation Board worked together to prepare a proposal for more city trails, including mountain bike trails. City staff prepared the Minnetonka Mountain Bike Study, which proposed a trail development at Lone Lake Park, a 146-acre community park and preserve. The study proposed construction of 4.7 miles of mountain bike trails and included an independent biological assessment of the park’s natural resources. The park board voted unanimously to recommend the project’s approval to the City Council.

A group called Protect Our Minnetonka Parks, Inc. (POMP) petitioned the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, requesting that the city be required to prepare an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) before approving the project. An EAW is a brief document designed to set out the basic facts necessary to determine whether a more complex study, called an environmental impact statement, is required. A city must conduct an EAW when material evidence accompanying a petition signed by more than 100 citizens demonstrates that, “because of the nature or location of a proposed action, there may be the potential for significant environmental effects.” At a public meeting, the City Council addressed POMP’s petition, heard testimony, and reviewed information and correspondence from a variety of sources. The City Council determined that an EAW was not required. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the City Council’s decision, ruling that it was supported by substantial evidence, was reasonable, and was not based on an erroneous legal standard. Protect Our Minnetonka Parks, Inc. v. City of Minnetonka, No. A18-1503 (Minn. Ct. App. June 17, 2019) (unpublished opinion). Note: The League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust represented the city.

EMPLOYMENT LAW

Arbitration
The City of Duluth terminated police officer Adam Huot. Huot filed a grievance regarding his termination, as authorized by a collective bargaining agreement. An arbitrator issued an arbitration award ordering Huot reinstated to his position, without back pay and benefits, even though the arbitrator found that Huot, in response to a trespass complaint: (1) used unreasonable force, by dragging an intoxicated, homeless, and handcuffed Native American man down a skywalk and striking his head against a metal door frame; (2) violated the reporting requirements of a state-mandated use-of-force policy; and (3) had previously been disciplined and counseled for past incidents of unreasonable use of force.

The city filed a motion in district court, seeking to vacate (nullify) the arbitration award, claiming its enforcement would violate the public policies that prohibit unreasonable use of force and that require proper reporting of the use of force. Generally, an arbitration award will be upheld if the award was within the arbitrator’s powers. But there is a narrow exception if the award is contrary to public policy. Under Minnesota law, this exception must involve a policy that is “well-defined and dominant,” and it should be determined by reference to the laws and legal precedents, and not from general consideration of supposed public interests. The district court denied the city’s motion to vacate the arbitration award. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision and ruled that the arbitration award does not violate public policy. City of Duluth v. Duluth Police Union, Local No. 807, No. A19-0404 (Minn. Ct. App. Sept. 3, 2019) (unpublished opinion). Note: The League of Minnesota Cities filed an amicus curiae brief in the city’s support. The city has filed a petition requesting the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals’ decision.

EMPLOYMENT LAW

Unfair Labor Practice
As a cost-saving measure, the City of Brainerd adopted a resolution in 2015 (six months after signing a three-year collective bargaining agreement) that reorganized its Fire Department to “eliminate all fire equipment operator positions” and “utilize paid on-call firefighters for the provision of fire services.” Before the reorganization, the city’s Fire Department consisted of five full-time firefighters (who were union members) in fire equipment operator positions and approximately 36 firefighters (who were not union members) in paid on-call positions.

The union sued, claiming that the reorganization was an unfair labor practice in violation of the Public Employees Labor Relations Act because it interfered with the “existence” of the union. The city claimed in response that its Fire Department’s organizational structure is a matter of inherent managerial policy about which it is not required to negotiate. The district court ruled in the city’s favor and dismissed the lawsuit.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision in part, ruling that the reorganization was an unfair labor practice. The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision based on different reasoning. The Supreme Court held the reorganization was a matter of inherent managerial policy, but that it was also an unfair labor practice because it interfered with the union’s existence. The Supreme Court noted that the statutory language that prohibits a public employer from interfering with the existence of any employee organization does not require an anti-union motivation. Firefighters Union Local 4725 v. City of Brainerd, N.W.2d (Minn. 2019). Note: The League filed an amicus curiae brief in the city’s support.

Written by Susan Naughton, research attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: snaughto@lmc.org or (651) 281-1232.