Washington County District Court File No. 82-CV-17-190
Stephen Dekovich, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services,
Inc., St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)
Swanson, Attorney General, Ali P. Afsharjavan, Assistant
Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota (for respondent
J. Orput, Washington County Attorney, Richard D. Hodsdon,
Assistant County Attorney, Stillwater, Minnesota (for
Considered and decided by Worke, Presiding Judge; Johnson,
Judge; and Klaphake, Judge.
condition of random drug testing within Minnesota Statutes
section 256D.024, subdivision 1(a) (2016), for receipt of
benefits under chapter 256D, applies to persons who become
eligible for benefits during the five-year period following
completion of a court-ordered sentence for a qualifying drug
crime and does not extend beyond the five-year period.
KLAPHAKE, JUDGE [*]
challenges the denial of her application for Minnesota
supplemental aid (MSA). After a hearing,
respondent-commissioner concluded that Minn. Stat. §
256D.024, subd. 1 (2016), unambiguously conditions
appellant's receipt of MSA benefits on submission to
random drug testing. The district court concluded on appeal
that the drug-testing requirement within section 256D.024,
subdivision 1(a), does not violate the doctrine of
unconstitutional conditions. On appeal to this court,
appellant argues that the commissioner erred in concluding
that the statute unambiguously applies to her, and the
district court erred in concluding that the statute is
constitutional. Because the statute is ambiguous, and because
the canons of construction resolve the ambiguity in favor of
appellant, we reverse.
January 2000, appellant Kim Verhein was convicted of
fifth-degree possession of a controlled substance and
sentenced to 17 months' imprisonment. At some point after
her release from a correctional facility in 2001, she applied
for and began receiving MSA benefits.
November 2013, the Minnesota Department of Human Services
informed respondent Washington County Community Services (the
county) that appellant had a post-July 1, 1997, drug
conviction. The county notified appellant that, under section
256D.024, subdivision 1(a), she is required to undergo random
drug testing as a condition of receiving MSA benefits. In
September 2015, the county notified appellant that her random
drug testing would occur on September 16, 2015. Appellant
appeared for testing, but refused to provide a sample. The
county terminated appellant's MSA benefits effective
November 1, 2015.
2016, appellant reapplied for MSA benefits. The county denied
appellant's application and informed her that her prior
refusal to submit to testing rendered her ineligible to
receive benefits for five years. Appellant appealed the
denial of her application to respondent Commissioner of the
Minnesota Department of Human Services (the commissioner),
arguing that the drug-testing requirement did not apply to
her, her refusal to submit to testing did not render her
ineligible for a five-year period, a permanent drug-testing
requirement violates the Fourth Amendment, and she is
entitled to a curative payment for unpaid benefits dating
back to November 1, 2015. After a hearing, the commissioner
concluded that section 256D.024, subdivision 1(a),
unambiguously requires random drug testing of persons
convicted of certain felony drug offenses after July 1, 1997,
as a condition of receiving MSA benefits. Appellant requested
reconsideration of the decision. The commissioner denied the
January 2017, appellant appealed the commissioner's
decision to the district court. Appellant argued that the
testing requirement within section 256D.024, subdivision
1(a), is unconstitutional because it conditions her receipt
of benefits on a relinquishment of her Fourth Amendment
rights. The district court affirmed the commissioner's
decision in part, concluding that the plain and unambiguous
language of the statute conditions receipt of benefits for
persons convicted of a drug offense after July 1, 1997, on
submission to random drug testing. The district court
concluded that appellant's Fourth Amendment challenge
failed, citing precedent of this court indicating that the
doctrine of unconstitutional conditions does not apply to the
Fourth Amendment. The district court remanded the issue of
whether a five-year ineligibility period applied to test
the appeal moot?
Does Minn. Stat. § 256D.024, subd. 1, unambiguously
condition eligibility for MSA benefits on random drug testing
of applicants and recipients who have completed a
court-ordered sentence for a qualifying drug conviction more
than five years prior?
appellant entitled to a curative payment?
preliminary matter, the commissioner argues that this appeal
is moot because appellant only appealed the 2016 denial of
her application, and the commissioner reversed that denial on
remand. Appellant argues that the case presents a live
controversy because she has challenged whether Minn. Stat.
§ 256D.024, subd. 1, requires her to submit to drug
testing as a condition of receiving benefits, an issue that
was not resolved when the case was remanded.
issue of whether an appeal is moot is a legal question
subject to de novo review. In re McCaskill, 603
N.W.2d 326, 327 (Minn. 1999). "[Appellate courts]
consider only live controversies, and an appeal will be
dismissed as moot when intervening events render a decision
on the merits unnecessary or an award of effective relief
impossible. But an appeal is not moot when a party could be
afforded effective relief." Wayzata Nissan, LLC v.
Nissan N. Am., Inc., 875 N.W.2d 279, 283 (Minn. 2016)
(citations omitted). "Mootness has been described as the
doctrine of standing set in a time frame: The requisite
personal interest that must exist at the commencement of the
litigation (standing) must continue throughout its existence
(mootness)." Dean v. City of Winona, 868 N.W.2d
1, 4-5 (Minn. 2015) (quotations omitted). This court may not
issue advisory opinions. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co. v.
Schwan, 687 N.W.2d 388, 391 (Minn.App. 2004).
appealed the denial of her application and demanded payments
dating back to the termination of her benefits in 2015. On
remand from the district court's order, the commissioner
reversed the denial of appellant's application,
permitting it to be processed. But appellant's receipt of
benefits continues to be conditioned on compliance with
testing requirements. It is this condition that appellant
challenged below and continues to challenge on appeal. We
therefore conclude that the appeal presents a live
controversy between the two parties, and this court may
afford effective relief.
the commissioner's action on remand rendered this appeal
technically moot, we conclude that the appeal is reviewable
because it is "functionally justiciable."
"[Appellate courts] have the discretion to consider a
case that is technically moot when the case is functionally
justiciable and presents an important question of statewide
significance that should be decided immediately."
Dean, 868 N.W.2d at 6 (quotations omitted). The
exception is to be narrowly applied, but may be satisfied if
"the record contains the raw material (including
effective presentation of both sides of the issues raised)
traditionally associated with effective judicial
decision-making." Id. (quotation omitted).
parties have effectively presented both sides of the
controversy, and the applicability and constitutionality of
Minn. Stat. § 256D.024, subd. 1, affects all persons who
apply for or receive general assistance or MSA benefits and
who also have a post-July 1, 1997, felony drug conviction.
The commissioner provides guidance to all counties on how to
apply Minn. Stat. § 256D.024, subd. 1, when processing
applicants' requests for benefits. This presents an issue
of statewide significance that should be decided immediately.
See In re Guardianship of Tschumy, 853 N.W.2d 728,
740-41 (Minn. 2014) (reaching merits of a moot issue to
clarify the scope of guardians' authority to remove
life-support for a ward because of the thousands of wards
within the state); Kahn v. Griffin, 701 N.W.2d 815,
823 (Minn. 2005) (considering merits of an election procedure
because it was similar to procedures used in other Minnesota
cities). We therefore proceed to the merits of this appeal.
benefits are available to aged, blind, or disabled persons
who receive supplemental security income from the federal
government under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f (2012
& Supp. 2016). Minn. Stat. § 256D.425, subd. 1
(2016). County social services agencies, under the
supervision of the commissioner, are required to administer
and distribute benefits to recipients of general assistance
and supplemental security income. Minn. Stat. §§
256.01, subd. 2 (Supp. 2017), 393.07, subd. 2 (2016). An
applicant for MSA benefits must meet the eligibility
requirements under the general-assistance chapter, Minn.
Stat. §§ 256D.01-.54 (2016 & Supp. 2017). Minn.
Stat. § 256D.405, subd. 1(a) (requiring the agency to
determine an applicant's eligibility under "this
256D.024, subdivision 1(a), limits the eligibility for
benefits under the general-assistance chapter if an
individual has been convicted of certain drug crimes after
July 1, 1997. The statute provides:
If an applicant or recipient has been convicted of a drug
offense after July 1, 1997, the assistance unit is ineligible for
benefits under this chapter until five years after the
applicant has completed terms of the court-ordered sentence,
unless the person is participating in a drug treatment
program, has successfully completed a drug treatment program,
or has been assessed by the county and determined not to be
in need of a drug treatment program. Persons subject to the
limitations of this subdivision who become eligible for
assistance under this chapter shall be subject to random drug
testing as a condition of continued eligibility and shall
lose eligibility for benefits for five years beginning the
(1) any positive test result for an illegal controlled
(2) discharge of sentence after conviction for another drug
Minn. Stat. § 256D.024, subd. 1(a). "Drug
offense" is defined as "a conviction that occurred
after July 1, 1997, of sections 152.021 to 152.025, 152.0261,
152.0262, or 152.096" and includes convictions in other
jurisdictions for "possession, use, or distribution of a
controlled substance, or conspiracy to commit any of these
offenses, if the offense occurred after July 1, 1997, and the
conviction is a felony offense in that jurisdiction, or in
the case of New Jersey, a high misdemeanor."
Id., subd. 1(b).
challenges the commissioner's conclusion that section
256D.024, subdivision 1, requires her to submit to chemical
testing as a condition of receiving MSA benefits because of
her conviction for fifth-degree possession of a controlled
substance in 2000. She argues that the commissioner
misinterprets the plain language of the statute by applying
the drug-testing provision to persons who completed the
court-ordered sentence more than five years prior to applying
for or receiving benefits. In the alternative, she argues
that the statute is ambiguous and that the canons of
construction dictate a narrower application of the statute.
review of the commissioner's order is authorized under
Minn. Stat. § 256.045, subds. 3(a)(1), 7, 9 (2016 &
Supp. 2017). The scope of review is governed by Minn. Stat.
§ 14.69 (2016). Zahler v. Minn. Dep't of Human
Servs., 624 N.W.2d 297, 301 (Minn.App. 2001), review
denied (Minn. June 19, 2001). This court may affirm,
remand, reverse or modify the commissioner's decision if
appellant shows that the decision is affected by a violation
of constitutional provisions or an error of law, and her
substantial rights were prejudiced. Minn. Stat. § 14.69.
We review the commissioner's order independently and give
no deference to the district court's review.
Zahler, 624 N.W.2d at 301.
court reviews questions of statutory interpretation de novo.
Wayzata Nissan, LLC, 875 N.W.2d at 284. The object
of statutory interpretation is to ascertain the intent of the
legislature. Minn. Stat. § 645.16 (2016). When the
intent of the legislature is clear from a statute's plain
and unambiguous language, we interpret the statute according
to its plain meaning and do not consider other principles of
statutory interpretation. Binkley v. Allina Health
Sys., 877 N.W.2d 547, 550 (Minn. 2016). If the statute
is ambiguous, we may look beyond statutory language to
discern legislative intent. Staab v. Diocese of St.
Cloud, 813 N.W.2d 68, 73 (Minn. 2012). A statute is
ambiguous if, as applied to the facts of the case, it is
susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation.
Id. at 72-73.
parties agree that the first sentence of the statute is
unambiguous. It places a limitation on certain drug
offenders' eligibility for benefits during the five years
after completion of a court-ordered sentence unless certain
treatment options are completed, underway, or unnecessary.
second sentence is the crux of the parties' disagreement.
Both parties agree that the sentence is unambiguous, but they
disagree on the meaning of the statute. Appellant argues that
"[p]ersons subject to the limitations of this
subdivision who become eligible" refers to persons
within the ineligibility period who become eligible by
satisfying one of the three conditions. Appellant also argues
that she is not subject to the limitations of the subdivision
because she is not within the five-year ineligibility period.
The commissioner argues that the statute refers to all
persons with a post-July 1, 1997, qualifying conviction who
were ineligible for benefits because of the conviction and
who later became eligible for benefits.
the dispute centers on the language "[p]ersons subject
to the limitations of this subdivision who become
eligible," we begin by ascertaining the plain meaning of
the words at issue, looking to the definitions of the words
and the rules of grammar. Minn. Stat. § 645.08(1)
(2016); Shire v. Rosemount, Inc., 875 N.W.2d 289,
292 (Minn. 2016). "Limitation" is commonly defined
as "[a] restriction." Black's Law
Dictionary 1012 (9th ed. 2009); The American
Heritage Dictionary 1044 (3d ed. 1992).
"Subject," frequently followed by "to,"
has been defined as "suffering a particular liability or
exposure" or as "likely to be conditioned,
affected, or modified in some indicated way."
Webster's Third New International Dictionary,
2275 (2002). Likewise, "subject to" has been
defined as "governed or affected by."
Black's Law Dictionary 1425 (6th ed. 1990).
reading of "[p]ersons subject to the limitations of this
subdivision who become eligible" coincides with the
commissioner's interpretation. In such an interpretation,
"limitations of this subdivision" may refer to the
restrictions on the scope of the statute's
application-section 256D.024, subdivision 1, only applies to
certain types of drug crimes and requires a conviction date
after July 1, 1997. It does not apply to persons with drug
convictions from 1996, for example. Under this
interpretation, persons with the required qualities "who
become eligible for assistance under this chapter" are
required to complete random drug testing as a condition of
continued eligibility. In such an interpretation, it does not
matter when or how the person becomes eligible for benefits.
conclude that the subdivision has an alternative, reasonable
interpretation when applied to the facts of this case. The
statute clearly relates to a five-year restriction of benefit
eligibility for persons defined in the statute. The five-year
eligibility restriction is also a "limitation"
contained within the subdivision. Appellant argues that she
is no longer subject to this limitation because it has been
more than five years since she completed her court-ordered
sentence. The only manner in which appellant could suffer or
be exposed to an additional five-year ineligibility period
would be if she committed an additional qualifying crime.
Under this interpretation, appellant is no longer a person
"subject to the limitations of this subdivision."
the commissioner, accepting the ineligibility period as a
limitation, argues that appellant's prior subjection to
the five-year period of ineligibility coupled with her status
as someone who is now eligible for assistance under the
chapter satisfies the "[p]ersons subject to the
limitations of this subdivision who become eligible"
requirement. Reading the statute as a whole, it is clear the
phrases "[p]ersons subject to the limitations of this
subdivision" and "who become eligible" present
the former phrase is written in present tense, implying the
individual must be "subject to the limitations of this
subdivision" at the time he or she becomes eligible for
assistance under the chapter. Whether someone is presently
subject to the limitations of the subdivision depends on
whether the limitations are defined solely by the details of
the individual's criminal conviction, or whether it
relates to the ineligibility period. Under the latter,
someone could "become eligible for assistance under this
chapter" years after the ineligibility period has ended
and thus not be "subject to the limitations of [the]
subdivision" at that time.
the remainder of the subdivision provides an example of when
a person may be both "subject to the limitations of this
subdivision" and "become eligible for assistance
under this chapter." Those persons are the people who
qualify for one of the three exceptions to the five-year
period of ineligibility. Those persons are presumptively
ineligible for benefits upon conviction until they are
determined to have completed treatment, to be presently in
treatment, or to not need treatment. The persons whom the
county determines have satisfied one of those conditions are
persons who are subject to the ineligibility period
referenced in the subdivision, but who nevertheless become
eligible. For example, one exception that enables a person to
become eligible for benefits is if the person is
"participating in a drug treatment program." If the
person otherwise qualifies for benefits under the chapter and
is in a treatment program, the person may apply for and
receive benefits. However, presumably, if the person fails to
participate in a treatment program after the ...