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Funk v. O'Connor

Supreme Court of Minnesota

July 18, 2018

Thomas Funk, et al., Appellants,
v.
Thomas O'Connor, et al., Respondents.

         Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Alan L. Kildow, Burnsville, Minnesota, for appellants.

          Janel M. Dressen, Anthony Ostlund Baer & Louwagie P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondents.

          Susan L. Naughton, League of Minnesota Cities, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amici curiae League of Minnesota Cities and Association of Minnesota Counties.

         SYLLABUS

         Public officials could not be removed from office for violating the Open Meeting Law, as provided by Minn. Stat. § 13D.06, subd. 3 (2016), because their violations were not proven in three separate, sequential adjudications.

          OPINION

          McKEIG, JUSTICE.

         This appeal concerns the interpretation of the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, Minn. Stat. §§ 13D.01-.07 (2016). Public officials who violate the statute may be removed from office under Minn. Stat § 13D.06, subd. 3 ("the forfeiture-of-office provision"), if the officials are found to have intentionally violated the statute "in three or more actions." Id. Appellants are residents of the City of Victoria who successfully proved that Respondents ("the Officials"), collectively, committed 38 Open Meeting Law violations. These 38 violations, however, were found after a single trial resulting from consolidation of five separate lawsuits filed by Appellants. At issue is whether the forfeiture-of-office provision requires three separate, serial adjudications, or whether three concurrently filed actions alleging separate, intentional Open Meeting Law violations are sufficient. The district court concluded, based on the court of appeals' decision in Brown v. Cannon Falls Township, 723 N.W.2d 31 (Minn.App. 2006), that three separate adjudications are required, and declined to remove the Officials from office. The court of appeals affirmed. Today, so do we.

         FACTS

         In May 2014, three sets of plaintiffs filed and served separate lawsuits-the Funk, Gregory, and Bjornlin actions.[1] All three complaints were identical, except for the names of the plaintiffs, and were signed by the same attorney. All three complaints alleged that Victoria's then-mayor, Thomas O'Connor, [2] and three members of the Victoria City Council-James Crowley, Lani Basa, and Thomas Strigel-had repeatedly and intentionally violated the Open Meeting Law.[3] And all three complaints sought to have the Officials "remov[ed] from office" for their violations. On the Officials' motion, the district court consolidated these actions into a single action, with Funk as the lead plaintiff.

         Eight months later, in January 2015, two more sets of plaintiffs represented by the same counsel filed lawsuits alleging that Respondents had repeatedly and intentionally violated the Open Meeting Law-the Goulart and Gubbe actions. Appellants also moved to amend the consolidated Funk complaint. The amended Funk complaint alleged violations related to the construction of a new city hall, whereas the Goulart complaint alleged violations related to the construction of a new public works building, and the Gubbe complaint alleged violations related to the construction of a new library, as well as violations related to the city personnel committee. The district court granted Appellants' motion to amend the Funk complaint, but also granted, despite Appellants' opposition, the Officials' motion to consolidate the Funk, Goulart, and Gubbe complaints, reasoning that the original Funk complaint was broad enough to encompass the amended Funk complaint, as well as the Goulart and Gubbe complaints.

         The consolidated action proceeded to a 6-day bench trial. At the conclusion of the trial, the district court found that O'Connor and Crowley had each intentionally violated the Open Meeting Law 11 times, Strigel had intentionally violated the statute 10 times, and Basa had intentionally violated the statute six times. The district court therefore imposed civil penalties based on the number of violations. See Minn. Stat. § 13D.06, subd. 1. O'Connor and Crowley were each fined $2, 250, Strigel was fined $2, 100, and Basa was fined $1, 200. Because the consolidated action was the first case where the Officials were found to have violated the Open Meeting Law, the district court declined to remove the Officials from office. The court of appeals affirmed the district court's conclusion that removal from office was not an available remedy. Funk v. O'Connor, No. A16-1645, 2017 WL 5243514, at *4 (Minn.App. Nov. 13, 2017). We granted review.

         ANALYSIS

         This case requires us to interpret the text of the Open Meeting Law, which is a question of law that we review de novo. Christianson v. Henke, 831 N.W.2d 532, 535 (Minn. 2013). We begin by examining whether the forfeiture-of-office provision is ambiguous. Id. at 536. If a statute is unambiguous, "we apply the plain ...


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