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MN Supreme Court Upholds City’s Rejection of Citizen Petition

ELECTION LAW
Signatures on citizen petition

Peter Butler and a group of city residents submitted a petition to the City of St. Paul, seeking to amend the city charter to switch city elections from odd years to even years. City election officials used data from the Statewide Voter Registration System (SVRS) to determine the validity of the 7,656 signa­tures on the petition. The Office of the Secretary of State maintains the SVRS. It is the official record of registered Min­nesota voters, and it lists the name and registration information of every legally registered voter.

Election officials rejected any petition signature by a voter who had listed a residence outside the City of St. Paul in the SVRS data. The city notified Butler that the petition did not have enough valid signatures because of the number of rejected signatures. To be effective, the petition needed at least 7,011 signatures, a number representing 5% of the total votes cast at the last state general election in the city. Butler sued the city under a state statute that allows a district court to correct the errors, omissions, or wrongful acts of elec­tion officials. Butler claimed that the election officials erred by relying on the SVRS data, but he did not introduce any evidence to demonstrate that the SVRS data was incorrect.

The district court granted summary (court-ordered) judgment in the city’s favor. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision. The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision and ruled that the election offi­cials did not err in using the SVRS to verify that the petition met the signature requirements in state statute. The Supreme Court also ruled that Butler had failed to meet his burden to raise an issue for trial regarding any of the rejected signatures. Butler v. City of St. Paul, 936 N.W.2d 478 (Minn. 2019).


LOCAL CONTROL
Minimum wage

The City of Minneapolis, a home rule charter city, adopted the Minneapolis Minimum Wage Ordinance, which requires payment of minimum wage rates for Minneapolis workers that are higher than those that state law requires. Graco, Inc. sued the city in district court, claiming that the ordinance is invalid because state law conflicts with and implies preemption of it. Graco requested a declaratory judgment that state law pre­empts the ordinance and a permanent injunction that prohibits its enforcement. The district court denied the request for a permanent injunc­tion and ruled that the Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act (MFLSA) leaves room for munici­pal regulation because it sets a floor, not a ceiling, for minimum wage rates. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision. The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision and ruled that the MFLSA does not preempt municipal authority over mini­mum wages.Quote. The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision and ruled that the MFLSA does not preempt municipal authority over minimum wages.

In response to the claim of conflict and preemption, the Supreme Court concluded that there is no conflict because employers can comply with both the ordinance and the MFLSA. Regarding the claim of implied preemption, the Supreme Court concluded that the MFLSA does not con­tain clear language expressing a legislative intent to exclude municipal activity in the area of minimum wages. Graco, Inc. v. City of Minneapolis, 937 N.W.2d 756 (Minn. 2020). Note: The League of Minnesota Cities filed an amicus curiae brief in the city’s support.


GOVERNMENTAL IMMUNITIES
Qualified immunity

Darryl Lunon sued the City of North Little Rock, Arkansas, as well as several other public employees and government entities under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act. Lunon claimed that the public defendants had violated his procedural due process rights when they failed to provide him with notice and an opportunity to be heard before they spayed his pet German Shepherd and gave it away for adoption after the dog escaped from Lunon’s home.

Lunon had intended to use the dog for breeding purposes, and its value was substantially less after it was spayed. Lunon claimed that the defendants had failed to train their employ­ees to comply with procedures requiring the stray dog to be scanned for an embedded microchip, which would have dis­closed Lunon as the dog’s owner.

The defendants moved for summary (court-ordered) judg­ment, claiming that the employees were entitled to qualified immunity. The district court rejected the motion. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision and ruled that Lunon’s procedural due process rights had not been violated. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the employ­ees had not violated any clearly established constitutional or statutory right and noted that the government has a strong interest in controlling the nuisance of stray animals. Lunon v. Botsford, 946 F.3d 425 (8th Cir. 2019).


MINNESOTA OFFICIAL RECORDS ACT
No private enforcement lawsuits

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) issued a request for proposals to develop a new online reg­istration system. During an online meeting of the selection committee, MnSCU officials used software to electronically highlight portions of Tyler Halva’s proposal. After Halva’s proposal was rejected because he failed to provide required information, he sought a copy of his highlighted proposal as well as information about the other vendors that had submit­ted proposals. MnSCU officials were not able to supply a highlighted copy of the document because it had not been saved. Halva then sought an administrative remedy against MnSCU under the Minnesota Government Data Practice Act (MGDPA). An administrative law judge (ALJ) ultimately determined that MnSCU had failed to comply with the MGDPA, but the ALJ also concluded that MnSCU was not obligated to provide data that was not recorded in physical form, or required to acquire particular software to create a permanent record of an elec­tronic conversation or meeting.

Halva then sued MnSCU in district court under the Min­nesota Official Records Act (MORA), which requires govern­ment officials to “make and preserve all records necessary to a full and accurate knowledge of their official activities” and to “carefully protect and preserve government records from deterioration, mutilation, loss, or destruction.” Halva sought compliance and damages from MnSCU, claiming that its failure to preserve the electronic highlighting of his proposal violated MORA.

The district court rejected Halva’s argument. The Minne­sota Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision and ruled that state law does not authorize a private lawsuit for enforcement of MORA separate from a claim under the MGDPA. The Court of Appeals reasoned that MORA provides access to government data, as defined by the MGDPA, which in turn authorizes private enforcement lawsuits against gov­ernment entities. Halva v. Minnesota State Colleges and Uni­versities, No. A19-0481 (Minn. Ct. App. Dec. 16, 2019) (unpub­lished opinion).


LOCAL CONTROL
Dangerous dogs

Sarah Solomonson’s dog, Rain, twice bit her neighbor’s dog. After the first attack, the City of Austin’s animal control offi­cer followed the procedures outlined in the city’s dangerous dog ordinance and issued Solomonson a written notice titled “Notice of Poten­tially Dangerous Animal or Dangerous Animal.” After the second attack, the animal control officer issued another notice designating Rain as a dangerous animal and order­ing Rain to be euthanized.

Quote. Solomonson appealed the City Council’s decision, claiming that state law preempts the city’s dangerous dog ordinance, and that the city had violated her procedural due- process rights.

Solomonson appealed the designations and the order. She requested and received a hearing before the City Council, where she presented evidence and testimony. The City Council determined that the evidence supported Rain’s designation as a dangerous dog, and it approved the order requiring Rain to be euthanized. Solomonson appealed the City Council’s decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, claiming that state law preempts the city’s dangerous dog ordinance, and that the city had violated her procedural due-process rights.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the City Council’s decision and held that Sol­omonson received the basic requirements of due process: notice and an opportunity to be heard. The Court of Appeals also held that state law does not preempt local authority over dangerous dogs. The Court of Appeals noted that state law expressly states that statutory and home rule charter cities may adopt additional regulations of dangerous dogs. Solomonson v. City of Austin, No. A19-1360 (Minn. Ct. App. Feb. 3, 2020) (unpublished opinion).

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