Grant official not immune to lawsuit, Appeals Court says

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 31, 2013 - 2:24 PM

The appellate opinion affirms a lower-court ruling saying a complaint to the sheriff didn’t constitute “public participation.”

A Grant City Council member doesn’t qualify for immunity under a state law that protects “public participants” from lawsuits, the Minnesota Court of Appeals determined last week.

The court affirmed an earlier District Court ruling that denied immunity to Steve Bohnen, serving his first term in the rural city of 4,100 residents. He had tried to end his involvement in the suit, which was filed by Jeffrey Nielsen in 2010.

Bohnen, while campaigning for elective office, had reported to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office that some of his campaign signs had been stolen. Nielsen admitted to removing, but not stealing, the signs that he said were placed improperly. A theft charge against Nielsen later was dismissed in Washington County District Court for lack of probable cause.

Nielsen sued Bohnen, alleging that Bohnen violated the law by placing signs in prohibited places and that he engaged in retaliatory acts against Nielsen.

Bohnen’s attorneys have argued that he was protected under a Minnesota law known as “anti-SLAPP,” which means “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participants” and applies to speech or conduct aimed at obtaining favorable government action. However, the Appeals Court applied a more specific statute protecting good-faith reports to law enforcement, and then agreed with the District Court ruling that whether Bohnen “acted in good faith in seeking assistance from law enforcement, thereby entitling him to immunity under the [statute], is a question of fact for the jury and as such, summary judgment is not appropriate.

In a separate opinion, Chief Judge Matthew Johnson wrote that the anti-SLAPP and report-to-law-enforcement statutes are not mutually exclusive and that both statutes might apply in some cases. However, he concluded that the District Court did not err in rejecting Bohnen’s claim for immunity because the anti-SLAPP statute “is not broad enough to encompass the facts of this case.”

Johnson wrote that Nielsen, in his second amended complaint filed in court, “alleged two claims against Bohnen: abuse of process, based on Bohnen’s initiation of a prosecution of Nielsen, and nuisance, based on Bohnen’s installation of campaign signs in Nielsen’s neighborhood. Neither of these claims materially relates to an act of public participation by Bohnen. … Rather, Bohnen was conveying information about a specific incident that he believed to be unlawful.”

In a separate opinion issued Aug. 5, the Appeals Court decided that Nielsen is not entitled to a new criminal trial on charges of disorderly conduct stemming from the Grant incident. The opinion affirmed a lower-court ruling.

Bohnen won his seat with 1,290 votes in Grant. His term expires in 2014.

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