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EN BANC CALENDAR

Before the Minnesota Supreme Court

April 2024

SUMMARY OF ISSUES

Summaries prepared by the Supreme Court Commissioner’s Office

Monday, April 1, 2024

Supreme Court Courtroom, State Capitol Building, Second Floor

Minnesota Voters Alliance, et al., Appellants, vs. Tom Hunt, et al., Respondents, Steve Simon, et al., Respondents, Jennifer Schroeder, et al., Respondents – Case No. A23‑1940:Appellants Minnesota Voters Alliance and Mary Amlaw, Ken Wendling, and Tim Kirk sought a writ of quo warranto or declaratory judgment against respondents Tom Hunt, in his official capacity as elections official for Anoka County, Anoka County, and State officials and entities (collectively, respondents). Appellants challenge the constitutionality of the 2023 law restoring the civil right to vote for individuals with felony convictions while they are not incarcerated. Minn. Stat. § 201.014, subd. 2a (2023 Supp.); see Minn. Const. art. VII, § 1. Respondents Jennifer Schroeder, et al.—individuals with felony convictions whose voting rights were restored—filed a motion to intervene. The district court granted their motion to intervene as a matter of right under Minn. R. Civ. P. 24.01.

The district court dismissed the petition with prejudice, ruling that appellants lack standing to make their constitutional challenge. The district court also concluded that the petition “fails on the merits” because appellants had not met their burden of demonstrating that section 201.014, subdivision 2a, is unconstitutional.

The supreme court granted appellants’ petition for accelerated review on the following issues: (1) whether respondents exceeded their authority by implementing laws that grant Minnesotans convicted of felonies the civil right to vote without restoring other civil rights; (2) whether appellants have standing to petition for a writ of quo warranto, where respondents are implementing laws that appellants allege violate the Minnesota Constitution, and the Legislature has appropriated tax monies to implement those laws; and (3) whether Minnesota courts presume that putative intervenors are adequately represented by the government where the government, as a sovereign, is defending laws that confer the rights they seek to vindicate through intervention. (Anoka County)

 

Sean Michael Wocelka, Appellant, vs. State of Minnesota, Respondent – Case No. A22-1239: Respondent State of Minnesota charged appellant Sean Wocelka with three counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct for sexually touching a girl with a toy. Prior to trial, appellant moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of probable cause, arguing his conduct did not constitute “sexual contact” because the State alleged he touched the victim with an object, not directly. The district court denied the motion, concluding that his conduct was covered by the language of the applicable statute. After a trial, the jury found appellant guilty of two counts. He did not file a direct appeal.

Appellant later filed a petition for postconviction relief, arguing the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions because his conduct did not constitute “sexual contact” under the statute. The district court denied appellant’s petition for postconviction relief. In a precedential opinion, the court of appeals affirmed. The court of appeals concluded appellant’s conduct fell within the plain meaning of “sexual contact” as defined in the statute, Minn. Stat. § 609.341, subd. 11(a)(1) (2022).

The supreme court granted review on the following issue: does “touching by the actor of complainant’s intimate parts” in the definition of “sexual contact” include the actor’s use of an object to make contact with the complainant. (Steele County)

 

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Supreme Court Courtroom, State Capitol Building, Second Floor

State of Minnesota, Appellant, vs. Jeron Garding, Respondent – Case No. A22-1436: Appellant State of Minnesota charged respondent Jeron Garding with a first-degree controlled substance crime for possessing 410 grams of methamphetamine found in his vehicle. Prior to trial, Garding moved to suppress the methamphetamine, arguing officers did not have grounds to subject his vehicle to a dog sniff and to subsequently search his vehicle. The district court denied Garding’s motion, finding officers had reasonable articulable suspicion to justify a dog sniff of the exterior of the vehicle and probable cause to search the vehicle.

The court of appeals reversed, finding that officers did not have reasonable articulable suspicion to conduct a dog sniff of the exterior of Garding’s vehicle.

The supreme court granted review on the following issues: (1) was it error for the court of appeals to reverse a first-degree controlled substance crime conviction based on a reasonable-suspicion analysis which examined the inferences that can be drawn from each fact in isolation, rather than examining the inferences that can be drawn from the facts in their totality; and (2) was it error for the court of appeals to rule that only evidence of current drug impairment is relevant to developing a reasonable suspicion that drugs may be present in a vehicle, and that evidence of a suspect’s habitual drug use is per se excluded from that assessment? (Wright County)

 

State of Minnesota, Respondent, vs. Matthew Douglas Paulson, Appellant – Case No. A22-0632: Respondent State of Minnesota charged appellant Matthew Douglas Paulson with several offenses, including kidnapping. Paulson pleaded guilty to kidnapping under the process recognized in North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970), which allows a defendant to plead guilty when there is a strong probability that the defendant would be found guilty of the charge to which he is pleading guilty, notwithstanding his claims of innocence. The district court accepted his plea and entered a judgment of conviction. The court of appeals affirmed Paulson’s conviction.

The supreme court granted review on the following issue: is a guilty plea accurate when no factual basis is established for the venue element? (Anoka County)

 

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Supreme Court Courtroom, State Capitol Building, Second Floor

Craig A Reichel, et al., Appellants, vs. Wendland Utz, LTD, et al., Respondents – Case No. A23‑0015:In an appeal from a partial judgment under Minn. R. Civ. P. 54.02 in a legal malpractice action, appellants Craig Reichel, et al., challenged the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of respondents Wendland Utz, LTD, et al., on certain claims. In their complaint, appellants generally alleged that, while they ultimately were successful in the underlying litigation, respondents made a series of professional errors that caused them to incur attorney fees to correct respondents’ mistakes. Among other rulings, the district court concluded that appellant Reichel Foods, Inc., “cannot sustain a legal malpractice claim.”

Appellants appealed, and respondents filed a notice of related appeal. The court of appeals affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded. As relevant to the issues in the supreme court, the court of appeals concluded that the district court did not err in dismissing appellants’ legal malpractice claim because they failed to show but-for causation, and the district court erred in denying summary judgment on their “remaining claims that involve a showing of ‘but-for’ causation.”

The supreme court granted review on the following issues: (1) whether Minnesota law allows a client to recover attorney fees as damages when incurred to “correct” a lawyer’s negligence, even though the client was ultimately successful in the underlying case; (2) whether a claim for breach of fiduciary duty—concerning a standard of conduct as opposed to a standard of care—requires proof of but-for causation; and (3) whether a client may bring a claim for breach of contract when an attorney’s negligence caused the client to incur additional fees, even though the client was ultimately successful in the underlying case. The supreme court also directed the parties to address issues of appellate jurisdiction. (Olmsted County)
 

Nonoral: Harry Jerome Evans, Appellant, vs. State of Minnesota, Respondent – Case No. A23-0980: In 2006, appellant Harry Jerome Evans was convicted of the first-degree murder of a Saint Paul police sergeant. His conviction was affirmed on direct appeal. Appellant subsequently sought further relief on four occasions: two petitions for postconviction relief, one restitution challenge, and one motion to correct his sentence. The district court denied relief each time, and the supreme court affirmed the district court in all four cases.

In this case, appellant filed a new petition for postconviction relief, seeking reversal of his conviction. The district court denied relief, concluding that appellant’s petition was untimely and did not meet any exceptions to the time limitations.

Appellant now appeals the district court’s order denying relief. Appellant raises the following claims on appeal: (1) that his conviction violates due process because the State withheld exculpatory and impeachment evidence, undermining the confidence of the outcome of his trial; and (2) that the district court erred by summarily denying his petition for postconviction relief without an evidentiary hearing. (Ramsey County)

 

Monday, April 8, 2024

Courtroom 300, Minnesota Judicial Center

State of Minnesota, Respondent, vs. Nicholas James Firkus, Appellant – Case No. A23-0973: A grand jury indicted appellant Nicholas James Firkus with first-degree premeditated murder. Following a jury trial, Firkus was found guilty as charged. The district court imposed a sentence of life without the possibility of release.

On appeal to the supreme court, Firkus raises the following issue: in this circumstantial evidence case, was the evidence insufficient to negate, beyond a reasonable doubt, every rational hypothesis other than guilt? (Ramsey County)
 

In re Petition for Disciplinary Action against Richard S. Langree, a Minnesota Attorney, Registration No. 0234229 – Case No. A23-0047: An attorney discipline matter that presents the question of what discipline, if any, is appropriate based on the facts of the case.

 

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Courtroom 300, Minnesota Judicial Center

Pedro Alonzo, et al., Appellants, vs. Richard Menholt, et al., Respondents – Case No. A22-1796: Appellant Pedro Alonzo was injured when the truck he was driving collided with a truck driven by an employee of Braaten Farms, which had been hired by Menholt Farms, a company controlled by respondent Richard Menholt, to haul sugar beets. After the collision, it was learned that the Braaten Farms employee’s driver’s license had been suspended and that he had multiple prior driving convictions. Alonzo and his wife sued Menholt and his companies, alleging a claim of negligent selection of an independent contractor. In discovery it was revealed that Menholt Farms had made no effort to determine whether the Braaten Farms employee had a valid driver’s license, a good driving record, or a criminal history, or to determine whether Braaten Farms had done so; and that Braaten Farms’ only efforts in that regard were to view the employee’s license from a foot or a couple of feet away, several years after he had first been hired.

Respondents moved for summary judgment, arguing in part that Minnesota does not recognize a claim for negligent selection of an independent contractor and, in the alternative, that Menholt Farms had no information to suggest that Braaten Farms and its employee were not qualified to perform the duties for which they were hired and no duty to inquire into the matter. The district court granted respondents’ motion. It reasoned that the supreme court either has or will recognize the claim of negligent selection of an independent contractor, but that there were no material fact issues suggesting negligence by Menholt Farms in hiring Braaten Farms as an independent contractor.

The court of appeals affirmed, albeit on different reasoning. The panel concluded unanimously that the tort of negligent selection of an independent contractor had not been recognized by the supreme court, and that it was not the role of the district court or the court of appeals to recognize that tort when the supreme court had not done so. A majority of the panel also concluded that even if such tort were recognized, the Alonzos had not created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Menholt Farms breached a relevant duty. One judge concurred specially, concluding that if the negligent-selection tort were recognized, summary judgment would be inappropriate on that theory.

The supreme court granted review on the following issues: (1) whether the Minnesota Supreme Court should formally recognize a claim for negligent selection of an independent contractor; and (2) whether the district court erred in granting summary judgment by determining there was no genuine issue of material fact about whether respondents negligently failed to exercise reasonable care to select a competent and careful contractor. (Clay County)

 

Joseph Rued, Appellant, vs. the Commissioner of Human Services, Respondent – Case No. A22‑1420:Following his report of suspected child abuse, appellant Joseph Rued requested a fair hearing before a human services judge to challenge the determination of respondent Scott County that no maltreatment had occurred. Respondent Commissioner of Human Services ultimately issued a decision dismissing Rued’s request.

Rued sought judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision under Minn. Stat. § 256.045, subd. 7 (2022), which requires service of the notice of appeal on the Commissioner and “any adverse party of record” within 30 days. Rued served his initial pleading on the Commissioner but not Scott County. Following a hearing, the district court denied Rued’s appeal on the merits. The district court rejected the County’s jurisdictional challenge based on the lack of timely service, ruling that the County had waived the jurisdictional defect—which the district court treated as a matter of personal jurisdiction—by appearing at the hearing.

The court of appeals vacated the district court’s decision. The court of appeals concluded that the district court did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over the proceeding because Rued had not served the initial pleading on Scott County as required by Minn. Stat. § 256.045, subd. 7.

The supreme court granted review on the following issue: whether an adverse party of record may waive the notice requirement in Minn. Stat. § 256.045, subd. 7, by appearing and submitting to the jurisdiction of the district court. (Scott County)

 

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

University of Minnesota Law School – 3:00 p.m.

State of Minnesota, Respondent, vs. Dontae Deshaun White, Appellant – Case No. A23-0126: Appellant Dontae Deshaun White pleaded guilty to second-degree intentional murder. At a contested restitution hearing, the victim’s mother testified that she paid $15,778.68 in funeral costs using the proceeds of the victim’s life insurance policy. Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, the district court ordered White to pay restitution of $15,778.68 for the funeral costs. The court of appeals affirmed the district court’s restitution order.

The supreme court granted review on the following issue: whether the restitution statute requires a district court to account for life-insurance benefits paid to a homicide victim’s family when determining their total economic loss where the insurance proceeds covered all the costs incurred by the family as a direct result of the crime. (Hennepin County)
 

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Courtroom 300, Minnesota Judicial Center

Ken Martin, Petitioner, vs. Steve Simon, Minnesota Secretary of State, Respondent, The Legal Marijuana Now Party, Intervenor-Respondent – Case No. A24-0216: Petitioner Ken Martin filed a petition pursuant to Minn. Stat.§ 204B.44 (2022), asking this court, in part, to direct respondent Steve Simon, Minnesota Secretary of State, to (1) decertify the Legal Marijuana Now Party as a major political party, and (2) not allow candidates from the Legal Marijuana Now Party to appear on the ballots for the 2024 state primary and general elections using the procedures for candidates for partisan offices who seek the nomination of a major political party. The petition alleges that the Legal Marijuana Now Party does not meet the definition of a major political party contained in Minn. Stat. § 200.02, subd. 7 (Supp. 2023) (defining major political party), which in turn references the requirements in Minn. Stat. §§ 202A.12 (2022), 202A.13 (Supp. 2023) for major political party committees and conventions.

The supreme court appointed a referee to determine all facts relevant to, issue conclusions of law regarding, and make recommendations as to the disposition of whether the Legal Marijuana Now Party: (1) has the committees required by Minn. Stat. § 202A.12 (2022); (2) has “provide[d] for each congressional district and at least 45 counties or legislative districts an executive committee consisting of a chair and such other officers as may be necessary,” as required by Minn. Stat. § 202A.13 (Supp. 2023); and (3) held, in 2022, the conventions for each congressional district and at least 45 counties or legislative districts, as required by Minn. Stat. § 202A.13. Following an evidentiary hearing, the referee recommended that the supreme court should declare that the Legal Marijuana Now Party does not meet all the statutory requirements set forth in Minn. Stat. §§ 200.02, subd. 7, 202A.12, and 202A.13, as of December 31, 2023, to maintain its status as a major political party for the state primary election in August 2024 and the state general election in November 2024.

The Legal Marijuana Now Party objected to the referee’s recommendations, raising the question of whether a challenge under Minn. Stat. § 204B.44 regarding the political internal structures, affairs, or rules of a Minnesota major-political party in choosing candidate nominees for elected office falls outside the jurisdiction of the State Supreme Court for constitutional or other reasons. (Original Jurisdiction)