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Free Press v. County of Blue Earth

April 13, 2004


Blue Earth County District Court File No. C6-02-1265

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


I. The requirement in the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, Minn. Stat. § 13D.01, subd. 3 (2002), that a public body describe the "subject to be discussed" before closing a meeting, contemplates more than a statement asserting an attorney-client privilege to discuss "pending litigation." The public body must specifically describe the matter to be discussed at the closed meeting, subject only to relevant privacy and confidentiality protections under state and federal law.

II. An injunction that restrains a public body from closing a meeting under the Minnesota Open Meeting Law without describing the "subject to be discussed" must be narrowly tailored to inform the public body of the specific information it must disclose before closing the meeting.

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

Affirmed as modified; remanded


Blue Earth County appeals the district court's summary judgment declaring that the county violated Minn. Stat. § 13D.01, subd. 3 (2000), a provision of the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, by failing to describe the "subject to be discussed" at a closed meeting. The county also challenges the accompanying injunction, which restrains the county from closing any meeting without a public statement on the record indicating both the specific grounds permitting the closing of the meeting and a description of the subject to be discussed. We conclude that the district court did not err in determining that the county failed adequately to describe the subject to be discussed in the closed meeting. The injunction enforcing the open meeting law, however, lacks sufficient specificity to identify the restrained conduct, and we remand for reformulation of the injunction.


The Blue Earth County Board of Commissioners held a meeting in April 2002 to discuss, among other matters, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charge filed by a county employee. A reporter from the Mankato Free Press was present at the meeting. During the meeting, the county board chair read a statement explaining that the county could close a meeting under Minn. Stat. § 13D.05, subd. 3(b) (2000), for discussion permitted by the attorney-client privilege; he then entertained a motion to close the meeting. The board minutes reflect that the meeting was closed "under the attorney-client privilege to discuss pending litigation." About two weeks later, the county terminated the employment of its land-records director.

The Free Press reporter asked attorneys representing the county about the litigation. The Minnesota Counties Insurance Trust attorney who was assigned to defend the county against the EEOC charge stated that a charge had been filed with an administrative agency but that no lawsuit had been filed. The Blue Earth County Attorney told the reporter that a lawsuit "had already been filed" and that it involved "an employee matter." The insurance trust attorney confirmed that an administrative charge was pending and further stated that an administrative charge was considered a "pending civil legal action" under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA). When asked by the reporter to identify the complainant, the insurance trust attorney declined to provide that information.

After further inquiry by the attorney from the Free Press, the insurance trust attorney responded that an EEOC charge had been made in 2002 against Blue Earth County, but declined to specify the exact nature of the charge to avoid impermissibly identifying the employee or former employee who had brought the charge. The Free Press's attorney made a written request under the MGDPA to inspect all documents received by Blue Earth County from the EEOC after January 1, 2002. He agreed that redactions would be appropriate to protect the identity of the complainant but disagreed that specifying the legal basis for the charge would divulge the complainant's identity. He also requested all documents obtained by the county relating to the "pending litigation," a statement of the specific reasons for terminating the land-records director, and all data documenting the basis for that action.

The insurance trust attorney provided a redacted copy of the EEOC charge but asserted that the legal basis of the charge was not public information. She indicated that documents obtained by the county relating to the pending litigation were classified as confidential civil-investigative data under the MGDPA, and that the closed meeting related to the EEOC charge. She also stated that the former land-records director, an at-will employee, had not been subject to disciplinary action and that not every termination was disciplinary in nature.

The Free Press filed a complaint in district court asserting violations of the MGDPA and the Minnesota Open Meeting Law. The Free Press alleged that the county had violated the MGDPA by failing to respond promptly to requests for information, failing to allow the Free Press to review EEOC documents relating to pending litigation, and failing to provide specific reasons for the employee's termination. The complaint also asserted that the county had violated the open meeting law by failing to identify the parties involved in the ...

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