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Engstrom v. Whitebirch, Inc.

Supreme Court of Minnesota

July 31, 2019

Daniel J. Engstrom, Appellant,
v.
Whitebirch, Inc., et al., Respondents.

          Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

          Carl E. Christensen, Christensen Law Office PLLC, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Prentiss Cox, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellant.

          Gerald W. VonKorff, Nicholas R. Delaney, Rinke Noonan, Saint Cloud, Minnesota, for respondents.

          Luke Grundman, Galen Robinson, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.

          Sean Burke, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Elder Justice Center.

          Ira Rheingold, Washington, D.C.; and Kai H. Richter, Nichols Kaster, PLLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae National Association of Consumer Advocates.

         SYLLABUS

         A person who pays an attorney to investigate his liability in response to allegedly unlawful demand letters under the Minnesota Consumer Fraud Act, Minn. Stat. § 325F.69 (2018), has been "injured" within the meaning of the private attorney general statute, Minn. Stat. § 8.31, subd. 3a (2018).

         Reversed and remanded.

          OPINION

          GILDEA, Chief Justice.

         This case requires that we interpret the private attorney general statute, Minn. Stat. § 8.31, subd. 3a (2018). This statute provides that "any person injured by a violation of" certain laws the attorney general is tasked with enforcing can bring that person's own civil action. Specifically, we are asked to decide whether appellant Daniel Engstrom's payments to an attorney to investigate what appellant contends were fraudulent demands constitute an "injury" under the statute. The district court and court of appeals dismissed appellant's claim, concluding that he had not alleged "injury." Because we conclude that a person who is targeted by a fraudulent demand and consequently pays an attorney to investigate his liability in response to that demand has been "injured" within the meaning of the private attorney general statute, we reverse and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         FACTS

         According to Engstrom's complaint, his mother, Debra, purchased a timeshare interest in a property in the Brainerd area sometime between July 2001 and August 2002. Respondents ("Whitebirch") manage and own the timeshare property.[1]

         Debra died intestate on July 17, 2015. A little over a year after Debra's death, on August 26, 2016, Whitebirch sent Engstrom a letter claiming that he had a property interest in his mother's timeshare. Specifically, Whitebirch wrote that it had gone through the paperwork on the timeshare and "noticed Debra Engstrom added your name to the Deed in 2001." Whitebirch asserted that the deed ...


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