Before the Minnesota Supreme Court

March 2024

Summaries prepared by the Supreme Court Commissioner’s Office

Monday, March 4, 2024

Supreme Court Courtroom, State Capitol Building, Second Floor
State of Minnesota, by its Commissioner of Transportation, Appellant, vs. David J. Schaffer, et al., Respondents Below, Joseph Hamlin, Respondent – Case No. A23-0036:  Appellant State of Minnesota, by its Commissioner of Transportation (“MnDOT”) sought to obtain a portion of respondent Joseph Hamlin’s property for a highway construction and realignment project.  MnDOT made a final written offer of compensation of $43,000 to purchase Hamlin’s property.  When Hamlin did not accept the offer, MnDOT took his property through the statutory “quick-take” procedure.  Following a hearing before court-appointed condemnation commissioners, the commissioners rendered an award of just compensation of $92,000, which MnDOT has paid in full. 
Because the final award of damages was more than 40% greater than MnDOT’s final written offer of compensation, Hamlin was entitled to an award of “reasonable attorney fees” under Minn. Stat. § 117.031(a) (2022).  Hamlin had retained his attorney on a contingency-fee basis; on that basis, he owed his attorney approximately $16,300.  But in his motion for attorney fees, Hamlin argued that reasonable attorney fees amounted to approximately $177,400.  The district court applied the lodestar method to determine the reasonable amount of attorney fees and concluded that an award of $63,228 was reasonable.  MnDOT appealed, arguing among other things that it was an abuse of discretion for the district court to award substantially more in attorney fees than Hamlin was obligated to pay his attorney.  The court of appeals affirmed.
The supreme court granted review on the following issue:  may owners be awarded more in reasonable attorney fees than they are obligated to pay?  (Dakota County)
Cristina Berrier, Appellant, vs. Minnesota State Patrol, Respondent – Case No. A22-1545:  Appellant Cristina Berrier brought an action against respondent Minnesota State Patrol, alleging that a State Patrol dog seriously injured her during an unprovoked attack.  The district court denied the State Patrol’s motion to dismiss her strict liability claim under Minnesota’s dog-bite statute on the ground of sovereign immunity.  See Minn. Stat. § 347.22 (2022) (“If a dog, without provocation, attacks or injures any person who is acting peaceably in any place where the person may lawfully be, the owner of the dog is liable in damages to the person so attacked or injured to the full amount of the injury sustained.”). 
The court of appeals reversed and remanded.  The court of appeals determined that the language of the dog-bite statute is not “so plain, clear, and unmistakable as to leave no doubt” about the Legislature’s intent to waive sovereign immunity under Minn. Stat. § 645.27 (2022). The court of appeals therefore concluded that “the state is immune from liability under the statute.”  
The supreme court granted review on the following issue:  whether the State Patrol is entitled to sovereign immunity against a strict liability dog-bite claim.  (Steele County)

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Supreme Court Courtroom, State Capitol Building, Second Floor
In the Matter of Keystone Township, et al., Appellants, vs. Red Lake Watershed District, Respondent, Paul Novacek, et al., Respondents – Case No. A22-1163:  Respondent Red Lake Watershed District approved a petition seeking to improve Polk County Ditch 39, which is located entirely within the boundaries of Polk County.  Appellants Keystone Township and several persons owning land in the drainage area of the ditch appealed the Watershed District’s order to the district court.  The district court granted summary judgment to appellants, concluding that the Watershed District lacked jurisdiction to consider the petition under Minn. Stat. § 103D.625 (2022) because Polk County never transferred jurisdiction over the ditch to the Watershed District.
The court of appeals reversed and remanded.  The court of appeals concluded that the Watershed District had jurisdiction to consider the ditch-improvement petition under Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 4.  The court of appeals also concluded that the ditch-improvement proceeding substantially conformed to the Drainage Code, Minn. Stat. §§ 103E.005–.812 (2022), and that “minor, nonprejudicial deviations” from statutory procedures did not invalidate the Watershed District’s decision.
The supreme court granted review on the following issues:  (1) whether the Watershed District acquired jurisdiction over the ditch-improvement petition from Polk County; and (2) whether the proceeding sufficiently conformed to statutory requirements.  (Polk County)
State of Minnesota, Respondent, vs. Tyson Joe Hinckley, Appellant – Case No. A22-1206:  Respondent State of Minnesota charged appellant Tyson Hinckley with first-degree arson, second-degree burglary, and motor-vehicle theft.  Hinckley noticed a mental-illness defense and supported it with a psychological report.  The State moved to prohibit Hinckley from asserting a mental-illness defense at trial.  The district court provisionally granted the State’s motion.  It authorized Hinckley to request reconsideration if such a motion was supported by a supplemental report from his psychologist “clarifying whether his opinion was based solely on [Hinckley’s] voluntary intoxication and, if not, his opinion on whether or not [Hinckley’s] mental illness or cognitive impairment, independent of any voluntary intoxication, caused him to labor under such a defect of reason as not to know the nature of the act or that it was wrong.”  Hinckley filed two motions for reconsideration, both of which were supported by a supplemental psychological report.  The district court denied both motions for reconsideration.  Following a court trial, the district court found Hinckley guilty of all charges.  The court of appeals affirmed.
The supreme court granted review on the following issue:  whether a defendant presents prima facie evidence of mental illness or mental deficiency when he proffers a report by a psychologist which (1) diagnoses the defendant with multiple mental illnesses, including PTSD, persistent depressive disorder with psychotic features, and paranoid personality disorder, and (2) concludes that “at the time of the instant offense, [the defendant’s] mental illness created a defect of reason” and due to this defect of reason the defendant “was not able to rationally acknowledge the wrongfulness of his act.”  (Lyon County)

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Supreme Court Courtroom, State Capitol Building, Second Floor
State of Minnesota, Respondent, vs. Ibrahim Abdiaziz Isaac, Appellant – Case No. A23-0640:  A grand jury indicted appellant Ibrahim Abdiaziz Isaac with first-degree premeditated murder under an aiding and abetting theory of criminal liability.  Isaac waived his right to a jury trial and submitted his case to the district court.  The court found Isaac guilty as charged and imposed a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release.
On appeal to the supreme court, Isaac raises the following issue:  was the evidence sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Isaac knew Haji-Mohamed was going to commit first-degree premeditated murder and intended by his actions to aid that offense?  (Clay County)

Thursday, March 7, 2024

NonoralRenee Vasko, Relator, vs. County of McLeod, Respondent – Case No. A23-0061:  Relator Renee Vasko, the sole owner of a residence in Lester Prairie, Minnesota, contested the county assessor’s classification of the property as a residential non-homestead as of January 2, 2019, the estimated market value of the property, and a special assessment placed on the tax bill.  Following a trial, the tax court issued an order concluding that Vasko presented sufficient evidence to rebut the prima facie validity of the county’s classification for 2019, but ultimately concluded that the county assessor’s classification of the property for that year was correct.  The tax court also affirmed the county’s estimated market value assessment and concluded it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the challenge to the special assessment.
On appeal to the supreme court, relator’s brief presents the following issues:  (1) whether the county erred in removing the homestead classification for the property; and (2) whether the county’s assessed market value of the property was too high and higher than other similar homes.  (Minnesota Tax Court)
NonoralTamarack Village Shopping Center, LP, Relator, vs. County of Washington, Respondent – Case Nos. A23-1419, A23-1420:  Consolidated cases came before the tax court concerning the market value as of January 2, 2019, of two parcels of property that are part of the Tamarack Village Shopping Center in Woodbury, Minnesota.  After a trial, the tax court concluded that the assessor’s estimated market value for the properties understated their market value as of the assessment date.  The tax court denied relator Tamarack Village Shopping Center, LP’s post-trial motions raising issues pertaining to the tax court’s income capitalization approach.
On appeal to the supreme court, relator’s brief presents the following issues relating to the tax court’s valuation determination:  (1) whether the tax court may include the value of nonexistent tenant improvements in its value conclusion and whether the tax court’s interpretation of the terms “excessive” and “atypical” is overly narrow as those terms relate to an effective market rent calculation; and (2) whether the tax court may value property as though stabilized on the assessment date when it is agreed the property is destabilized and lease-up costs are required to stabilize the property on the assessment date.  (Minnesota Tax Court)

Monday, March 11, 2024

Courtroom 300, Minnesota Judicial Center
State of Minnesota, Respondent, vs. McKinley Juner Phillips, Appellant – Case No. A22-1372:  A grand jury indicted appellant McKinley Juner Phillips with first-degree premeditated murder and second-degree intentional murder in connection with the fatal stabbing of his wife.  Phillips pleaded not guilty.  At trial, the State presented evidence related to the fatal stabbing.  Phillips testified that during an argument with his wife, he “snapped” and stabbed his wife wildly.  The district court denied Phillip’s request for a jury instruction on the lesser-offense of first-degree heat-of-passion manslaughter.  The jury found petitioner guilty as charged.
On appeal to the supreme court, Phillips raises the following issue:  where the evidence established a rational basis for acquitting Phillips of first-degree premeditated murder and convicting him of first-degree heat-of-passion manslaughter, did the district court commit reversible error by refusing to provide a first-degree heat-of-passion manslaughter instruction to the jury?  (Washington County)

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

University of St. Thomas School of Law – 10:00 a.m.
In the Matter of the Civil Commitment of: Michael Benson – Case No. A22-1840:  In 1993, appellant Michael Benson was civilly committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program as a sexual psychopathic personality.  In 2020, Benson filed a request for a reduction in custody.  The petition was denied by the Special Review Board.  Benson appealed to the Commitment Appeal Panel and was appointed counsel.  After the hearing, the Commitment Appeal Panel dismissed the matter, concluding Benson failed to present a prima facie showing to support a reduction in custody. 
Benson appealed the Commitment Appeal Panel’s decision to the court of appeals, claiming he received ineffective assistance of counsel and that his statutory and constitutional rights to self-representation in a civil commitment proceeding were violated.  The court of appeals affirmed.  The court of appeals found Benson was not denied effective assistance of counsel and that no statutory right to self-representation exists in a civil commitment proceeding.  The court of appeals concluded Benson’s claim of a constitutional right to self-representation was waived because that argument was not made before the Commitment Appeal Panel.
On appeal to the supreme court, Benson’s brief raises the following issues:  (1) whether a patient seeking release from the Minnesota Sex Offender Program has a right to act as his own counsel; and (2) assuming no such right to self-representation exists, whether the assistance of counsel here was ineffective.  (Commitment Appeal Panel)

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Courtroom 300, Minnesota Judicial Center
In re Petition for Disciplinary Action Against James V. Bradley, a Minnesota Attorney, Registration No. 0392102 – Case No. A22-1010:  An attorney discipline matter that presents the question of what discipline, if any, is appropriate based on the facts of the case.
Judith Rygwall, as Trustee for the Heirs and Next of Kin of Amy Rygwall, deceased, Appellant, vs. ACR Homes, Inc. d/b/a ACR Homes, Respondent – Case No. A22-1376:  Appellant Judith Rygwall brought this wrongful-death action against respondent ACR Homes, Inc., alleging that its negligence caused the death of Rygwall’s daughter Amy, a physically and mentally disabled adult who resided in a group home owned and operated by ACR.  On the day of the alleged negligence, Amy began coughing after having pudding following lunch.  ACR determined that Amy should be taken to see a physician and decided to transport her to an urgent-care clinic, but she did not arrive at the clinic for approximately 2 ½ hours.  About a half-hour later the clinic staff called 911 because her condition was deteriorating; she was transported to a hospital, but her condition continued to deteriorate, and a little less than 2 weeks later, she died.  The cause of death was acute respiratory distress syndrome, with underlying causes of acute kidney injury, septic shock, and aspiration pneumonia.  Rygwall alleged that ACR’s failure to secure emergency medical care for Amy sooner, and its failure to provide all relevant medical information to medical personnel, was the negligence that led to her death.
In the district court, Rygwall submitted expert affidavits in support of her medical-malpractice claims.  ACR moved for summary judgment on the basis that Rygwall’s expert testimony did not establish an adequate chain of causation, and the district court granted the motion.  The court of appeals affirmed.
The supreme court granted review on the following issue:  whether courts may supplant the jury and hold as a matter of law that the evidence is sufficient to prove causation in a negligence action where medical expert testimony (1) details the precise course of action that the defendant should have followed, (2) explains why these interventions would have made a difference, and (3) opines that the failure to follow the standard of care caused the plaintiff to suffer harm.  (Anoka County)