Back to the Mar-Apr 2022 issue

MN Supreme Court Upholds City Ballot Question Language

Ballot question language

voting ballotDon Samuels, Sondra Samuels, and Bruce Dachis filed a petition with the state district court, seeking to correct the revised language that the City of Minneapolis had approved for a question on the ballot for the 2021 city election regarding a proposed charter amendment. The question asked voters whether to remove the Police Department from the City Charter and to replace it with a Department of Public Safety that would be responsible for public safety functions. The district court granted the petition, concluding that the proposed language was complex, unreasonable, and misleading, such that voters would not be expected to understand the meaning or essential purpose of the proposed charter amendment.

The Minnesota Supreme Court granted the city’s petition for accelerated review (bypassing the Minnesota Court of Appeals), and it reversed the district court’s decision. The Supreme Court noted that judicial review of ballot question language is very deferential to the legislative judgments that have been made regarding the word and form choices for the question. The Supreme Court ruled that the selected language was legally valid, concluding that it communicates the essential purpose of the proposed amendment, is not misleading or unreasonable, and “is not a palpable evasion of the requirement to submit the proposed amendment to voters.”

Samuels v. City of Minneapolis, 966 N.W.2d 245 (Minn. 2021).

Qualified immunity

Jennifer LeMay and Courtney Livingston sued police officer Michael Mays and the City of Minneapolis after Mays shot their two 5-year-old American Staffordshire terriers (commonly referred to as pit bulls), named Ciroc and Rocko, while Mays performed a residential security check. Livingston had accidentally set off the burglar alarm for the home he shared with LeMay. The home security alarm company notified the Police Department, and officers Mays and Daniel Ledman responded.

Upon arrival at the home, Mays jumped over the 6-foot privacy fence surrounding the backyard while Ledman knocked on the front door. While in the backyard, Mays encountered Ciroc, who “walked toward Mays wagging his tail in a friendly manner to greet Mays,” according to the lawsuit’s complaint. Mays then shot Ciroc in the face. After the shots were fired, Rocko entered the backyard and, according to the complaint, “presented himself to Mays in a non-threatening manner.” Mays then shot Rocko multiple times in his body. Neither dog was killed, but both were severely injured and could no longer perform their tasks as service animals for family members.

The lawsuit claimed that Mays had violated LeMay and Livingston’s Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution to be free of unreasonable seizures of their property. Mays and the city moved to dismiss the unlawful seizure claim, arguing that Mays was entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity protects public officials from liability for civil damages if their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. The federal district court denied the motion to dismiss, concluding that Mays was not entitled to qualified immunity.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, ruling that it is clearly established law in the 8th Circuit that an officer cannot shoot a dog unless it is an objectively legitimate and imminent threat to the officer or others. The Court of Appeals noted that, at the motion-to-dismiss stage of legal proceedings, the allegations in a lawsuit’s complaint must be accepted as true and, based on this complaint’s allegations, Mays did not face an imminent danger when he shot the dogs.

LeMay v. City of Minneapolis, 18 F.4th 283 (8th Cir. 2021).

Nonconforming uses

Kenneth and Karen Cordes appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, seeking to reverse the district court’s decision granting summary judgment (court-ordered judgment without a jury trial) in favor of the Town of Denmark in a zoning enforcement action. The district court’s decision declared that the Cordeses were engaging in commercial activities on their property, in violation of the township’s zoning ordinance, and prohibited them from engaging in any further commercial activities without a conditional use permit. The Cordeses purchased the property in 1977 and, since that time, they and their children have used the property for various commercial purposes. The Cordeses do not dispute that the township’s current zoning ordinances prohibit commercial activity on their property.

On appeal, the Cordeses argued in part that their commercial use should be considered a legal nonconforming use (grandfathered use) that is authorized to continue, despite the current zoning ordinance. Generally, if a use is already in existence at the time an ordinance prohibiting the use is adopted, it will be considered a lawful nonconforming use that is authorized to continue.

At the beginning of the lawsuit, the township was unable to locate the historical versions of its zoning ordinances. The township subsequently located them, which confirmed that the zoning ordinance in effect in 1977 prohibited any commercial activity on the Cordeses’ property. The Cordeses argued on appeal that the 1977 zoning ordinance should not be considered because the township did not discover it until late in the legal proceedings.

The Court of Appeals ruled against the Cordeses, concluding that the district court had properly considered the 1977 zoning ordinance. The Court of Appeals noted that the district court gave both parties additional time to supplement their legal arguments based on the discovery of the 1977 zoning ordinance.

Town of Denmark v. Cordes, No. A21-0168 (Minn. Ct. App. Nov. 22, 2021) (nonprecedential opinion).

Qualified immunity

Central Specialties, Inc. (CSI) won a contract with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to perform road work on State Highway 59, which crosses three Minnesota counties, including Mahnomen County. CSI proposed that certain county roads be designated haul roads, which CSI would use to haul material away from the project site. MnDOT has the ultimate authority to designate county roads as haul roads. Counties have an interest in the selection of haul roads because the specific uses of a county road impact its condition. MnDOT reimburses counties for the use of county haul roads, but additional expenses related to any deterioration from this use are difficult to discover, often leaving counties with the responsibility to pay for required repairs.

CSI sued Mahnomen County and its engineer, Jonathan Large, after Large used his vehicle to block and stop two CSI trucks for exceeding the posted weight limit on county state aid highway (CSAH) 10. After stopping the CSI trucks, Large contacted the state patrol, which responded and cited the trucks for exceeding the weight limit. MnDOT had not designated CSAH 10 as an approved haul road, and Mahnomen County had recently changed its weight limit in response to CSI’s stated intention to use it for hauling.

CSI argued in part that Large had violated its Fourth Amendment rights by exceeding the scope of his authority as an engineer and unlawfully detaining the CSI trucks for about three hours while waiting for law enforcement to respond. CSI also alleged that Large had violated its 14th Amendment rights by depriving CSI of equal protection and due process when the county selectively changed and enforced the reduced weight limit against CSI, and by failing to give CSI appropriate notice of the new weight limit.

Bulldozers at a construction siteThe federal district court granted summary judgment (court-ordered judgment without a jury trial) in favor of Large and the county, ruling that Large was entitled to qualified immunity. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, noting that under the case’s unique circumstances, it was not clearly established law at the time of the stop that Large, an engineer tasked with oversight of all county roads, could not prevent trucks that he had reason to believe were violating the posted weight limit from passing over and damaging the road or could not call law enforcement to investigate compliance with the new, reduced weight limit.

The Court of Appeals also concluded that it was not clearly established law that the county could not change the weight limit in response to CSI’s stated intentions to use CSAH 10 for hauling, even though it was not an approved haul road. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals concluded that the claims against the county failed because CSI had not made any allegations that the county has any policy or custom related to Large’s conduct. MC

Central Specialties, Inc. v. Large, F.4th (8th Cir. 2021).

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