of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts
L. Kildow, Burnsville, Minnesota, for appellants.
M. Dressen, Anthony Ostlund Baer & Louwagie P.A.,
Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondents.
L. Naughton, League of Minnesota Cities, Saint Paul,
Minnesota, for amici curiae League of Minnesota Cities and
Association of Minnesota Counties.
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.
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.
2014, three sets of plaintiffs filed and served separate
lawsuits-the Funk, Gregory, and
Bjornlin actions. 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,
three members of the Victoria City Council-James Crowley,
Lani Basa, and Thomas Strigel-had repeatedly and
intentionally violated the Open Meeting Law. 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.
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
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.
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 ...