Minnesota SLAPP Stories
SLAPPs in Minnesota
Eminent Domain and Government Management
- In January of 2009, the Minnesota chapter of the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal court against the publicly funded charter school Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, known as TIZA, alleging that the school was violating federal and state proscriptions against state establishment of religion. The suit also named the Minnesota Department of Education for failing to uncover and stop the alleged transgressions. In response to the lawsuit, TIZA brought several counterclaims against the ACLU and its director Charles Samuelson, for statements Samuelson had made in a Star Tribune article about the ACLU lawsuit. TIZA alleged defamation and four counts of tortious interference with business contracts with various parties. The ACLU moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, and moved to dismiss under Minnesota’s anti-SLAPP law. On December 9, the court granted the motion for failure to state a claim. Because the court held that TIZA is a public entity, and that it is axiomatic that a public entity may not bring a claim for defamation, the court dismissed the defamation claim as a matter of law. Because the interference claims were each based upon, and indistinguishable from, the defamation claim, the court dismissed these as well. However, because the court dismissed the matter under the federal rules, it did not reach the question of whether the anti-SLAPP law would apply, and therefore of whether the ACLU was entitled to fees for the defense against the counterclaims. ACLU of Minnesota v. Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, No. 09-138 (D. Minn. Dec. 9, 2009).
- In 2002, land owner Jim Stengrim and others opposed a flood control project in the Middle Snake Tamarac Rivers Watershed District (District), and went to court to challenge the authority of the District to take their land through eminent domain. The land owners and the District reached a settlement agreement, one provision of which forbade the land owners from challenging the project again. Consistent with the agreement, Stengrim did not file another legal challenge, but remained an outspoken critic of the District’s handling of the project. In 2008, the District sued Stengrim, alleging that he had violated the agreement not to challenge the project. Stengrim filed an anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss the suit, but the trial court refused to apply Minnesota’s anti-SLAPP law, saying it was unclear whether the legislature had intended the anti-SLAPP statute to apply to settlement agreement enforcement actions. Stengrim appealed, with the Minnesota ACLU filing an amicus brief on his behalf. In February 2009, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, holding that the Minnesota anti-SLAPP law clearly applies to Stengrim’s action, and so the burden is on the District to show by clear and convincing evidence that Stengrim’s activity is not immune under the statute. The District appealed that decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which heard arguments on October 8, 2009. See Middle-Snake-Tamarac Rivers Watershed District v. Stengrim, No. A08-0825 (Minn. Ct. App. Feb. 17, 2009).
- In 2006, journalism Professor Mengelcoch at Bemidji State University (BSU) gave a talk about an article she had written about Adam Steele, an outspoken Bemidji newspaper editor who had shed light on a number of local issues that had previously been ignored by the media. Steele, who is now running for state representative, objected to the article, which he found defamatory. He sued Mendlkoch, BSU, and a student who had asked a question at Mendlkoch’s presentation. Steele also named Google as a defendant, for making Mendlkoch’s article, “All the News That’s Not Fit to Print,” available on its website. All told, Steele alleged $50 billion in libel damages and conspiracy. The trial court threw out the lawsuit, and Steele appealed as to Google and BSU. The Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the groundless claim against Google, holding that “under federal case law, as well as the plain language of the statute itself, the Communications Decency Act clearly bars appellant’s claim against Google.” As to BSU, the court affirmed dismissal of the civil conspiracy claim, holding that Minnesota courts have consistently held that there is no claim for civil conspiracy in the absence of an underlying intentional tort. Steele v. Mengelkoch, et. al., No. A07-1375 (Minn. Ct. App. Aug. 5, 2008).
Community Well Being and Public Safety
- In 1999, resident Jean Weisbrich and All Parks Alliance for Change, a local community group in Monticello, were working for better conditions in a local mobile home park. Weisbrich wrote to state representatives and other government officials setting forth her concerns about park conditions, and encouraged other residents to do the same. Then, at the request of a representative from the State Department of Health, Weisbrich distributed public health notices instructing residents to boil the potentially harmful water from one of the park’s wells before using. Rather than work on conditions or explain how the parks met applicable standards, the owner of the mobile home park, Kjellberg’s Inc., sued Weisbrich and the Alliance for defamation and interference with contracts. The Minnesota ACLU (ACLU) stepped in to act on behalf of Weisbrich, making a motion to dismiss the lawsuit under Minnesota’s then-relatively new anti-SLAPP law. At the same time, the MCLU filed a counterclaim against Kjellberg’s for violating a Minnesota law that protects free speech in manufactured home parks and alleging that Kjellberg’s had used intimidation tactics on Weisbrich to prevent her from distributing public health notices about water quality. “We took on this case because we felt that the lawsuit was motivated by a desire to intimidate Weisbrich, APAC and other concerned park residents into giving up their right to free speech, freedom of association, and their right to petition government. Our concern was that, not only would the lawsuit punish our client for constitutionally protected speech, but it would also have a chilling effect on the speech of other residents wishing to improve park conditions,” said MCLU Executive Director Charles Samuelson. Shortly after the MCLU filed its anti-SLAPP motion, Kjellberg’s agreed to dismiss its lawsuit with prejudice, on the condition that Weisbrich dismiss her counterclaims. Kjellberg v. Weisbrich, No. 86-C5-99-1639 (Minn. Dist. Ct. Wright County Oct. 19, 1999).
- On four different occasions in early August, 1995, 81-year-old Virgil Engelke observed an unknown Caucasian male, approximately forty years of age, park his car, a blue-gray Lincoln with Iowa license plates, near his home, walk up the alley behind his house, turn into the driveway near a neighbor’s fence and garage, and stand there. Engelke’s neighbor was a local television anchorwoman who lived alone. On the fifth such occasion, Engelke alerted the police of this suspicious activity. On coming to investigate, the police stopped Charles Davisson and questioned him; eventually, the police brought charges of stalking against Davisson. While the criminal charges were pending, Davisson sued Engelke and his son for defamation. The trial court dismissed the case and awarded attorney fees to Engelke, stating that in eighteen years on the bench, Davisson’s lawsuit was the most “frivolous” and “baseless” lawsuit she had ever seen. The appellate court agreed that Engelke had “acted properly, as any citizen may, in calling to the attention of law enforcement suspicious conduct that he observed in his neighborhood….” and that the qualified police reporting privilege should not apply, as malice could not exist as a matter of law – Engelke hadn’t known Davisson before the incident. The court awarded trial and appellate costs and fees. Davisson v. Engelke, 1997 WL 585818 (Sept. 23, 1997 Minn. App. Ct.).