1. Section 469.014 of Minnesota Statutes, which specifies that housing and redevelopment authorities "shall be liable in contract or in tort in the same manner as a private corporation," does not create an exception to the general rule that certiorari is the exclusive remedy for judicial review of a claim of wrongful termination brought by an employee of a public body that does not have statewide jurisdiction.
2. If a public employee's claim of breach of an employment contract is inevitably centered on the public body's decision to discharge her, it will be viewed as a wrongful termination claim for jurisdictional purposes.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hanson, Justice.
Dissenting, Anderson, Paul H., and Page, J.J.
Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.
Appellant Sandy Tischer sued respondent Cambridge Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) for breach of an employment contract when it eliminated her executive director position and terminated her employment. The district court assumed jurisdiction over her claim, ruling that Minn. Stat. § 469.014 (2004), which specifies that HRAs "shall be liable in contract or in tort in the same manner as a private corporation," provides an exception to the general rule that public employees may only challenge the termination of their employment by writ of certiorari. The court of appeals reversed, holding that section 469.014 establishes the scope of an HRA's liability but does not provide an alternative procedure for bringing a wrongful termination claim. Tischer v. Hous. & Redev. Auth. of Cambridge, 675 N.W.2d 361, 365 (Minn. App. 2004). We affirm the court of appeals and hold that the district court erred in denying the HRA's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
The HRA hired Tischer as its executive director in 2000. Approximately a year and a half later, the Cambridge City Council shifted control of all HRA functions to the city's Economic Development Authority (EDA). The city council's April 15, 2002, resolution specified that three HRA employees, Tischer not among them, were to be considered EDA employees as of 12:01 a.m. on April 16.
On the same evening, in response to the city council's action, the HRA's board convened an "emergency meeting" at 10:47 p.m. The board minutes indicate that "[t]he purpose of the meeting was to offer the Executive Director an immediate contract in lieu of transfer of powers attempt by the Cambridge City Council to the EDA, for which no notice had been issued." The two-year contract specified that Tischer was to be paid her current wage of $3,000 per month, plus benefits.
Tischer alleges that on May 6 the city council "purported to add two additional seats" to the HRA, and on May 7 the HRA held a "special meeting" to amend its bylaws, eliminate the Executive Director position, and lay off Tischer effective May 21, 2002. The record contains six HRA resolutions to that effect, one of which explains that by consolidating economic development efforts, the city council aimed to save administrative expenses, coordinate planning, and increase accountability.
Tischer did not challenge her termination by certiorari. Instead, she sued the HRA for breach of contract in district court.*fn1 In a motion to dismiss, the HRA contended that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because Tischer's termination was a "quasi-judicial" decision subject to review only by certiorari. In response, Tischer contended that her termination was not a quasi-judicial action or, even if it was, section 469.014 specifically conferred jurisdiction on the district court to hear a breach of contract claim. The district court ruled that the termination was quasi-judicial, but agreed with Tischer that section 469.014 had both substantive and procedural implications and that it conferred jurisdiction on the district court to hear breach of contract claims against a HRA. Consequently, the district court denied the HRA's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Tischer did not challenge the quasi-judicial nature of her termination before the court of appeals. The court of appeals held that a plain reading of section 469.014 "merely establishes the extent of a HRA's liability, not a procedure for obtaining review of a wrongful discharge claim[,]" and held that the district court erred by denying the HRA's motion to dismiss. Tischer, 675 N.W.2d at 365. The court of appeals further held that "Tischer's sole remedy was to appeal to this court by certiorari." Id. Tischer sought further review of the sole issue of whether the court of appeals correctly interpreted section 469.014 as not providing subject matter jurisdiction to the district court.
Tischer argues that section 469.014 creates an exception to the general rule that certiorari is the exclusive remedy for wrongful termination claims brought by employees of an executive body that has less than statewide jurisdiction.*fn2 We review this issue de novo because statutory interpretation and subject matter jurisdiction are questions of law. Educ. Minnesota-Chisholm v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 695, 662 N.W.2d 139, 143 (Minn. 2003); Handicraft Block Ltd. P'ship v. City of Minneapolis, 611 N.W.2d 16, 19-20 (Minn. 2000).
The general rule is founded on separation-of-powers considerations. Willis v. County of Sherburne, 555 N.W.2d 277, 280 n.2 (Minn. 1996). We have recognized that the decision of an executive body to terminate an employee is a discretionary exercise of its administrative powers. Dietz v. Dodge County, 487 N.W.2d 237, 239 (Minn. 1992). Separation of powers requires that such discretionary decisions be granted deference by the judiciary to avoid usurpation of the executive body's administrative prerogatives. Id. Because a direct action in the district court would contemplate de novo review, we have concluded that review by certiorari is required to provide appropriate deference and to minimize the judicial intrusion into administrative decision-making. Id.*fn3 Further, review by certiorari protects public resources because it provides an efficient and economical form of judicial review. Id. at 240.
In Willis, we recognized that the legislature may create exceptions to this general rule, stating "the claimant may contest the employer's action by certiorari alone, absent statutory authority for a different process." Willis, 555 N.W.2d at 282 (emphasis added). The legislature has enacted exceptions to this general rule, by specifically authorizing a fired public employee to bring a "civil action" in district court to challenge her dismissal on certain specified grounds. See, e.g., Minn. Stat. §§ 181.931, subd. 3; 181.935(a) (2004) (Whistleblower Act); Minn. Stat. §§ 363A.28, 363A.33 (2004) (Human Rights Act). Tischer argues that by enacting Minn. Stat. § 469.014, the legislature intended to create another exception to the certiorari rule by authorizing HRA employees to challenge their dismissal on breach of contract grounds. Section 469.014 reads:
Subject to the provisions of chapter 466, an authority shall be liable in contract or in tort in the same manner as a private corporation. The commissioners of an authority shall not be personally liable as such on its contracts, or for torts not committed or directly authorized by them. The property or funds of an authority shall not be subject to attachment, or to levy and sale on execution, but, if an authority refuses to pay a judgment entered against it in any court of competent jurisdiction, the district court for the county in which the authority is situated may, by writ of mandamus, direct the treasurer of the authority to pay the judgment.
(Emphasis added.) Because that section does not expressly state that a HRA employee may bring a civil action in district court, Tischer must argue that the exception to the general rule should be implied from the words "in the same manner." Tischer notes that an employee of a private ...