Houston County District Court File No. 28-C4-04-000130.
Vicarious immunity protects a governmental employer from civil liability when its employee is immune from liability by virtue of the employee's executing a court order by its exact terms.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ross, Judge
Affirmed in part, appeal dismissed in part
Considered and decided by Ross, Presiding Judge; Shumaker, Judge; and Wright, Judge.
Appellant Paulette Pahnke filed an action in district court alleging that law-enforcement officers committed various torts by violating Minnesota Statutes section 504B.365 when they executed a court order to remove her from an apartment that she was renting and did not allow her 24 hours to vacate. The district court granted the officers' request for partial summary judgment based on official immunity, and it awarded partial summary judgment to their employers, respondents County of Houston and City of La Crescent, based on vicarious official immunity. The district court determined that disputed material facts prevent awarding the county summary judgment on Pahnke's remaining claims. Pahnke appeals the district court's award of partial summary judgment, and Houston County challenges the denial of complete summary judgment. Because the officers are immune from liability for executing the district court's facially valid order, we affirm the district court's decision to grant partial summary judgment. Because the district court denied summary judgment on the remaining claims based on existing fact questions, we dismiss the county's challenge to that denial as non-appealable on interlocutory appeal.
In September 2002, Paulette Pahnke rented an apartment from Home Apartment Development, LLC. Pahnke already owed Home Apartment $1,100 in unpaid rent from a previous lease, an amount that she agreed to pay in monthly increments of $200. But Pahnke did not pay $200 in September, and she did not pay her rent in October or November.
Home Apartment brought an unlawful-detainer action against Pahnke, which the district court heard in November 2002. Because Pahnke could not pay her outstanding balance to redeem the property, the court announced that it would issue a writ of recovery of premises and an order to vacate, stayed for seven days. See Minn. Stat. § 504B.345, subd. 1(d) (2004) ("[U]pon a showing by the defendant that immediate restitution of the premises would work a substantial hardship upon the defendant or the defendant's family, the court shall stay the writ of recovery of premises and order to vacate for a reasonable period, not to exceed seven days."). The court expressly clarified that Pahnke had seven days to move.
Eight days later, Pahnke remained in the apartment, and the district court signed the writ of recovery and order to vacate. The language of that writ is the flash point of this dispute. It specifically "commanded [the sheriff] that, taking with [him] the force of the county, if necessary, [he] cause Paulette Pahnke to be immediately removed from the premises, and [Home Apartment] to recover the premises." See id. § 504B.361, subd. 1(c) (2004) (providing that writ of recovery may state that the officer executing the order "cause [the tenant] to be immediately removed from the premises"). The Houston County sheriff delegated the execution duty to respondent Deputy Luke Sass, who asked respondent Bill Hargrove, a police officer in La Crescent, to assist. When the two officers arrived at Pahnke's apartment, Pahnke and several children were celebrating Pahnke's daughter's birthday.
Pahnke alleges that she attempted to show Deputy Sass a tenants' rights handbook that summarizes the law of eviction and to explain that he lacked authority to evict her immediately. The deputy testified in a deposition that because the writ and order expressly commanded removal "immediately," he did not consider Pahnke's handbook. Pahnke peacefully vacated the premises.
Pahnke brought this action in district court claiming violations of federal and state law based on the eviction. The defendants removed the action to federal district court, and the federal court dismissed the federal claims and remanded the matter to Minnesota district court. The deputy, county, police officer, and city moved for summary judgment, arguing that official immunity barred Pahnke's claims. The district court agreed and granted summary judgment on all claims except claims of breach of contract and promissory estoppel against the county. Pahnke now appeals, ...