Holdout Property Owners Get Their Day in Court After Disparaging Remarks by County Commissioners

Minnesota case law summary: defamation.

Kevin Holler v. Hennepin County. MN defamation

In 2008, Hennepin County approved a plan to build a new library in Minneapolis, but the original plan did not specify a location. The county sent letters to various land owners, including Kevin and Valerie Holler, indicating that it might want to purchase their property. They had listed the property for sale in 2007, but before they received the letter, they had taken it off the market and informed the Minneapolis zoning inspector that they intended to occupy it. They had not yet occupied the property, and they did not respond to the letter from the county.

Even though the county had not heard back from the letter, the county began purchasing adjacent properties. Without notifying the Hollers, the County Board passed a resolution declaring the county's intent to buy the property. The Hollers learned of that resolution in January 2009, and immediately asked the county to remove their property from consideration. They informed that county that they had decided in 2007 not to sell, and they even suggested other sites for the new library.

The Hollers allege that two Hennepin County Commissioners, Mike Opat and Mark Stenglein, began to attack them publicly . The Hollers pointed to an interview by Stenglein in which he stated "so all of a sudden we want to buy the house and she takes the property off the market." In another interview, Opat allegedly stated that "only after those purchases did the Hollers actively oppose the sale." The Hollers also pointed to a resolution of the County Commissioners which stated that "when County staff sought to negotiate a sale . . . the owners stated that the property was no longer for sale and they were not interested in selling."

The Hollers sued the county, Opat, and Stenglein, in Hennepin County District court. They alleged that the statements were defamatory. The trial court dismissed the case, finding that the statements were nondefamatory as a matter of law. Dissatisfied with this outcome, the Hollers appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals agreed, and reversed the trial court's dismissal. It remanded for the case to be reinstated.

The Court of Appeals first noted that at this early stage in the proceedings, the court must assume that all of the factual allegations are true. Therefore, in order to prevail on a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff in a defamation case must identify an allegedly defamatory statement communicated to a third party, must show that it is false, and must show that it tends to harm their reputation. The defendants also alleged that the statements were protected by legislative privilege.

The Court of Appeals first held that the truth or falsity of the statements was for the jury to decide. The court looked closely at the language used, and determined that phrases like "all of a sudden" were at odds with the plaintiff's allegations in the complaint. The court concluded that a reasonable jury could look at these statements and find them false.

The court also agreed that a jury could find the statements defamatory. Here, the court focused on language such as "manipulation" that would deprive "our community" of a new library. It held that it was for a jury to decide whether these statements were defamatory, and that the trial court should not have dismissed on this ground.

The trial court had not decided the issue of whether the statements were protected by legislative privilege. Therefore, the Court of Appeals left this issue for the trial court to decide on remand.

No. A13-1014 (Minn. Ct. App. Feb. 3, 2014).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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