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Helmberger v. Johnson Controls, Inc.

Supreme Court of Minnesota

November 20, 2013

Marshall Helmberger, Respondent,
Johnson Controls, Inc., Appellant, Office of Administrative Hearings, Respondent, Architectural Resources, Inc., Appellant.

Office of Appellate Courts

Mark R. Anfinson, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent Marshall Helmberger.

Todd A. Wind, Christopher A. Stafford, Fredrikson & Byron, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant Johnson Controls, Inc.

Steven R. Lindemann, Amy B. Conway, Leonard, Street & Deinard, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant Architectural Resources, Inc.

Mark A. Bloomquist, Meagher & Geer, P.L.L.P., Minneapolis, Minnesota; Michael B. Lapicola, Faegre Baker Daniels, LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Dean B. Thomson, Fabyanske, Westra, Hart & Thomson, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amici curiae American Council of Engineering Companies of Minnesota, American Institute of Architects Minnesota, and Minnesota State Bar Association Construction Law Section.

Court of Appeals Gildea, C.J. Concurring, Page, and Wright, JJ. Took no part, Lillehaug, J. Filed: November 20, 2013 Office of Appellate Courts


A private business that contracted with a school district to provide design services for the construction and renovation of schools is not required to comply with the requirements of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act as if it were a government entity in the absence of contractual notice under Minn. Stat. § 13.05, subd. 11(a) (2012).


GILDEA, Chief Justice.

This case presents the question of whether a subcontract between two private businesses is subject to the requirements of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 13.01-.90 (2012). Appellant Johnson Controls, Inc., contracted with Independent School District 2142 (the District) to provide design services. After Johnson subcontracted with appellant Architectural Resources, Inc., respondent Marshall Helmberger submitted a request to Johnson under the Data Practices Act for a copy of the Johnson-Architectural Resources subcontract. Johnson denied the request and Helmberger subsequently filed a complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). After an evidentiary hearing, an administrative law judge (ALJ) dismissed the complaint. The court of appeals reversed. Because we conclude that Johnson is not obligated to disclose the subcontract under the Data Practices Act, we reverse the court of appeals.

The facts of this case are undisputed. On February 25, 2010, the District entered into two contracts with Johnson related to the construction of two new schools and the renovation of three existing schools. Under both contracts, Johnson agreed to "provide design, engineering, commissioning and construction management services." Johnson's principal obligation under the contracts was to provide "design services through licensed consultants including normal architectural, structural, mechanical, civil and electrical engineering and commissioning services, and any other services necessary to produce a complete set of Construction Documents." The contracts permitted Johnson to use subcontractors "to assist . . . in performing the services." Johnson subsequently entered into a subcontract with Architectural Resources for architectural services.

In March 2011, Marshall Helmberger, the publisher and managing editor of the Timberjay newspapers in St. Louis County, sent a request to Johnson under the Data Practices Act for certain information, including a copy of Johnson's subcontract with Architectural Resources. Johnson denied Helmberger's request.

Helmberger then requested an advisory opinion from the Commissioner of Administration pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 13.072[1] as to whether Johnson is required to comply with the Data Practices Act. The Commissioner issued an opinion, concluding, among other things, that Johnson is required to provide a copy of the subcontract with Architectural Resources to Helmberger because Johnson "is performing a governmental function for the District." Notwithstanding this opinion, Johnson continued to withhold the subcontract.

Helmberger then filed a complaint with the office of administrative hearings, seeking an order that Johnson comply with his request for inspection of documents, including "all subconsultant contracts" related to Johnson's contract with the District. Architectural Resources intervened in the proceedings. An evidentiary hearing took place, and Johnson moved for judgment as a matter of law at the close of Helmberger's case-in-chief. The administrative law judge granted Johnson's motion and dismissed Helmberger's complaint. The judge concluded that Helmberger did not establish that Johnson "was performing a 'governmental function' as described in Minn. Stat. § 13.05, subd. 11(a)." The judge reasoned that "the Legislature has not directed School Districts to undertake the kind of architectural services that are contemplated by the . . . subcontract." The judge also concluded that Helmberger failed to establish that architectural services have traditionally been performed by the District or by Minnesota school districts generally.

The court of appeals reversed, holding that Johnson had contracted to perform a government function within the meaning of Minn. Stat. § 13.05, subd. 11(a). Helmberger v. Johnson Controls, Inc., 821 N.W.2d 831, 838 (Minn.App. 2012). Because the Data Practices Act does not define a government function, the court of appeals applied the definition from our decision in Mace v. Ramsey County, 231 Minn. 151, 42 N.W.2d 567 (1950), in which we said that a function is governmental when it "involves the exercise of power conferred by statute upon local agencies in administering the affairs of the state and the promotion of the general public welfare." See Helmberger, 821 N.W.2d at 834 (quoting Mace, 231 Minn. at 154, 42 N.W.2d at 569). The court of appeals determined that Johnson was performing a government function because school districts have a statutory duty to " 'furnish school facilities' to school children." Id. at 835 (quoting Minn. Stat. § 123B.02, subd. 2 (2010)). The court reasoned that furnishing school facilities entails "planning, designing, and obtaining qualified builders and architects to perform such duties, " which are duties that Johnson contracted to perform. Id. The court also rejected Johnson's argument that the Data Practices Act applies only to private entities that have received the contract notice required by Minn. Stat. § 13.05, subd. 11(a). Helmberger, 821 N.W.2d at 837 ...

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