Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Final Exit Network, Inc. v. Ellison

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

February 22, 2019

FINAL EXIT NETWORK, INC., FRAN SCHINDLER, and JANET GROSSMAN, Plaintiffs,
v.
KEITH ELLISON, in his official capacity as the Attorney General of Minnesota, JAMES C. BACKSTROM, in his official capacity as the Dakota County Attorney, and JOHN L. FOSSUM, in his official capacity as the Rice County Attorney, Defendants.

          ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS

          Nancy E. Brasel United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Final Exit Network, Inc. (“FEN”) provides information, education, and emotional support to people who are considering whether to terminate irremediable suffering by ending their lives. [ECF No. 59 (“2d Am. Compl.”), at ¶10.] The individual plaintiffs Fran Schindler (“Schindler”) and Janet Grossman (“Grossman”) are volunteer “Exit Guides” for FEN. (Id., ¶¶17-18.) The Plaintiffs seek a declaratory injunction against defendants Keith Ellison in his official capacity as the Minnesota Attorney General[1] (“Attorney General”), James C. Backstrom in his official capacity as the Dakota County Attorney (“Backstrom”), and John L. Fossum in his official capacity as the Rice County Attorney (“Fossum”), that Minnesota Statute § 609.215, subd. 1 is unconstitutional on its face “to the extent it ... makes a crime of First Amendment-protected speech in the absence of any physical assistance.” (Id., ¶2.)

         This matter is before the Court on the Defendants' motions to dismiss. [ECF Nos. 22, 34, and 42.] Prior to the hearing on these motions, the Plaintiffs informed the Court that the parties agreed to strike portions of the Amended Complaint to correct a misstatement of fact. [ECF No. 56.] At the hearing on November 20, 2018, the parties agreed that the Plaintiffs would file the Second Amended Complaint, and that the arguments presented would apply to the yet-to-be-filed Second Amended Complaint. Thus, per the parties' agreement, this Order applies to the Second Amended Complaint filed on December 4, 2018 [ECF No. 59 (2d Am. Compl.)]. See Cartier v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 547 Fed. App'x 800, 803-04 (8th Cir. 2013) (holding that the district court acted within its discretion to treat the motion to dismiss the original complaint as a motion to dismiss a later filed amended complaint where parties did not object). For the reasons that follow, the Defendants' motions to dismiss are granted.

         BACKGROUND

         Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1 provides that that “[w]hoever intentionally advises, encourages, or assists another in taking the otherʹs own life” may be sentenced to imprisonment, or to payment of a fine, or both. Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1.

         In the Second Amended Complaint, the Plaintiffs describe the action as a “preenforcement challenge to the facial constitutionality of Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1 … under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” (2d Am. Compl., ¶1.) Though this action is a preenforcement action, two state court criminal cases have arisen from enforcement of the challenged statute, and explanation of those cases is necessary for a full understanding of the arguments made by the parties in this federal case. First is State v. Melchert-Dinkel, 844 N.W.2d 13 (Minn. 2014), in which the Minnesota Supreme Court struck down portions of the statute under the First Amendment, but left portions of it intact. Second is State v. Final Exit Network, Inc., 889 N.W.2d 296, 302 (Minn.Ct.App. 2016), in which the Minnesota Court of Appeals considered FEN's constitutional challenge to certain remaining portions of the statute and followed the Melchert-Dinkel precedent.

         State v. Melchert-Dinkel.

         In 2011, the Rice County Attorney successfully prosecuted William Melchert-Dinkel for violating the challenged statute. Melchert-Dinkel, 844 N.W.2d at 17-18. Posing as a depressed and suicidal young female nurse, Melchert- Dinkel responded to posts on suicide websites, feigning caring and understanding to win the trust of victims while encouraging them to hang themselves, while also attempting to persuade them to allow him to watch the hangings via webcam. Id. at 16. Melchert-Dinkel was tried in the Rice County District Court and convicted on two counts of aiding suicide under Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1. Id. at 17. The district court specifically found that Melchert-Dinkel “'intentionally advised and encouraged' [two victims] to take their own lives, concluding that the speech at issue fell outside the protections of the First Amendment.” Id. at 17-18 (emphasis in original). On appeal, Melchert-Dinkel argued that the challenged statute violates the First Amendment on its face, and the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that the statute prohibits speech that is unprotected by the First Amendment. Id. at 18 (citing State v. Melchert-Dinkel, 816 N.W.2d 703, 714 (Minn.Ct.App. 2012)). The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the “assists” portion of the statute, even if “assists” consists only of speech. See id. at 22-23. In upholding the “assists” prohibition as constitutional, the Minnesota Supreme Court interpreted “assists” to include “speech or conduct that provides another person with what is needed for the person to commit suicide.” Id. at 23. The Court explained, “[t]his signifies a level of involvement in the suicide beyond merely expressing a moral viewpoint or providing general comfort or support. Rather, ‘assist,' by its plain meaning, involves enabling the person to commit suicide.” Id. “While enablement perhaps most obviously occurs in the context of physical assistance, speech alone may also enable a person to commit suicide. Here, we need only note that speech instructing another on suicide methods falls within the ambit of constitutional limitations on speech that assists another in committing suicide.” Id.

Prohibiting only speech that assists suicide, combined with the statutory limitation that such enablement must be targeted at a specific individual, narrows the reach to only the most direct, causal links between speech and the suicide. We thus conclude that the proscription against “assist[ing]” another in taking the other's own life is narrowly drawn to serve the State's compelling interest in preserving human life. We therefore reject Melchert- Dinkel's argument that the statutory prohibition against assisting another in committing suicide facially violates the First Amendment.

Id.

         The Minnesota Supreme Court then analyzed the prohibition against “advis[ing]” and “encourag[ing]” another to commit suicide. Id. at 23-24. Concluding that “[u]nlike the definition of ‘assist,' nothing in the definitions of ‘advise' or ‘encourage' requires a direct, causal connection to a suicide, ” the Court determined that the terms do not survive strict scrutiny. Id. at 23-25. The Court thus severed and excised the portions of Minn. Stat. § 609.215 that pertain to advising or encouraging, but left intact the ”assist[ing]“ portions of the statute. Id.

         State v. Final Exit Network, Inc.

         In 2015, the Dakota County Attorney successfully prosecuted FEN as an organization for violating the challenged statute (“FEN state action”). 889 N.W.2d at 302. There, a Final Exit “first responder” provided Final Exit members who wished to end their life with instructions on death by helium asphyxiation and the names and addresses of manufacturers who sell the hood used to commit suicide in that manner. Id. at 300. In the FEN state action, D.D., who suffered from chronic pain, applied for membership and requested “exit services” from FEN in January 2007. Id. D.D. was approved for exit services in February 2007, and a few months later, the Final Exit medical director and D.D.'s Exit Guide flew to Minneapolis and drove to D.D.'s home. Id. at 300-01. The necessary equipment for helium asphyxiation was in D.D.'s living room, and neither the medical director nor the guide touched the equipment. When she was ready, D.D. placed the hood on her head and turned the valves to the helium tank. Id. D.D. then died, the medical director checked her pulse to ensure she had died, and the medical director and Exit Guide removed the hood from D.D., left her home, and disposed of the equipment in a dumpster. Id. FEN was convicted of assisting another in taking the other's own life in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1. Id. at 302. After conviction, FEN appealed, raising both facial and as-applied First Amendment freedom- of-speech challenges to the statute. Id. The Minnesota Court of Appeals noted that the Minnesota Supreme Court in Melchert-Dinkel “interpreted the term ‘assists' as ‘proscrib[ing] speech or conduct that provides another person with what is needed for the person to commit suicide' or ‘enabl[ing] the person to commit suicide.'” Id. at 302 (quoting Melchert-Dinkel, 844 N.W.2d at 23). The Court of Appeals determined that the “assists” provision in the statute is not facially unconstitutional under Melchert-Dinkel.

The Minnesota Supreme Court concluded in Melchert-Dinkel that the statute's “assists” prohibition is a content-based restriction and survives strict scrutiny under the First Amendment. 844 N.W.2d at 21-23. The court concluded that the government has a compelling interest in preserving human life and preventing suicide. Id. at 22 (citing Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 728-34 [] (1997)). The court further concluded that the statute is narrowly tailed to effectuate this compelling interest. By its reference to assisting “another, ” the statute only reaches “targeted speech aimed at a specific individual.” Id. at 22. In addition, “assists” further narrows the statute's reach by criminalizing only speech that “enable[s] a person to commit suicide” or “instruct[s] another on suicide methods.” Id. at 23. For these reasons, the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded that the statutory prohibition on “only speech that assists suicide, combined with the statutory limitation that such enablement must be targeted at a specific individual, ” renders the statute narrowly tailored and linked to the state's compelling interest in the preservation of life. Id. The statute's “assists” provision thus survives strict scrutiny and Final Exit's facial challenge to the statute. Id.

Final Exit Network, 889 N.W.2d at 303.

         The Court of Appeals also rejected FEN's as-applied challenge to the statute finding that the statute was constitutional as applied to the specific conduct of FEN's representatives as to D.D., id. at 307, and that the statute was narrowly tailored to reach a compelling governmental interest in the preservation of human life. Id. at 303-07. The court noted that FEN “was not convicted for speech ‘tangential to the act of suicide.'” Id. at 307 (quoting Melchert-Dinkel, 844 N.W.2d at 23-24). Instead, FEN was convicted for “instructing [D.D.] on suicide methods, ” including its “preferred inhalation method, ” and then on the day of D.D.'s death, FEN's representatives observed her connect the tubing to the helium tanks, and would have explained to her how to hook it up properly had she not done so. Id. Further, the FEN representatives ensured D.D. had died, removed the equipment from her home, and disposed of it “to create the appearance of a natural death.” Id. Thus, the Court of Appeals held, “[i]n the context of the specific circumstances presented in this case, the statute was applied to restrict [FEN's] speech instructing D.D. on suicide methods.” Id. (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). The Court of Appeals expressly provided that the statute does not prevent FEN “from expressing [its] ideas and messages in a number of other forums and ways.” Id. (citation omitted). The Minnesota Supreme Court denied FEN's petition for review, and the United States Supreme Court denied FEN's petition for writ of certiorari. See Final Exit Network, Inc. v. Minn., 138 S.Ct. 145 (2017).

         This federal action.

         Having lost the FEN state court action, this case, then, is FEN's challenge in federal court to the portions of the statute left intact by the Minnesota Supreme Court after Melchert-Dinkel. FEN's Second Amended Complaint describes the action as a “preenforcement challenge to the facial constitutionality” of the statute. (2d Am. Compl., ¶1.) “[A]s § 609.215, subd. 1 has been authoritatively interpreted under Minnesota law, the word ‘assists' criminalizes not only conduct, but alternatively ‘speech' that ‘enables' a ‘suicide.' The plaintiffs challenge the facial constitutionality of Minnesota law to the extent it therefore makes a crime of First Amendment-protected speech in the absence of any physical assistance.” (Id., ¶2.)

         The Second Amended Complaint states that the Plaintiffs, both FEN and the individuals, suffer an ongoing, concrete, particularized injury “inasmuch as they desire and intend to violate the Minnesota Statute as they carry out the same policies, protocols, and practices apply [sic] in every other State in the Union, in reliance on their First Amendment-protected right to do so, and are threatened with arrest, prosecution and punishment under Minnesota law for the exercise of their right to freedom of speech.” (Id., ¶6.) The Plaintiffs chose the Rice County Attorney and the Dakota County Attorney as defendants (together, “County Attorney Defendants”) because they prosecuted Melchert-Dinkel and FEN in the cases described above. (Id., ¶7.) The Plaintiffs chose the Attorney General as a defendant because “[t]here is no reason to believe the attorney general would decline to exercise [his] discretionary ability to assist in a prosecution or appeal under the Statute.” (Id.)

         The Second Amended Complaint is short on particulars as to the plans made, if any, by FEN and the individual plaintiffs to “assist” a person's suicide and thus violate the challenged statute. It states generally that “FEN provides information, education, and emotional support to people who are considering whether to make an informed and rational choice to terminate irremediable suffering.” (Id., ¶10.) Further, it alleges that “[a]s part of the Exit Guide program, the volunteers sometimes sit at a person's bedside at the time of her or his death in the belief that few people wish to die alone.” (Id., ¶11.)

         As to Plaintiff Grossman, the Second Amended Complaint states that she is a volunteer Exit Guide and that “FEN will probably contact Grossman about whether to accept an Exit Guide assignment in Minnesota.” (Id., ¶17.) It does not indicate what specifically Grossman would do to assist a suicide in the event she accepts an assignment in Minnesota. As to Plaintiff Schindler, the Second Amended Complaint is a bit more specific, stating that Schindler is a volunteer Exit Guide and “has at least one ongoing relationship with an Exit Guide client in Minnesota and plans to continue to serve this person.” (Id., ¶¶18, 19.) “She intends not to provide physical assistance or the means to the person in Minnesota, but she does intend to give information in violation of the Statute when the person is ready. Schindler is considering whether to arrange for this person to travel to her home in North Carolina in order to provide counseling without running the risk of prosecution under the Minnesota Statute.” (Id., ¶19.) The Complaint does not specify the speech that Schindler believes will be “in violation of the Statute.” (Id.)

         The Plaintiffs seek a declaration that Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1 is facially unconstitutional to the extent that it criminalizes speech that enables a suicide, and seek a permanent injunction barring the Defendants from enforcing this statute to the extent it criminalizes speech that enables a suicide. (Id., at 6.)

         Each of the Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that (1) the Plaintiffs lack standing to bring this action, (2) the Attorney General is not the proper defendant under the Eleventh Amendment, (3) the Plaintiffs' challenge to Minn. Stat. § 609.215, subd. 1 is barred by collateral estoppel, and (4) the Plaintiffs' facial challenge fails on the merits.[2] In addition, Fossum argues that (5) this action is not ripe for review and (6) the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Backstrom argues that (7) the Plaintiffs fail to state an official-capacity § 1983 claim. For the reasons set forth below, the motions to dismiss are granted.

         ANALYSIS

         I. Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

         When reviewing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a court must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in the nonmovant's favor. Loeffler v. City of Anoka, 893 F.3d 1082, 1084 (8th Cir. 2018). Although the factual allegations need not be detailed, they must be sufficient to “raise a right to relief above the speculative level....” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citation omitted). The complaint must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 570.

         II. ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.