Back to the Jul-Aug 2020 issue

Plaintiffs Seek Environmental Review of Comprehensive Plan

LAND USE LAW
Comprehensive plan approval

In December 2018, Smart Growth Minneapolis, the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis, and the Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds sued the City of Minneapolis, claiming that the scheduled approval of its 2040 Comprehensive Plan violates the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA), which provides citizens with a civil remedy to protect the air, water, land, and other natural resources within Minnesota. The district court granted the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, concluding that the plaintiffs had not identified, as required under MERA, a discrete, identifiable “project” that is likely to cause pollution, impairment, or destruction of natural resources.

A common loon on a still lake.

The district court also concluded that state agency rules exempt the adoption and amendment of comprehensive plans from mandatory environmental review.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, concluding that the only relief that the plaintiffs had requested under MERA is environmental review of the Comprehensive Plan under the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), and that the city is exempt from conducting such review. The Court of Appeals also concluded that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated enough facts to show that adoption of the Comprehensive Plan is likely to adversely affect the environment. The Court of Appeals noted that allowing a MERA challenge to force environmental review at the planning stage would “undermine the city’s planning function.” State by Smart Growth Minneapolis v. City of Minneapolis, N.W.2d (Minn. Ct. App. 2020). The plaintiffs have filed a petition asking the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals’ decision.


CONSTITUTIONAL LAW
Regulatory taking claim

Minnesota Sands, LLC, sued Winona County, challenging a zoning amendment that prohibits all industrial-mineral operations (including the mining of silica sand) but continues to allow (as a conditional use) construction-mineral operations for local purposes. Minnesota Sands claimed that the amendment is unconstitutional for two reasons: (1) it violates the Dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it discriminates against interstate commerce, and (2) it is a regulatory taking of Minnesota Sands’ leasehold rights to mine for silica sand in violation of the Takings Clauses of both the U.S. and Minnesota Constitutions.

In a divided opinion, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in the county’s favor on both issues. In a divided opinion, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision. The Supreme Court concluded that the amendment does not discriminate against interstate commerce on its face, in purpose, or in effect. The Supreme Court also concluded that Minnesota Sands did not raise a valid regulatory taking claim because the mineral leases, which granted it a speculative, contingent right to possess and use the land, did not create a compensable property interest (a property interest for which monetary compensation can legally be required). The Supreme Court noted that, under the lease terms, the mining rights were contingent on Minnesota Sands obtaining a conditional use permit and on successfully completing the state-required environmental review process, neither of which had occurred before the county adopted the zoning amendment. Minnesota Sands, LLC v. County of Winona, 940 N.W.2d 183 (Minn. 2020). Note: The League of Minnesota Cities filed an amicus curiae brief in the county’s support.


CONSTITUTIONAL LAW
Investigative traffic stop

Quote from the articleDouglas County Deputy Sheriff Mark Mehrer was on routine patrol when he saw a pickup truck and ran its plate number through the Kansas Department of Revenue database. The database revealed that the truck was registered to Charles Glover Jr., who had a revoked driver’s license. Mehrer did not observe any traffic violations, but stopped the truck based on his assumption that the registered owner was driving the truck. Glover was in fact driving the truck. Glover was charged with a driving violation, but the Kansas Supreme Court ultimately ruled in his favor, concluding that the traffic stop violated Glover’s Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Kansas Supreme Court’s decision, concluding that “the Fourth Amendment permits an officer to initiate a brief investigative traffic stop when he has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” The U.S. Supreme Court stressed that the Fourth Amendment’s “reasonable suspicion” standard is far less strict than its “probable cause” standard, and that the reasonable suspicion standard permits officers to make “commonsense judgments” and does not require them to achieve “scientific certainty.” Deputy Mehrer knew that the registered owner of the truck had a revoked license and that the model of the truck appearing in the database matched the observed vehicle. The U.S. Supreme Court concluded that, based on these facts, Deputy Mehrer drew the commonsense inference that Glover was likely the driver of the vehicle, which provided reasonable suspicion to initiate the vehicle stop. Kansas v. Glover, 139 S. Ct. 1445 (2020).


EMPLOYMENT LAW
Pregnancy accommodations

Silhouette of a pregnant woman.After Whitney Hinrichs-Cady was terminated from her position as a Hennepin County social worker, she sued the county, claiming in part that it had violated the Minnesota Pregnancy and Parental Leave Act (PPLA) by refusing to grant her accommodations while she was pregnant. Under Section 181.9414 of the PPLA, an employer “must provide reasonable accommodations to an employee for health conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth if she so requests.” The PPLA lists examples of reasonable accommodations, including “frequent restroom, food, and water breaks,” lifting limitations, and seating and positional accommodations.

During the last seven weeks of Hinrichs-Cady’s pregnancy, her doctor provided her with a list of health-related job restrictions, including not working for more than one hour without rest, not lifting more than 10 pounds, not driving if she felt dizzy, and not being exposed to environments deemed unsafe or unhealthy for her or her unborn child. The county did not implement these job restrictions. Instead, it placed Hinrichs-Cady on unpaid leave.

The county made a motion to dismiss Hinrichs-Cady’s lawsuit, claiming that she did not meet the definition of an “employee” under Section 181.940 of the PPLA because she had not been employed for at least 12 months. The district court granted Hennepin County’s motion to dismiss. The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision, concluding that the definition of an employee who is eligible for leave under the PPLA is not the same definition that should be used to determine who is eligible for non-leave accommodations.

The Court of Appeals ruled that “non-leave pregnancy accommodations under the PPLA do not require that the employee requesting accommodation must have worked for the employer for 12 months.” The Court of Appeals reasoned that, while the Legislature might have had intended to require a person to have worked for an employer for 12 months before that person is entitled to leave, “it surely did not intend the same for a person requesting non-leave accommodations.” Hinrichs-Cady v. Hennepin County, N.W.2d (Minn. Ct. App. 2020).


DEFAMATION LAW
Candidate for public office

Quote from the article.

Attorney Michelle MacDonald and her law firm sued Michael Brodkorb and others associated with him for defamation based on several statements Brodkorb made referring to MacDonald’s arrest on suspicion of drunk driving and her involvement in a high-profile family law case. MacDonald was a candidate for a seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2014, 2016, and 2018. Generally, a plaintiff claiming defamation must establish four elements: (1) that the defendant communicated a statement to a third party; (2) that the statement was false; (3) that the statement tends to cause reputational harm; and (4) that the recipient of the statement understands that it refers to a specific individual. Defamation claims against “public figures” must also satisfy an “actual malice” standard, where the plaintiff must prove that the defamatory statement was made with actual malice.

The district court granted summary judgment (court-ordered judgment without a trial) in Brodkorb’s favor, reasoning that MacDonald was a public figure because she was a “perennial” candidate for public office, and that she had failed to prove that Brodkorb made the challenged statements with actual malice. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, ruling that a candidate for public office is a limited-purpose public figure whose claims for defamation require proof of actual malice. The Court of Appeals also ruled that a candidate for public office may remain a public figure even after an election loss by repeatedly seeking elective office. MacDonald v. Brodkorb, 939 N.W.2d 468 (Minn. Ct. App. 2020).

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