Halva v. Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, 012021 MNSC, A19-0481

Docket NºA19-0481
Opinion JudgeANDERSON, JUSTICE
Party NameTyler Halva, Appellant, v. Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, Respondent.
AttorneyMahesha P. Subbaraman, Subbaraman PLLC, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Jared M. Goerlitz, Goerlitz Law, PLLC, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant. Keith M. Ellison, Attorney General, Cicely R. Miltich, Kristine K. Nogosek, Alec R. Sloan, Assistant Attorneys General, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for respo...
Case DateJanuary 20, 2021
CourtSupreme Court of Minnesota

Tyler Halva, Appellant,

v.

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, Respondent.

No. A19-0481

Supreme Court of Minnesota

January 20, 2021

Court of Appeals Office of Appellate Courts

Mahesha P. Subbaraman, Subbaraman PLLC, Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Jared M. Goerlitz, Goerlitz Law, PLLC, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant.

Keith M. Ellison, Attorney General, Cicely R. Miltich, Kristine K. Nogosek, Alec R. Sloan, Assistant Attorneys General, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for respondent.

Daniel J. Cragg, Vince C. Reuter, Eckland & Blando LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Association for Justice.

Susan L. Naughton, League of Minnesota Cities, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amicus curiae League of Minnesota Cities.

Philip J. Kaplan, Anthony Ostlund Baer & Louwagie P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Public Record Media.

Scott M. Flaherty, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Tony Webster.

SYLLABUS

1. The pleading standard for civil actions in Minnesota permits the use of broad general allegations in complaints, and a complaint that contains information sufficient to fairly notify the opposing party of the claim is sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

2. The Minnesota Official Records Act, Minn. Stat. § 15.17 (2020), does not explicitly or impliedly authorize a private cause of action.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part.

OPINION

ANDERSON, JUSTICE

This dispute arises from respondent Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) failing to maintain and produce certain government data. Appellant Tyler Halva sued MnSCU, alleging that its actions violated both the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (Data Practices Act) and the Minnesota Official Records Act (Official Records Act). The district court dismissed both claims, concluding that Halva could not pursue judicial remedies under the Data Practices Act after obtaining an administrative remedy under that act and that the Official Records Act does not authorize a private cause of action. The court of appeals affirmed on both claims, though decided the Data Practices Act issue on the alternate ground that Halva's complaint was insufficiently pleaded. We reverse the court of appeals' determination that Halva's complaint was insufficiently pleaded, but affirm that court's decision that the Official Records Act does not authorize a private cause of action.

FACTS

In March 2015, MnSCU posted a request for proposals for a professional services contract. MnSCU sought bids to develop an online registration system for continuing education and customized training. Proposals, which had to meet a number of specific criteria, were due by September 30, 2015.

Four vendors, including Halva, timely responded. MnSCU reviewed Halva's proposal during a WebEx video meeting and electronically highlighted portions of Halva's submission using Adobe Acrobat Reader's highlight function. MnSCU did not save the highlights it made on Halva's bid document. Halva's proposal was eventually disqualified because he failed to provide certain required information.

On December 23, 2015, Halva made the first of five data requests related to the bidding procedure by specifically asking MnSCU for the names of other vendors who submitted proposals. MnSCU responded to Halva's request with a brief e-mail on February 19, 2016. The e-mail listed the competing vendors and named one of Halva's competitors as the bid winner.

Over the course of the next five months, Halva made four more data requests, via electronic and paper mail, regarding the bidding process. He sought information concerning his competitors' bids and the highlights made on his own bid document. MnSCU finally responded to these requests on August 5, 2016. In that response, MnSCU simply provided Halva with copies of the competing bids, but none of the other data requested by Halva.

Not satisfied by MnSCU's response, Halva filed a complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings to compel MnSCU's compliance with the Data Practices Act and the Official Records Act. He paid the statutorily required filing fee and represented himself. See Minn. Stat. § 13.085, subd. 2(c) (2020) (requiring a complaint to "be accompanied by a filing fee of $1, 000").

Following commencement of the administrative proceedings, MnSCU sent Halva more information, including its evaluation of the proposals, the final contract with the winning vendor, and other communications related to the RFP. Once again, however, MnSCU did not provide Halva with the highlighted version of his bid document.

After a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) concluded that MnSCU did not comply with the Data Practices Act. The ALJ ordered MnSCU to provide additional documents requested by Halva and awarded Halva a $950 refund of his initial filing fee and attorney fees. See id., subd. 6 (allowing for reasonable attorney fees and the filing fee "less $50" to be refunded to a successful complainant). Although MnSCU was unable to reproduce the highlights on Halva's initial bid document because the highlights had not been saved, it otherwise complied with the order of the ALJ. In a subsequent order, the ALJ held that MnSCU was not required to save the highlights nor install technology that would do so. She also determined that administrative jurisdiction over the issue extended only to ordering compliance with the Data Practices Act, but she had no authority to enforce compliance with the Official Records Act.

Eighteen months later, in 2018, Halva sued MnSCU in district court for allegedly violating both the Official Records Act and the Data Practices Act.1 MnSCU moved to dismiss both claims under Minnesota Rule of Civil Procedure 12.02. MnSCU argued that the Data Practices Act claim should be dismissed because Halva's complaint was insufficiently pleaded and he could not pursue both a legal and an administrative action under that act. MnSCU also argued that Halva was not asking for "records," as that term is defined in the Official Records Act. The district court granted MnSCU's motion in part. The court concluded that Halva already received a remedy for the alleged violation of the Data Practices Act and that any such violations related to that act could not be re-litigated; but it also concluded that the claim under the Official Records Act was properly before the court.

MnSCU then moved for judgment on the pleadings on the Official Records Act claim, asserting that no private cause of action exists under that act. The district court granted the motion, and Halva appealed.

The court of appeals affirmed, based in part on different reasoning than the district court. Halva v. Minn. State Colls. & Univs., 937 N.W.2d 471, 476 (Minn.App. 2019). First, the court of appeals held that the district court erred by concluding that Halva could not pursue both administrative and judicial remedies under the Data Practices Act. Id. at 474. But the court found that Halva had not sufficiently pleaded his damages and thus the district court correctly dismissed his complaint. Id. at 476. With respect to Halva's Official Records Act claim, the court of appeals affirmed the district court's decision, agreeing that there is no private cause of action under that act. Id. We granted Halva's petition for review.

ANALYSIS

Two issues are presented by this appeal: First, did the court of appeals apply the proper notice-pleading standard in evaluating Halva's damage allegations for his Data Practices claim and, second, does the Official Records Act authorize a private cause of action.

I.

We turn first to the pleading issue. In agreeing that the district court correctly dismissed Halva's claim under the Data Practices Act, the court of appeals reasoned that [a]t the pleading stage, the plaintiff cannot allege mere "labels and conclusions." Bahr v. Capella Univ., 788 N.W.2d 76, 80 (Minn. 2010). He also is not entitled to recovery of damages that are "remote and speculative." Jackson v. Reiling, 249 N.W.2d 896, 897 (1977). In his complaint, Halva claimed only that he "has been injured by [MnSCU]'s failure to provide an opportunity to participate in a competitive bidding process," and alleged that he "has been aggrieved by these violations of the [Data Practices Act] and has suffered damages in an amount to be determined at trial, including costs, disbursements, and reasonable attorney's fees." These alleged damages are conjectural.

Id. at 474-75 (first alteration in original).

A.

Halva and two amici argue that the court of appeals erred by applying a new, heightened pleading standard. Halva contends that the court of appeals failed to apply the longstanding notice-pleading standard provided by Minnesota pleading rules. MnSCU disagrees, arguing that courts are permitted to, and should, dismiss complaints that assert only legal conclusions, which is what the court of appeals did here.

We review the allegations of a complaint subject to dismissal under Rule 12.02 de novo. DeRosa v. McKenzie, 936 N.W.2d 342, 346 (Minn. 2019). We must "accept the facts alleged in the complaint as true and construe all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party." Id. We also interpret the Rules of Civil Procedure de novo. Walsh v. U.S. Bank, N.A., 851 N.W.2d 598, 601 (Minn. 2014).

"Minnesota is a notice-pleading state." Id. at 604-05. Plaintiffs may plead their case "by way of a broad general statement which may express conclusions rather than, as was required under code pleading, by a statement of facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action." N. States Power Co. v. Franklin, 122 N.W.2d 26, 29 (Minn. 1963); see also Minn. R. Civ. P. 8.01 ("A pleading which sets forth a claim for relief . . . shall...

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