Before the Minnesota Supreme Court

May 2021

Summaries prepared by the Supreme Court Commissioner’s Office

Monday, May 3, 2021

Minnesota Judicial Center

Daniel Bierbach, Respondent vs. Digger’s Polaris and State Auto/United Fire & Casualty Group, Relators – Case No. A20-1525:

Susan K. Musta, Respondent vs. Mendota Heights Dental Center and Hartford Insurance Group, Relators – Case No. A20-1551 :

These cases involve separate appeals of separate decisions by the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA).  They have not been consolidated for purposes of oral argument.  However, both appeals implicate a similar preemption issue: whether federal law, specifically the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. §§ 801-904 (“CSA”), preempts Minn. Stat. § 176.135 (2020), a provision of the Minnesota’s Workers’ Compensation Act, Minn. Stat. ch. 176 (2020) (“WCA”), to the extent the WCA requires an employer to reimburse an employee for the cost of medical cannabis obtained under Minnesota’s THC Therapeutic Research Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 152.22–.37 (2020), notwithstanding that cannabis is a federal Schedule I controlled substance, possession or sale of which is a federal crime, under the CSA.
In Case No. A20-1525, respondent Bierbach suffered a work-related injury in 2004, at which time relator Digger’s Polaris was his employer and relator United Fire & Casualty Group its worker’s compensation insurer.  In June of 2018 Bierbach filed a claim seeking reimbursement for medical cannabis, which he uses to treat intractable pain stemming from the 2004 injury.  After a hearing, the compensation judge ordered relators to reimburse Bierbach for payment and costs associated with his medical cannabis.  The compensation judge concluded that he lacked jurisdiction to address relators’ preemption and constitutional challenges to Bierbach’s reimbursement request. The WCCA affirmed, agreeing with the compensation judge that its jurisdiction does not extend to relators’ preemption arguments under federal law. 
On appeal to the supreme court, the following issues are presented in Bierbach:  (1) whether federal law preempts the WCA to the extent the WCA requires an employer to reimburse an employee for the cost of medical cannabis; (2) whether the compensation judge and the WCCA had jurisdiction to decide the preemption issue; (3) whether the compensation judge clearly erred by finding medical cannabis reasonable and necessary to treat Bierbach’s pain; and (4) whether Bierbach’s physician lacked foundation to opine regarding whether cannabis was appropriate to treat Bierbach’s pain.
In Case No. A20-1551, respondent Musta suffered a work-related injury in 2003, at which time relator Mendota Heights Dental Center was her employer and relator Hartford Casualty Insurance Company was its worker’s compensation insurer.  In March of 2019 Musta filed a claim seeking reimbursement for medical cannabis to treat chronic pain stemming from the 2003 injury.  For purposes of the claim, the parties stipulated that Musta’s cannabis use complies with Minnesota’s THC Act and is reasonable, necessary, and causally related to her work injury.  Relators contended that federal law preempts an order requiring reimbursement for the cost of medical cannabis.  The compensation judge rejected the federal preemption claim, reasoning in part that there is a low probability of federal prosecution in these circumstances.  Thus, the compensation judge required relators to reimburse Musta for the costs incurred in her use of medical cannabis.  On appeal, the WCCA concluded that the compensation judge lacked jurisdiction to address the relators’ preemption claim and, thus, struck certain findings.  However, because the parties’ stipulation supported the reimbursement order as a matter of state law, the WCCA affirmed.
On appeal to the supreme court, the following issues are presented in Musta: (1) whether federal law preempts the WCA to the extent the WCA requires an employer to reimburse an employee for the cost of medical cannabis; (2) whether the compensation judge and the WCCA had jurisdiction to decide the preemption issue; and (3) whether the WCCA’s order requiring relators to compensate Musta, without passing on relators’ preemption claim, violated due process.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Minnesota Judicial Center

In re the Trust of Lawrence B. Schwagerl Trust Under Agreement Dated April 9, 1999 – Case No. A19-1814: In April of 1999, Lawrence and Phyllis Schwagerl created mirror-image trusts and pour-over wills to accomplish their estate-planning goals, including retaining control of their family farm. They had a number of children, including appellant Barbara Higinbotham and respondents Jerome Schwagerl and Diana Miller. Lawrence’s trust (the “Trust”) originally included an option for Jerome to purchase Lawrence’s “farm real estate” at the appraised value, but on the same date the Trust was executed, Lawrence also executed an amendment that eliminated that option. Both pre- and post-amendment, the Trust contained provisions directing that the trustees distribute Lawrence’s assets as follows: his tangible personal property to Phyllis; “All interests in property used by me or my spouse for residential purposes and in all real estate contiguous to or used in connection with such property” to Phyllis; and the residue to be divided between a “marital share” that would also be distributed to Phyllis, and a “family share” which would remain in trust with income payable to Phyllis and principal payable to Lawrence’s descendants upon Phyllis’s death.

Lawrence died later in 1999, and Phyllis became the sole trustee of the Trust. In 2011, Phyllis sold all of the land that she and Lawrence had owned to Schwagerl Family Farms, LLC, a corporation controlled by Jerome, at a price significantly below market value. In May of 2012 Phyllis purported to name Jerome and Diana as trustees. Years later, Jerome signed a document purporting to decline his appointment.

In December 2015, Barbara filed a petition seeking to remove Phyllis as trustee and also seeking an accounting. She later sought to name Diana and Jerome as trustees, to charge all trustees for the loss in value to the trust due to the sale to Schwagerl Family Farms, and to have that sale voided. While the litigation was ongoing, Phyllis transferred significant assets out of the Trust and into a separate trust in her own name, which separate trust she also amended to remove Barbara as a beneficiary. Phyllis died shortly thereafter. The district court made findings of fact and conclusions of law and granted Barbara’s motion. Reading the post-amendment trust document in light of the pre-amendment instruction, the court concluded that only the home and surrounding curtilage qualified as “contiguous,” and although Phyllis could have had the interest in the residence distributed to her outright, she “waived her right” to that distribution by keeping the property in the Trust in order to achieve better tax treatment. Therefore Phyllis had chosen to fund the Trust with the farm property, and she had breached her duty to the beneficiaries by entering into the below-market contract with Schwagerl Family Farms and by transferring other assets out the Trust. The district court also found that Jerome had taken actions to accept his trusteeship and that he and Diana had also breached their fiduciary duties.

The court of appeals reversed. It concluded that the plain meaning of the “contiguous” provision applied to all of the farm land, which therefore should have gone to Phyllis. The court concluded that Phyllis therefore was legally entitled to dispose of the assets however she wished, and therefore she could not have breached a fiduciary duty. The court of appeals also ruled that the district court clearly erred by identifying Jerome as a trustee.

On appeal to the supreme court, the following issues are presented: (1) what property fell under the “contiguous” provision; (2) what Phyllis’s rights were with respect to the property in the Trust; and (3) whether the district court clearly erred by identifying Jerome as a trustee. (Big Stone County)

Keith Jacob Aili, Randall Duaine Bemis, Mark Allen Dziuk, Zachary Lourence Sheehy, Respondents/Cross-Appellants vs. State of Minnesota, Appellant/Cross-Respondent – Case Nos. A20-0205, A20-0206, A20-0228, A20-0229 : Between February 2014 and December 2015, each respondent/cross-appellant was convicted of test refusal. Their convictions were based on having refused warrantless urine and blood tests after they had been arrested for driving while impaired.

On June 23, 2016, the United States Supreme Court issued Birchfield v. North Dakota, 579 U.S. __, 136 S. Ct. 2160 (2016), and a few months later, on October 12, 2016, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued State v. Trahan, 886 N.W.2d 216 (Minn. 2016), and State v. Thompson, 886 N.W.2d 224 (Minn. 2016). Collectively, these cases announced what is now referred to as the Birchfield rule, and under which “the State may not criminalize refusal of a blood or a urine test absent a search warrant or a showing that a valid exception to the warrant requirement applies.” See Johnson v. State, 916 N.W.2d 674, 678 n.2, 679 (Minn. 2018), cert. denied, 139 S. Ct. 2745 (2019).

Two years later, on August 22, 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court held in Johnson that Birchfield was a substantive rule that applied retroactively to final cases on collateral review. Id. at 679, 684. It remanded to the district court to apply the Birchfield rule and decide if the test-refusal statute was unconstitutional as applied to Johnson. Id. at 684.

From September through November 2019, respondents/cross-appellants (respondents) filed petitions for postconviction relief that each made the same argument: based on the Birchfield rule, their convictions were void because the test-refusal statute was unconstitutional as applied to them. Respondents argued their petitions were timely based on the new-interpretation-of-law exception to the 2-year time bar, Minn. Stat. § 590.01, subd. 4(b)(3) (2020). In response, the State argued the petitions were time barred under Minn. Stat. § 590.01, subd. 4(c) (2020), which requires a postconviction “petition invoking an exception” to the 2-year time bar to “be filed within two years of the date the claim arises.” In each case, the district court denied the petition, concluding it was untimely under Minn. Stat. § 590.01, subd. 4(c), because it was not filed within 2 years of when the Birchfield rule was announced.

Respondents appealed. The court of appeals consolidated their appeals. It reversed, concluding the petitions were timely under Minn. Stat. § 590.01, subd. 4(c), because they were filed within 2 years of the decision in Johnson holding that the Birchfield rule applied retroactively. It remanded to the district court to consider the merits of each individual postconviction petition.

On appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, the following issues are presented: (1) whether a postconviction claim brought pursuant to the new-interpretation-of-law exception, Minn. Stat. § 590.01, subd. 4(b)(3), arises when an appellate court announces the new rule for purposes of the 2-year time limitation in Minn. Stat. § 590.01, subd. 4(c); and (2) whether the court of appeals’ remand order was improper because the State waived any claim that respondents’ convictions are lawful. (Sherburne County)

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Minnesota Judicial Center

State of Minnesota, Respondent vs. Stephen Carl Allwine, Appellant – Case Nos. A18-0846, A20-1588: In 2018, Stephen Allwine was convicted of first-degree murder for killing his wife and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release. Allwine filed a direct appeal but requested a stay of the appeal in order to pursue post-conviction relief. Allwine filed two petitions for post-conviction relief in 2019 and 2020, alleging claims of prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel. The district court denied both petitions. The stay of Allwine’s direct appeal has been vacated and the case has been consolidated with his post-conviction appeal.

On appeal to the supreme court, the issues presented are whether the evidence supporting Allwine’s conviction for first-degree murder is sufficient and whether a new trial is warranted based on prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel. (Washington County)

State of Minnesota, Respondent vs. Rebecca Ann Powers, Appellant – Case No. A19-1856: The State of Minnesota charged appellant Rebecca Ann Powers with first-degree criminal damage to property for damaging the door to another person’s home. A person commits first-degree criminal damage to property by “intentionally caus[ing] damage to physical property of another without the latter’s consent” and “the damage reduces the value of the property by more than $1,000 measured by the cost of repair and replacement.” Minn. Stat. § 609.595, subd. 1(4) (2020)

At a jury trial, one of the homeowners testified that he obtained an estimate of $1,173 for a replacement door from a store. The homeowner believed that repairing and replacing the door would take him three and a half hours at his repair rate of $69.00 per hour, for a total of $241.50. After including the costs for the other items needed to repair and replace the door as well as the labor costs, the total came to $1,589.05. The homeowners did not repair or replace the door. The jury found Powers guilty. The court of appeals affirmed.

On appeal to the supreme court, the issue is whether the State proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the cost of repair and replacement of the door was greater than $1,000. (St. Louis County)


Monday, May 10, 2021

Minnesota Judicial Center

State of Minnesota, Respondent vs. Timothy John Lufkins, Appellant – Case No. A19-1809: The State charged appellant Timothy John Lufkins with several felonies. Lufkins pleaded not guilty and demanded a jury trial. During jury selection, the prosecutor sought to remove a prospective non-white juror using a peremptory strike. Lufkins objected, citing Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986). In response to the objection, the prosecutor articulated three reasons for the strike, including the fact that law enforcement “flagged” the juror’s name before trial. Concluding that the prosecutor had articulated a race-neutral explanation for the strike, the district court overruled Lufkin’s objection. The jury found Lufkin guilty of all but one offense.

On appeal, Lufkin argued the district court committed reversible error when it determined that the prosecutor articulated a race-neutral reason for striking the juror. Concluding that nothing in the record showed that a discriminatory intent was inherent in the law-enforcement-flag explanation, the court of appeals affirmed.

On appeal to the supreme court, the issue presented is whether a law enforcement flag on a juror’s name is a race-neutral explanation, and if not, whether a new trial is required. (Pipestone County)

In the Matter of the Welfare of the Child of: H.G.D. and J.R.Q., Parents – Case No. A20-1182: Appellant Rice County Social Services (the County) filed a petition in June 2020, alleging that the County had received a report that respondent H.G.D. (“Mother”) was neglecting her minor child and thus the child was in need of protection or services (CHIPS). The petition also alleged that Mother had a history of alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness, domestic abuse as both the perpetrator and the victim, and housing insecurity. Based on these allegations, the petition asserted that the child was in need of protection or services. The district court granted the County’s ex parte motion for immediate custody. At an admit-deny hearing, Mother denied the statutory grounds alleged in the petition. After Mother tested negative for chemicals and the child’s guardian ad litem inspected Mother’s home and approved it for the child, the child was returned to Mother’s care on July 9, 2020.

A pretrial hearing was held on August 14, 2020. Mother did not attend, although her attorney was present. Over the objection of Mother’s attorney, the district court allowed the County to proceed by default, pursuant to Minn. R. Juv. Prot. P. 18, based on Mother’s nonappearance. The County called two witnesses: a child-protection investigator who had conducted a family assessment, and the case manager who started working with Mother after the CHIPS petition was filed. The investigator testified that he believed the allegations in the petition (which he had signed) were true; but the petition was not admitted into evidence. The case manager testified about incidents that had occurred after the filing of the petition. Following the hearing, the district court found that the County had met its burden of showing by clear and convincing evidence that the child was in need of protection or services.

The court of appeals reversed. Assuming without deciding that the district court properly proceeded by default even though Mother’s attorney appeared, the court reasoned that under Minn. R. Juv. Prot. P. 18, the County may present evidence in a default proceeding, and in a CHIPS proceeding the relevant standard of proof is clear and convincing evidence. The court rejected the County’s argument that Mother’s default amounted to an admission of the allegations of the petition, and because the specific allegations in the petition were never admitted into evidence, the court of appeals concluded that the district court could not consider those allegations as true. Considering the other evidence that was admitted, the court of appeals concluded that the County did not meet its burden to prove the need for child protection by clear and convincing evidence.

On appeal to the supreme court, the issue presented is whether, when a party fails to appear for a pretrial hearing in a CHIPS matter, the allegations in the CHIPS petition are deemed admitted by virtue of the default. (Rice County)


Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Minnesota Judicial Center

State of Minnesota, Respondent vs. Nathan Ernest Hatch, Appellant – Case No. A20-0176: The State charged appellant Nathan Ernest Hatch with carrying a pistol without a permit. Hatch filed a pretrial motion to dismiss the charged offense, arguing the statute prohibiting a person from carrying a pistol without a permit, Minn. Stat. § 624.714, subd. 1a (2020), violates the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. The district court denied the motion to dismiss. Following a stipulated-facts trial, Hatch was found guilty of the charged offense.

On appeal, Hatch renewed his Second Amendment argument. The court of appeals affirmed. As part of its analysis, the court of appeals determined that it did not need to decide the required level of scrutiny because even under the more stringent strict scrutiny standard, the statute was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.

On appeal to the supreme court, the issue presented is whether a statute that infringes on the Second Amendment is subject to strict scrutiny and if so, whether the permit requirement of Minn. Stat. § 624.714 is unconstitutional. (Hennepin County)

Jeffrey S. Sheridan, et al., Relators vs. Commissioner of Revenue, Respondent – Case No. A21-0007: Article X, Section 5 of the Minnesota Constitution provides that “[t]he legislature may tax aircraft using the air space overlying the state on a more onerous basis than other personal property. Any such tax on aircraft shall be in lieu of all other taxes.” Minnesota Statutes provide for both the “in lieu” tax, Minn. Stat. § 360.531, subd. 1 (2020), and a sales and use tax on aircraft, see Minn. Stat. § 297A.82, subd. 1 (2020). Relators Jeffrey Sheridan and Kirk Lindberg each separately purchased an aircraft out of state. Upon applying to register the aircraft in Minnesota, they submitted payment for both the in lieu tax and the sales and use tax. Each relator filed a request with the Minnesota Department of Revenue for a refund of the sales and use tax, which in each case was denied.

Relators sued respondent the Commissioner of Revenue in district court, challenging the denial of their refund claims and alleging that the sales and use tax is prohibited by Article X, Section 5 of the Minnesota Constitution. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, and the district court transferred the case to the Tax Court for decision, which granted summary judgment in favor of the Commissioner. The Tax Court agreed with the Commissioner’s assertion that the “in lieu of all other taxes” provision prohibits a double personal property tax but does not prohibit transactional taxes such as the sales and use tax.

On appeal to the supreme court, the issue is whether the constitutional provision prohibiting “all other taxes” on aircraft renders the sales and use tax on aircraft unconstitutional. (Minnesota Tax Court)