A Minneapolis couple’s defamation claims against two Hennepin County commissioners were on track for trial Tuesday after a ruling by the state Court of Appeals.

Kevin and Valerie Holler filed the lawsuit over comments made in 2010 and 2012 by commissioners Mike Opat and Mark Stenglein, who has since left the board.

At the time of the comments, the county and the Hollers were in discussions over a home the couple owned in the Webber-Camden neighborhood, just off Victory Memorial Drive near Minneapolis’ northern border.

Hennepin County wanted the land to build a new $15 million library, and the couple wanted $1.2 million for the home at 45th and Humboldt avenues.

A three-judge Appeals Court panel ruled that the comments by the commissioners were “capable of a defamatory meaning,” and that a jury rather than a judge should decide whether the statements were true and damaged the reputation of the Hollers.

The appellate court focused on a statement in a 2012 board resolution that when the county sought to negotiate a purchase of the Hollers’ land, “the owners stated that the property was no longer for sale and they were not interested in selling.” The district court said the comment was “factual” and therefore not legally actionable.

But retired Judge David Minge, writing for the appellate court, noted that in context the statement conveyed “the impression that it was not until the county attempted to negotiate a purchase of the Hollers’ property that the Hollers indicated it was not for sale.”

The court ruled that the situation was “ambiguous” and a jury could determine the statement was false. It noted that Opat had made similar comments about the couple’s willingness to sell that should go to a jury for interpretation.

The appellate court also found that while one statement by Stenglein was “hyperbolic” and true, a second statement was “neither substantially true nor a reasonable interpretation of the facts.”

In the first statement, Stenglein said Holler had a for-sale sign on her house in 2007 “as big as the IDS building.” His second statement: “All of a sudden we want to buy the house and she takes the property off the market. … the Hollers had balloons and flags around the ‘for sale’ sign.”

Hennepin County Judges John McShane and Denise Reilly had dismissed the case, saying the commissioners’ comments were factual. Now the case will return to Hennepin County for trial.

Hennepin County lawyers are reviewing the decision and weighing their options on whether to appeal.

The county eventually reached a deal with the Hollers, paying $380,000 for the property and about $50,000 in related fees for the home and a business on the property. The library is under construction.


Twitter: @rochelleolson