Jensen Field, Inc. v. Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of Minnesota (In re Jensen Field Relocation Claims)

Decision Date25 June 2012
Docket NumberA11-1942
PartiesIn the Matter of: Jensen Field Relocation Claims Jensen Field, Inc., et al., Relators, v. The Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota, Respondent.
CourtCourt of Appeals of Minnesota

Reversed and remanded

Schellhas, Judge

University of Minnesota Board of Regents

Kirk Schnitker, Jon W. Morphew, Schnitker Law Office, P.A., Spring Lake Park, Minnesota (for relators)

Mark B. Rotenberg, General Counsel, Jennifer L. Frisch, Associate General Counsel, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota (for respondent)

Considered and decided by Schellhas, Presiding Judge; Bjorkman, Judge; and Larkin, Judge.


1. A displacing agency under the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policy Act of 1970 (URA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 4601-55 (2006), does not violate Minn. Stat. §§ 117.012, subd. 1, 117.52, subd. 4 (2010), when it follows the procedures for appeal set forth in 49 C.F.R. § 24.10(b), (g)-(h) (2010), to satisfy the appeal rights of a person claiming a right to relocation benefits.

2. Under the URA, tenants are displaced persons when their landlord, which is the displacing agency, informs them that it will not renew their lease because of a project for which it has received federal funds.

3. Displaced persons are entitled to reimbursement for their estimated moving expenses when they inform the displacing agency of their intent to seek relocation benefits three months before their displacement, elect a self-move under 49 C.F.R. § 24.301(d)(2) (2010), obtain one moving estimate, and the displacing agency thereafter provides no relocation assistance to the displaced persons.



In this certiorari appeal, involving a dispute about whether relators-tenants are eligible for relocation benefits under the URA, relators argue that (1) the use by respondent-landlord of one of its vice presidents to serve as the hearing officer violated Minn. Stat. §§ 117.012, subd. 1, 117.52, subd. 4; (2) they are displaced persons and therefore entitled to relocation benefits under the URA; (3) the hearing officer erred by concurrently determining their eligibility for and the amount of relocation benefits; and (4) the hearing officer erred by denying them relocation benefits. We conclude that respondent did not violate sections 117.012, subdivision 1, or 117.52, subdivision 4, by using one of its vice presidents to serve as a hearing officer, and that respondent did not err by concurrently determining relators' eligibility for and the amount of relocation benefits. But, because we conclude that the hearing officer's determinations that relators are not displaced persons under the URA and that they are not entitled to relocationbenefits are not supported by evidence in the record and were affected by an error of law, we reverse the decision of the hearing officer.


In 1947 and 1948, respondent Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota (the university) purchased an 8,000-acre parcel of land from the federal government (UMore Park). In 1986, the university entered into a five-year lease of approximately eight acres in UMore Park to relator Jensen Field Inc. for Jensen Field's operation of a non-assignable private airport. Upon its expiration or termination, the lease required that Jensen Field "remove its personal property and any improvements constructed on the [property] by it or its sublessees (hangars, cement floors, etc.) and return the land to the condition which existed at commencement of its use of the premises . . . ." The lease contained an optional two-year extension that ran in favor of Jensen Field. In 1991, the university and Jensen Field entered into a two-year extension and, from 1993 to 2009, entered into one-year lease extensions.

Beginning in 1996, the university denied Jensen Field's annual requests to extend the lease for more than one year. In a letter, dated November 17, 2009, the university noted that Jensen Field's lease expired on October 31, 2009; declined Jensen Field's request for a five-year lease extension; offered Jensen Field a one-year extension to October 31, 2010; and notified Jensen Field that the university could not extend the lease beyond October 31, 2010, noting:

With the University's recent receipt of notice of a US Department of Energy award of up to $8 million in federal stimulus funds for a research project at UMore Park involvingwind energy, we expect the University will begin constructing a wind turbine (the turbine is already ordered, expected useful life of 10-20 years) at UMore Park this coming spring/summer, with its operation then scheduled to begin by the fall of 2010. Therefore the University is unable to continue this lease after October 31, 2010.

The university also informed Jensen Field that it must remove its personal property and any improvements constructed by it or its sublessees and return the land to the condition it was in when the lease began. When Jensen Field received the letter, 13 airplane hangars, owned by 10 individuals,1 were located at the airfield, and Jensen Field was current on its rent payments.

On January 15, 2010, the university received the United States Department of Energy grant, which required the university to "comply with application provisions of 49 CFR part 24, which implements the [URA]." In July 2010, relators informed the university that they would seek relocation benefits under the URA and requested that the university provide them with advisory services and claim assistance. In August 2010, at relators' request, All Furniture Inc. conducted a walkthrough of the airfield and provided relators with an estimate for moving personal property, equipment, and airplanes. By October 31, 2010, relators had moved, sold, or otherwise disposed of 12 of their 13 airplane hangars and their personal property, equipment, and airplanes.

In February 2011, the university rejected relators' claims for relocation benefits, noting that they were not displaced persons and that they failed to submit proof of entitlement to a claim. Relators subsequently sought an administrative appeal hearing,and University of Minnesota President Robert H. Bruininks appointed Vice President for University Services Kathleen O'Brien to "conduct appropriate proceedings to make a final determination of the claims." On September 15, 2011, Vice President O'Brien issued findings of fact, conclusions, and an order, ruling that relators were not displaced persons under the URA and that they did not provide adequate documentation necessary to entitle them to relocation benefits, and denying their claims for benefits.

This appeal by writ of certiorari follows.

I. Did the university violate Minn. Stat. §§ 117.012, subd. 1, 117.52, subd. 4, by appointing Vice President O'Brien to serve as the hearing officer?
II. Are relators "displaced person[s]" under the URA?
III. Are relators entitled to relocation benefits under the URA?

"[C]ourts must be reluctant to invade the sphere of authority reserved to the [University Board of] [R]egents by our constitution." Bailey v. Univ. of Minn., 290 Minn. 359, 361, 187 N.W.2d 702, 704 (Minn. 1971). The university's "autonomy is derived from the principle of separation of powers." Brenny v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Minn., 813 N.W.2d 417, ____, slip op. at 7 (Minn. App. May 7, 2012).

In this case, the university's denial of relators' relocation benefits under the URA is a quasi-judicial decision. See Minn. Ctr. for Envtl. Advocacy v. Metro. Council, 587 N.W.2d 838, 842 (Minn. 1999) (describing three factors that characterize quasi-judicial decisions); see also Maye v. Univ. of Minn., 615 N.W.2d 383, 386 (Minn. App. 2000).Quasi-judicial decisions are characterized by "(1) investigation into a disputed claim and weighing of evidentiary facts; (2) application of those facts to a prescribed standard; and (3) a binding decision regarding the disputed claim." Minn. Ctr. for Envtl. Advocacy, 587 N.W.2d at 842. Because the university is not subject to the Minnesota Administrative Procedures Act (MAPA), see Minn. Stat. § 14.03, subd. 1(f) (2010), certiorari is the only method available for review of a university decision. Shaw v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Minn., 594 N.W.2d 187, 191 (Minn. App. 1999), review denied (Minn. July 28, 1999).


[r]eview by [writ of] certiorari is limited to an inspection of the record of the inferior tribunal in which the court is necessarily confined to questions affecting the jurisdiction of the board, the regularity of its proceedings, and, as to merits of the controversy, whether the order or determination in a particular case was arbitrary, oppressive, unreasonable, fraudulent, under an erroneous theory of law, or without any evidence to support it.

Dietz v. Dodge Cnty., 487 N.W.2d 237, 239 (Minn. 1992) (quotation omitted). This general standard for review by writ of certiorari is applied to cases arising under Minnesota's corollary to the URA—the Minnesota Uniform Relocation Act (MURA), Minn. Stat. §§ 117.50-.56 (2010)Application of Relocation Benefits of Wilkins Pontiac, Inc., 530 N.W.2d 571, 574 (Minn. App. 1995), review denied (June 23, 1995), and to cases involving appeals from decisions made by the university, Stephens v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. of Minn., 614 N.W.2d 764, 768-69 (Minn. App. 2000), review denied (Minn. Sept. 26, 2000). We therefore apply this standard of review in this appeal involving the university's decision regarding the URA.

I. Use of Vice President O'Brien as a Hearing Officer

Relators argue that the university violated Minn. Stat. §§ 117.012, subd. 1, 117.52, subd. 4, because it failed to initiate contested case proceedings and instead appointed Vice President O'Brien to hear their case. But relators' arguments are unpersuasive because the plain language of both statutes renders them inapplicable here.

Section 117.012, subdivision 1, reads:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law . . . all condemning

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