Be careful what you include in your county resolution

This is a land use case in only the loosest sense (it involves property), but it is always interesting to highlight the many ways local government officials can stumble into trouble.  It’s not just small counties, either.  Hennepin County is home to Minneapolis and its western suburbs.

Kevin Holler, et al., v. Hennepin County
(Minnesota Court of Appeals, February 3, 2014)

The facts alleged in the complaint (trial has not yet been held): Hennepin County adopted a plan in 2008 to build a new library.  The plan did not specify a location; rather the county sent letters to various land owners indicating that it might want ot purchase their property.  Kevin and Valerie Holler received one of those letters.  They had listed their property for sale in early 2007, but by August 2007 they had taken it off the market.  They did not respond to the county’s letter; nevertheless, the county began purchasing lots adjacent to the Hollers’ property.  In December 2008 the county went so far as to adopt a resolution declaring its intent to purchase their property.  When the Hollers learned this they contacted the county and asked to be removed from the resolution because they were not interested in selling.

The complaint alleges that two Hennepin County commissioners defamed them in three statements. First, in a newspaper article one commissioner was quoted as saying

Valerie Holler had a sign on her house, a ‘for sale’ sign, as big as the IDS building in 2007….[S]o all of a sudden we want to buy the house and she takes the property off the market.

Second in a later newspaper article another commissioner was quoted as saying

[W]ith the Holler rental property posted for sale in 2007, the County purchased the other sites necessary for an ideal, state-of-the-art library to be built on the Parkway. Only after those purchases did the Hollers actively oppose the sale of their rental property and commercial building. Pursuant to that property’s availability, the County purchased the four nearby properties and met several times with the Hollers, attempting to purchase their rental property. Our staff reported to us that they would only sell for one million or more, then insisted that the property was no longer for sale. But we will not agree to build in a sub-par location due to a single property owner—not after successfully acquiring four nearby parcels, and especially not after the remaining property was once listed for sale. We will not pay one million dollars for the rental property that’s needed. We will wait and hope that its owners, who once had the property for sale, will accept fair-market value and allow the community to move forward on this important project. Despite their manipulation of this process, the Hollers are long-time residents in our community and I hope they will one day be partners with us on building a new library.
Third, the county commission adopted a resolution that scrapped the construction of the new library altogether, and included the statement
WHEREAS, the portion of the proposed library site…[the Hollers’ property] was listed for sale in 2007; and
WHEREAS, when County staff sought to negotiate a sale of the [property] the owners stated that the property was no longer for sale and they were not interested in selling.
The district court dismissed the suit on summary judgment, concluding that the complaint failed to identify an particularized false and reputation-damaging statements.  The Hollers appealed.
Unless a statement is capable of being proven false, it cannot support a defamation suit.  This includes opinions, which sometimes imply provably false statements.  Moreover, a statement is defamatory if it harms a person’s reputation and lowers him or her in the estimation of the community. Using these standards, the Minnesota Court of Appeals determined that the Hollers sufficiently pleaded the elements of defamation to survive summary judgment.  In the context of the overall dispute and the commissioners’ statements, a juror could interpret the statements to mean that the Hollers took the property off the market only after the county made its other purchases, and only after county personnel met with the Hollers to buy their still-available property.  This interpretation would be contrary to the facts as stated in the Hollers’ complaint.  As to the question of defamatory statements, the Court determined that “ordinary members of the community could conclude, as it at least appears the [commissioners] wanted them to conclude, that the Hollers are not now partners with the community, but rather are opportunistic manipulators who acted to take unfair advantage of ‘us’ – the real community members. This seems to be precisely the sort of statement that could potentially harm the Holler’s reputations or subject them to ridicule or hate or diminished community esteem.”  The case must go forward to trial.

One thought on “Be careful what you include in your county resolution

  1. The case went to MN appeals a second time, appeal was granted to the Hollers a second time, and less than one month before jury trial a settlement was reached.

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