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Cox v. Mid-Minnesota Mutual Insurance Co.

Supreme Court of Minnesota

January 24, 2018

Nichole Cox, Appellant,
v.
Mid-Minnesota Mutual Insurance Company and North Star Mutual Insurance Company, Respondents.

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Charles J. Lloyd, Brian F. Murn, Livgard & Lloyd PLLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Boe M. Piras, Paul Wocken, Willenbring, Dahl, Wocken & Zimmermann, PLLC, Cold Spring, Minnesota, for respondents.

          Lillehaug, J. Dissenting, Anderson, J., Gildea, C.J., Chutich, J.

         SYLLABUS

         1. The court of appeals had subject-matter jurisdiction over an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a motion to dismiss for insufficient services of process.

         2. The word "delivery, " as used in Minnesota Rule of Civil Procedure 3.01(c), has acquired a special meaning that requires personal delivery of the summons to the sheriff's office before an action is commenced. Transmission by facsimile is not personal delivery.

         3. An action that is not properly commenced under Rule 3.01(c) can nevertheless be commenced by service under Rule 3.01(a) or (b).

         Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

          OPINION

          LILLEHAUG, Justice.

         Appellant Nichole Cox attempted to commence a breach of contract action against respondents Mid-Minnesota Mutual Insurance Company and North Star Mutual Insurance Company by faxing the summons and complaint to the sheriff's offices in the insurers' home counties. We granted review to decide whether a facsimile transmission satisfies Rule 3.01(c) of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure, which requires that a summons be "delivered" to the sheriff before an action is commenced. Because Rule 3.01(c) contemplates personal delivery to the office of the sheriff, we hold that a facsimile transmission is not a "delivery." But because the sheriffs completed service of process on each of the respondents, we hold that appellant's action was nevertheless commenced under Rule 3.01(a), thus giving the district court personal jurisdiction over the respondents. We therefore affirm the court of appeals in part, reverse in part, and remand to the district court for further proceedings.

         FACTS

         On January 9, 2014, appellant Nichole Cox's home was destroyed by a fire. The home was insured by respondents Mid-Minnesota Mutual Insurance Company ("Mid-Minnesota") and North Star Mutual Insurance Company ("North Star"), whose respective principal places of business are in Benton and Lyon Counties. Cox submitted a damage claim to Mid-Minnesota, but the claim was denied. Cox's insurance policy provides that "[n]o suit . . . to recover for any property claim may be initiated or brought . . . unless . . . the suit is commenced . . . within two (2) years after the loss."

         On December 21, 2015, Cox unsuccessfully attempted to commence a breach of contract action against the insurers by serving a summons and complaint on the Minnesota Commissioner of Commerce. On January 11, 2016, Cox again attempted to commence the action, this time by faxing the summons and complaint to the sheriffs in Benton and Lyon Counties. Both offices confirmed that they received the fax. On January 14, 2016, the Lyon County deputy sheriff personally served North Star. On January 19, 2016, the Benton County deputy sheriff personally served Mid-Minnesota.

         The insurers moved to dismiss the action. They argued that facsimile transmission did not constitute "delivery" of the summons under Rule 3.01(c), [1] so that even if the policy's statute of limitations expired on January 11, 2016, [2] the attempted commencement of the action on that date failed. The district court denied the motion, concluding that facsimile transmission constituted "delivery" under Rule 3.01(c). The insurers appealed.

         The court of appeals reversed the district court, holding that, by sending a facsimile transmission, Cox had failed to personally deliver the summons and complaint to the sheriff. As a result, the court said, the action was never commenced under Rule 3.01(c), and the district court lacked jurisdiction. We granted Cox's petition for review.

         ANALYSIS

         This case poses three questions for us to answer. First, did the court of appeals have appellate jurisdiction over the insurers' appeal? Second, what do the words "delivered" and "delivery" mean in Minn. R. Civ. P. 3.01(c)? Third, notwithstanding our interpretation of the word "delivery, " was the action nevertheless commenced?

         I.

         We must first address whether the court of appeals had appellate jurisdiction over the insurers' interlocutory appeal from the district court order denying their motion to dismiss for insufficient service of process. We review questions of subject-matter jurisdiction de novo. Zweber v. Credit River Twp., 882 N.W.2d 605, 608 (Minn. 2016).

         Cox argues that the court of appeals lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the immediate appeal. She contends that the appealed issue relates to the statute of limitations governing the action, not whether the action was, in fact, commenced. Denials of motions to dismiss or for summary judgment on statute of limitations grounds are not immediately appealable, she notes.

         We conclude that the denial of the insurers' motion was immediately appealable. The insurers brought a motion to dismiss under Rule 12.02(b) (personal jurisdiction), (d) (insufficiency of service of process), and (e) (failure to state a claim). The ruling on the Rule 12.02(e) component of the motion-whether the statute of limitations expired on January 9 or January 11-was not appealed. The insurers have only "challenge[d] the district court's denial of [the] motion to dismiss for insufficiency of service of process." Cox v. Mid-Minnesota Mutual Ins. Co., No. A16-0712, 2017 WL 164428, at *1 (Minn.App. Jan. 17, 2017).

         Our case law is clear that the denial of a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction is immediately appealable. See McGowan v. Our Savior's Lutheran Church, 527 N.W.2d 830, 832 (Minn. 1995) ("[I]mmediate appeal is permitted where a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction is denied."); Hunt v. Nev. State Bank, 172 N.W.2d 292, 300 (Minn. 1969) ("[A]n order denying a motion to quash service of summons is appealable." (quoting Dieseth v. Calder Mfg. Co., 147 N.W.2d 100, 102 (Minn. 1966)). We also permit immediate appeals from the denial of a motion to dismiss for insufficient service of process. See, e.g., DeCook v. Olmsted Med. Ctr., Inc., 875 N.W.2d 263, 264 (Minn. 2016) (considering an "appeal from the denial of a motion to dismiss for insufficiency of process"); Plano Mfg. Co. v. Kaufert, 89 N.W. 1124, 1125 (Minn. 1902) ("[A]n order which denies the motion of a defendant . . . to set aside the service of the summons . . . determines his positive legal rights . . . [;] such an order is appealable."). We allow an immediate appeal from the denial of a motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction or insufficient service of process because "[i]t is more realistic to view such . . . order[s] not merely as a retention of an action for trial, but as a determination of right, for a defendant is compelled thereby to take up the burden of litigation . . . that might otherwise be avoided." Hunt, 172 N.W.2d at 300.

         This same rationale applies here. Rule 3.01(c) contains two requirements to commence an action: (1) delivery to the sheriff, and (2) actual service upon the defendant (or first publication) within 60 days of that delivery. If the delivery-to-the-sheriff requirement is not satisfied, that necessarily means the action has not been commenced under Rule 3.01(c). If an action has not commenced, the courts lack personal jurisdiction. It follows that the denial of the insurers' motion served to determine a right, compelling them "to take up the burden of litigation . . . that might otherwise be avoided." Hunt, 172 N.W.2d at 300. Such determinations are immediately appealable. Id.

         II.

         We next turn to the meaning of the words "delivered" and "delivery" in Rule 3.01(c). The rules of civil procedure are interpreted de novo. Walsh v. U.S. Bank, N.A., 851 N.W.2d 598, 601 (Minn. 2014).

         "We generally interpret words and phrases according to their common and ordinary meaning, but we interpret technical words and phrases according to their special, technical meaning." State v. Schouweiler, 887 N.W.2d 22, 25 (Minn. 2016) (citing Staab v. Diocese of St. Cloud, 813 N.W.2d 68, 72 (Minn. 2012)). A word has a special meaning if "courts have ascribed a well-established and long-accepted meaning to [it]." State v. Nelson, 842 N.W.2d 433, 445 (Minn. 2014) (Dietzen, J. dissenting) (citing In re Stisser Grantor Trust, 818 N.W.2d 495, 504 (Minn. 2012)). "Whether a phrase should be ascribed its technical or ...


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