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Roberts v. Board of Trustees of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities

April 6, 2004

JOHN O. ROBERTS, APPELLANT, JANE ROBERTS, PLAINTIFF (A03-528),
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE MINNESOTA STATE COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES, ON BEHALF OF THE STATE OF MINNESOTA, ET AL., RESPONDENTS, EARL CUMMINGS, ET AL., RESPONDENTS, MARK SMITH, ET AL., RESPONDENTS, THUNDERBIRD AVIATION, INC., ET AL., RESPONDENTS (A03-1053), JEFF KAGERMEIER, RESPONDENT.



Blue Earth County District Court File No. C102878

Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge; Peterson, Judge; and Halbrooks, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Peterson, Judge

Affirmed

UNPUBLISHED OPINION

In this consolidated appeal from summary judgments, appellant John Roberts argues that the district court (1) erred in granting summary judgment on his defamation claims; (2) erred in dismissing his claim for tortious interference with contract; (3) erred in dismissing his due-process claims; (4) erred in granting summary judgment on certain claims before discovery was completed; and (5) abused its discretion in awarding costs and disbursements to respondents. We affirm.

FACTS

Respondent Minnesota State University, Mankato (MSUM), offers an aviation program consisting of classroom courses and flight school to prepare students to become professional pilots. To meet course requirements and requirements of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), students must take a computerized written examination and an in-flight practical-skills test.

Appellant John Roberts, a professor in the aviation department and a director of the aviation program since 1981, became chair of the department in 1998. Roberts is also an FAA-designated examiner and administers the FAA tests. In his capacity as director, Roberts contracted with a company to provide the computerized testing services. MSUM was named as the contracting company, although Roberts had no authority to enter into contracts on behalf of MSUM.

Roberts charged the students a testing fee separate from their tuition and, after paying a portion of the fees to the testing company, kept the remainder. The fees were initially deposited in a university account over which he retained exclusive control. In 1991, at the request of a university dean, Roberts closed the university account and opened a personal bank account, naming himself and his wife as account owners, into which the fees were deposited.

Some of the aviation-program coursework was done at the Mankato airport, which is owned by the City of Mankato and managed by respondent North Star Aviation (NSA). NSA had a contract with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities to provide flight instruction for students enrolled in the flight-training program at MSUM. On February 16, 2001, NSA gave the university notice of termination of its contract to manage the flight school, effective August 31, 2001.

On May 7, 2001, MSUM held a meeting to provide information to potential applicants for the flight-school contract, as well as to explore financial issues. During this meeting, when asked about the status of the FAA-exam fees, Roberts responded that the fees "went to the University." He did not disclose that he deposited part of the fees into his own bank account. Later, investigation by the university revealed that part of the fees went to Roberts personally, not the university.

Respondent Thunderbird Aviation, Inc., was ultimately awarded the flight-school contract, although Roberts and his fellow faculty members opposed some of the contract provisions that Thunderbird proposed. Aviation students also became involved in the controversy surrounding the new flight-school contract.

Meanwhile, in July 2001, the president of MSUM ordered an internal audit of the aviation-program fee system. The auditor found that Roberts misrepresented his authority, created a conflict of interest, and misused university assets when he contracted with the computer-assisted-testing service on the university's behalf to administer the computerized FAA written test. The auditor also concluded that Roberts created a conflict of interest when he conducted and charged students for the FAA flight tests and that although Roberts used MSUM time and resources to become certified, he used these credentials primarily for personal gain.

The president placed Roberts on paid suspension for up to 30 days effective November 5, 2001. As part of his suspension, he was not allowed to teach classes, communicate with anyone except his union representative regarding an investigation of the auditor's report, or be on the MSUM campus. The president then instructed an MSUM dean to investigate the auditor's findings.

After the dean reported her findings, the president suspended Roberts without pay for 30 days. In her letter informing Roberts about her decision, the president stated:

1. You exceeded your authority by entering into a contract that would purport to bind Minnesota State University, Mankato, to [the computer-assisted-testing service].

2. You charged students for and profited from the administration of the Airman Knowledge Test even though such examinations were a part of your course syllabi. This conduct is totally inappropriate and is a clear conflict of interest....

3. You personally charged students and personally profited from the administration of flight check rides when such rides were an MSU course requirement as set forth in course syllabi. This conduct is totally inappropriate and is a clear conflict of interest.

Roberts then sued four sets of defendants on a variety of claims: (a) MSUM respondents, including various administrators; (b) NSA and its manager Mark Smith, Turning Point Management, a consulting firm, and Earl Cummings, president of Turning Point; (c) Thunderbird Aviation, Mankato Aviation, and Nancy Grazzini-Olson, president of these two companies; and (d) Mankato Mayor Jeff Kagermeier. The district court granted summary judgment to all respondents and awarded them costs and disbursements. This consolidated appeal followed.

DECISION

On appeal from summary judgment, the appellate court will examine whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether the district court erred in its application of the law. State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4 (Minn. 1990). This court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom judgment was granted. Fabio v. Bellomo, 504 N.W.2d 758, 761 (Minn. 1993).

I.

We first address Roberts' claim that the district court erred in granting summary judgment on his defamation claims against the state respondents. We limit our analysis to the six specific instances of alleged defamation that Roberts cites in his brief.

"[F]or a statement to be considered defamatory it must be communicated to someone other than the plaintiff, it must be false, and it must tend to harm the plaintiff's reputation and to lower him in the estimation of the community." Stuempges v. Parke, Davis & Co., 297 N.W.2d 252, 255 (Minn. 1980). Defamation by implication occurs "'if the defendant juxtaposes a series of facts so as to imply a defamatory connection between them, or creates a defamatory implication by omitting facts.'" Diesen v. Hessburg, 455 N.W.2d 446, 450 (Minn. 1990) (quoting W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Tort, ยง 116 (5th ed. Supp. 1988) (footnotes omitted)). "Slanders affecting the plaintiff in his ...


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