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Meier v. City of Columbia Heights

September 22, 2004


Anoka County District Court File No. C8-02-6682.

Considered and decided by Anderson, Presiding Judge; Toussaint, Chief Judge; and Peterson, Judge.


I. Official immunity may shield ministerial duties, unless an employee fails to perform or negligently performs those duties.

II. Vicarious official immunity is not automatically applied when a municipality fails to formally or informally adopt procedures to deal with abatement proceedings or imposition of costs and expenses related to the abatement of real property.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: G. Barry Anderson, Judge



Respondent filed a complaint alleging illegal seizure, violation of procedural due process, violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and vandalism against appellant, City of Columbia Heights, and numerous individuals. Appellant and the individually-named defendants moved for summary judgment based on qualified and official immunity. The district court found the individual defendants were entitled to qualified immunity from respondent's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims, as well as official immunity in relation to respondent's state-law claims. But the district court denied appellant's summary judgment motion and thus declined to extend any immunity to appellant. Appellant then moved to dismiss the action based specifically on vicarious official immunity, but the district court denied this motion as well and appellant challenges the denial. Respondent, pursuant to a notice of review, seeks review of the district court's determination regarding the individual defendants' rights to qualified and official immunity.


Respondent owns a duplex located in Columbia Heights. Respondent lived in half of the building, and used the other half to store various items she identifies as collectibles and antiques. According to respondent, these items "were in good condition, except for some furniture which could be repaired."

On October 15, 1995, appellant received a complaint regarding the condition of respondent's property. Appellant inspected the home in 1996, documenting via photographs various housing and fire code violations, including garbage and debris inside the building. Two years later, appellant issued a compliance order directing respondent to clean up the exterior of the property, and on June 22, 1998, appellant cited respondent for a violation of appellant's housing maintenance code. In the fall of 1999, appellant received further complaints regarding the condition of respondent's property. Thereafter, on November 29, 1999, Columbia Heights Fire Department (CHFD) employees visited respondent's residence. The CHFD employees "saw furniture and other items stacked four to five feet high in the interior, which did not appear to be habitable." On December 1, 1999, CHFD employees spoke with respondent at her property, at which time they noted the entry door could only be opened a third of the way because of various items stacked inside the unit. Respondent admitted to the CHFD employees that her home was more than she could deal with.

Appellant determined respondent's home was a garbage house due to the extraordinary clutter. On February 8, 2000, Mel Collova, a Columbia Heights building official,*fn1 sent respondent a letter referencing a complaint related to sections 102 and 3402 of the "Minnesota State Building Code, 1997 Uniform Building Code."*fn2 The letter directed respondent to contact appellant within fifteen days to schedule a code compliance inspection of the property. Furthermore, the letter stated, "Be advised, failure to comply with this request will lead to the City Attorney being instructed to obtain an Administrative Search warrant to conduct the inspection. Legal fees for this process will be assessed to you as the property owner of record." (Bolded emphasis in original.)

On July 26, 2000, appellant submitted a supporting affidavit and application for an administrative search warrant. The application and affidavit outlined the basis for inspecting the home, including a complaint from 1996, as well as personal observations by the affiant, Charlie Thompson, chief of the CHFD.*fn3 The district court signed an administrative search warrant on July 27, 2000. The warrant was "for the purpose of examination and investigation to enforce the Minnesota Uniform Fire Code/Columbia Heights Fire and Housing Codes, the State Uniform Building Code" and to ensure "the health, safety, and welfare of its occupant(s)". Thompson and others under his direction were permitted to (1) enter, examine, and investigate the property in order to enforce the cited codes; (2) take photographs and measurements, conduct tests, and perform other such duties to ensure proper enforcement of the codes; and (3) hold any evidence in accordance with the law.

The administrative search warrant was executed on August 23, 2000, and the abatement was conducted on August 23-25, and 28.*fn4 Respondent was not present on August 23, when the defendants entered the home and began the clean-up. Respondent alleges that many items were taken during abatement of the nuisance, including hundreds of antiques, heirlooms, and collectibles. Additionally, respondent claims that many items left behind during the abatement were damaged, and the house was damaged and dirty when the defendants left. Appellant then billed respondent for costs related to the abatement, levying a special assessment on the property for $16,602.91.

Appellant challenges the denial of its motion for summary judgment based on vicarious official immunity. Through a notice of review, respondent challenges the dismissal of her claims against the individually-named ...

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