Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, July 13, 1998

Appeals court reverses ruling against Winsted officials


The Minnesota Court of Appeals has reversed a district ruling, blocking SJ&F Enterprises' suit against Winsted City Clerk Betty Zachmann and City Attorney Fran Eggert.

The appeals court sided with Zachmann and Eggert, ruling they are protected from liability by official immunity.

For the court to agree with this defense, it had to concur with Zachmann and Eggert that their actions regarding SJ&F Enterprises were discretionary, not ministerial.

In the appeals court's opinion, written by Judge Roland Amundson, official immunity is a common law doctrine that is intended to enable public officials to conduct public business in an independent manner without fear of personal liability.

Official immunity usually extends to duties performed by individual official that are discretionary in nature, unless willful or malicious.

The court defined discretionary as one using individual, professional judgment. It defined ministerial as absolute, certain, imperative and merely involving the execution of a specific duty.

The ruling dismisses the entire suit against the City of Winsted, Zachmann, and Eggert. SJ&F could appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court if it wishes.

In Zachmann's case, SJ&F asserted that she erred in performing her ministerial duties by failing to report that some of her research indicated that property owned by SJ&F along Baker Avenue was outside the city limits.

In 1991, Zachmann informed SJ&F that the Baker property was within the city limits.

In May 1992, she learned that a 50-foot strip of the Baker property had never been annexed into the city, but she did not report this to SJ&F until December 1994, court documents said.

In summer of 1993, Zachmann received a state department of transportation map that indicated the entire Baker Avenue property was not within the city, but did not report this information to SJ&F, it was alleged.

In January 1994, Eggert began communicating with SJ&F regarding its compliance on the Baker Avenue property with a new city ordinance, calling for the screening of industrial sites.

SJ&F argued that the compliance cost the company great expense and inconvenience, and that Zachmann erred in performing her ministerial duties by not reporting the possibility that the property was not subject to the city ordinance. SJ&F asserted that Zachmann's alleged misrepresentations to them made her subject to liability.

The appeals court ruled that the duties at issue in SJ&F's lawsuit were discretionary in nature and Zachmann used her individual judgment in her task of ascertaining the city boundaries regarding whether the Baker Avenue property was within the city limits.

SJ&F offered similar reasoning regarding Eggert's liability.

Since May 1994, Eggert knew, through Zachmann, of the possibility that the property was not located in the city. Despite this knowledge, Eggert continued to represent to SJ&F that the Baker property must comply with city ordinances, the company said.

The appeals court disagreed with SJ&F's assertion that such actions were not discretionary professional duties.

The court ruled that a city attorney's determination of whether an ordinance applies to a given situation and whether it should be enforced requires his independent professional judgment.

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