A defamation case against Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat and former Commissioner Mark Stenglein was returned to life Monday by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
The court reversed a Hennepin County District Court decision that had tossed out the defamation claims of Kevin and Valerie Holler, who own a home on a piece of land the county wants for a new $15 million Webber Park Library.
Comments by Opat and Stenglein “might be read specifically as intending to damage the Hollers’ reputation and to shame them into selling the property,” wrote a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals. The panel sent the case back to Hennepin County with instructions that a jury, not a judge, should decide whether the commissioners’ statements were defamatory.
“Ordinary members of the community reading Stenglein’s and Opat’s accounts could conclude ... that the Hollers are not now partners with the community, but rather, they are opportunistic manipulators who acted to take unfair advantage of ‘us’ — the real community members,” Judge Kevin Ross wrote for the panel, which included Judges Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks and Randolph Peterson.
“This seems to be precisely the sort of statement that could potentially harm the Hollers’ reputations or subject them to ridicule or hate or diminished community esteem,” the court said.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman called the lawsuit “frivolous” and said his office is “seriously considering” asking the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of Monday’s ruling.
The dispute goes back to April 2008, when the county voted to replace the Webber Park Library at 4310 Webber Pkwy. The library has recently been closed because the building was literally crumbling down on employees. A temporary site has since been opened.
In 2008, the Hollers received a county letter telling them of the interest in their property at 1423 45th Av. N., which had been on the market in 2007. They took it off the market by August 2007, the court noted.
In December 2008, the county began buying lots adjacent to the Hollers’ and passed a resolution declaring their intent to purchase the Hollers’ property. The Hollers told the county to build elsewhere and that they intended to occupy the home. That’s when the attacks came, the Hollers say.
Three statements are at issue. The first appeared in the Dolan Media Newswire on Oct. 27, 2010, attributed to Stenglein. Valerie Holler “had a sign on her house, a ‘for sale’ sign, as big as the IDS building, in 2007. ... So all of a sudden we want to buy the house and she takes the property off the market.” He noted that the Hollers had balloons and flags around the sign.
In a Camden Community News Q&A, Opat is reported to have said that only after the county began purchasing adjacent land did the Hollers object to sale of their rental property. “Our staff reported to us that they would only sell for $1 million or more, then insisted that the property was no longer for sale,” he said.
He said the county would wait and hope that the Hollers would accept fair market value for the property. “Despite their manipulation of this process, the Hollers are longtime residents in our community and I hope they will one day be partners with us,” the article quoted Opat as saying.
The final statement came in a May 2012 resolution by Stenglein and Opat that “blamed the Hollers” for the death of the project.
The resolution noted the property was for sale in 2007, negotiations fell through because the Hollers “were not interested in selling.”
Hennepin County District Judge Denise Reilly had thrown out the case, saying the statements weren’t defamatory.
Freeman said, “This is not a strong lawsuit ... we believe it will fail.”
Meanwhile, last December, the county decided to move to take the property through eminent domain. Current records estimate the value at $275,000.