Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Trial by Jury: Arduous Attempts to Appropriate and Avert

Recent rulings by the federal & state courts in Minnesota have generally expanded, and occasionally constricted, the constitutional right in criminal and civil cases.

Trial by jury, a fundamental and nearly unique feature of the American judicial system, may seem like an anachronism.  Fewer than 10 percent of all criminal cases and no more than 5 percent of all civil cases ever reach juries.  With the growing emphasis on plea bargains in criminal cases, Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) in civil cases, and general decline in the civil dockets lately, jury trials have the appearance of a relic of a bygone day.

Although the figures in Minnesota track national averages, the right to trial by jury has been given new prominence recently, notably in a trio of civil cases decided earlier this year by the Minnesota Supreme Court, the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. In all three cases, the courts upheld the jury trial right, continuing a trend reflected in both criminal and civil cases over the past decade.

Downloading Damages

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in late this summer on the right of judges to reduce damages determined by a jury in an epic Minnesota case.  Capitol Records, Inc., v. Thomas-Rasset, 2012 WL 3930988 (8th Cir. 09/11/2012), involved the illegal downloading of 24 songs in violation of federal copyright laws.  The appellate court vacated the trial court’s post-trial reduction of the jury’s award from $1.5 million ($62,500 per song) to $54,000 ($2,250 per song).  The jury’s verdict was rendered after an initial jury award of $222,000, which was set aside by the judge, and a second verdict for $1.92 million, which the judge deemed “shocking” and remitted to $54,000, which precipitated a third trial on damages.  Finding the third jury’s $1.5 million award impermissible under the Due Process Clause, Chief Judge Michael J. Davis of the District of Minnesota ordered it cut back to the $54,000, again.

Declining to pass on the legality of making a copyrighted work available to the public without authorization, the appellate court reinstated the $222,000 from the first trial, to which the recording companies did not object.  The court also broadened the judge’s injunction of future downloading, an issue of paramount significance to the music industry.

The litigation implicated the 7th Amendment right to a jury trial, which is preserved for statutory damages under the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §504.  Judge Davis seems to have concluded that the jury trial right did not prevent him from ordering post-trial remittitur.  But the 8th Circuit disagreed, holding that the jury’s determination of “willful” infringement coupled with concealment warranted the large damage award, which was within the lower range of the statutory damages per offense.

The downloading decision contrasts with an earlier 8th Circuit ruling allowing judges to adjust damages determined by a jury without implicating the 7th Amendment right to a jury trial in civil cases.  In Corpus v. Bennett, 430 F.3d 912 (8th Cir. 2005), the appellate court upheld a ruling of Senior U.S. District Court Judge David Doty that reduced a jury award of $75,000 in nominal damages to $1 for a claimant who established that he had been subject to excessive force during pretrial detention by a jailer in Le Sueur County. Although the reduction of damages by remittitur is circumscribed in federal court, in this case the trial judge reasoned that the $75,000 award exceeded the amount warranted by the evidence and the law. Because the trial judge “did not substitute [his] own evaluation of the evidence regarding damages,” the reduction was not “technically a remittitur” and, therefore, did not violate the 7th Amendment right to a jury trial.

Contract Case

Judges rather than juries usually handle determination of attorney fees, but the Minnesota Supreme Court departed from that practice in a contract case, United Prairie Bank – Mountain Lake v. Haugen Nutrition & Equipment, 813 N.W.2d 49 (Minn. 03/14/2012).   The issue in the case was succinctly articulated in the very first sentence of the court’s decision:  “Whether the Minnesota Constitution provides the right to a jury trial for a claim to recover attorney’s fees based on a contract.”  The court, by a 5-2 margin, held in the affirmative.

The case arose out of a default on promissory notes held by a bank that extended credit to a farming couple in Cottonwood County on two parcels of land.  Suing to collect on the notes, the bank overcame ten counterclaims and ultimately obtained a judgment of more than $403,000 in attorney fees, authorized for collection action under the notes.  In so doing, the trial court denied the farm couple’s request for a jury trial regarding the amount of fees sought by the bank.

The Minnesota Supreme Court, deeming the claim for attorney fees to be “legal rather than equitable,” held that the farmers were entitled to a jury trial under Article I, §4, of the Minnesota Constitution.  The court reached that conclusion by examining whether the claim was one that, at the time the state constitution was adopted, “would have been entitled to a jury trial.” To answer that question, the court looked to the “nature and character of the controversy, followed by the second consideration … the nature of the remedy sought.”

The court first considered “the substantive nature” of the bank’s claim as one arising under contract, which has been “traditionally classified as an action at law” invoking the right to a jury trial.  The second factor, the nature of the relief sought, led the court back to the early days of statehood. The court noted that its “early cases reveal that parties have used contractual provisions” allowing recovery of attorneys’ fees since at least 1857, when the state constitution was adopted.  The claim brought by the bank was “one for contractual indemnity,” which sought a money judgment triable by a jury.

The court’s analysis, however, was not based solely on case law precedent.  It also took occasion to discuss “practical considerations” in determining attorney fees.  The Minnesota Court of Appeals, in reaching an opposite conclusion, had pointed to the “practical” problems that impede submitting an issue of attorney fees to a jury. The supreme court deemed this reasoning inapplicable because “availability of a constitutionally guaranteed right to a trial by jury does not, and should not, turn on the practical difficulties of its implementation.”  A dissent by Justice Christopher Dietzen, joined by Chief Justice Lori Gildea, viewed the majority decision as a “dramatic sea change,” making Minnesota an “outlier among jurisdictions.”  The dissent would have treated the issue of attorney fees as one “most closely analogous” to a claim for costs or disbursements, which does not invoke a constitutional right to a jury trial.

The dissent notwithstanding, the case was remanded for the trial court to submit the issue of attorney fees to a Cottonwood County jury.  The case also establishes the precedent that most attorney-fee issues arising under contract provisions will be subject to jury trials in the future.

But the United Prairie Bank decision does not necessarily require all issues of fees for lawyers to be submitted to a jury.  The court pointed out that other fee claims arising under statutes often raise “public policy” or “equitable considerations” that are not subject to jury trial.  Further, the court did not address the specific “procedural or timing requirements” for submitting a contractual attorney-fee issue to a jury, noting the applicability of ordinary rules respecting liability, including susceptibility to summary judgment.

Property & Privacy

Barely two weeks after the United Prairie Bank ruling, the appellate court addressed the right to a jury trial in a quiet title proceeding. The problem arose in an invasion-of-privacy case predicated upon a claim of trespass by a contract-for-deed vendor and an assignee that had an unrecorded interest in a parcel of land.

Deciding Radford v. Miller, 2012 WL 1380262 (Minn. App 04/22/2012) (unpublished), the court of appeals upheld the verdict of a Kanabec County jury awarding $20,000 in favor of the claimant landowners.  The court also affirmed the trial court’s decision quieting title to the real estate in favor of the claimant based upon the validity of the purchase agreement by which she acquired the land.  The appellate court rejected a post-trial challenge to the district court’s failure to submit the quiet title action to the jury, ruling that an action to quiet title is an “equitable” proceeding.  The court of appeals found that while the district court had discretion whether to submit the issue to a jury, it did not abuse its discretion by resolving the issue of quite title without a jury.

Replevin Ruling

In a further wrinkle on the right to jury trial, the appellate court in Storms v. Schneider, 802 N.W.2nd 824 (Minn. App. 2011), held that a replevin claim for the return of possession of personal property constitutes a “legal” action invoking a right to a jury trial. The bizarre case concerned a religious statue made by a woman from St. Paul for a religious ceremony in Washington, D.C. She delivered the statue to a relative of hers, another Minnesota woman, who gave her a check and used the statute in a worship service in the nation’s capital.

A post-ceremony dispute erupted between the parties, leading the sponsor of the ceremony to return the statue to the woman who made it, based upon her claim that she was going to take it back to Minnesota to repair it.  Several months later, the purchaser of the statue learned that the statue maker had it in St. Paul, and requested it be returned to her.  When the statue maker refused, the purchaser filed suit seeking return of the statue.

The Ramsey County District Court denied the request of the maker of the statue for a jury trial, ruling that the case was “clearly a case in equity and not one for legal replevin” warranting trial by jury. At a bench trial, the court ruled in favor of the claimant and ordered possession of the statue returned to her. The appellate court reversed, holding that the case was, in effect, one for replevin under Minn. Stat. §565.01, et seq, known as the Claim and Delivery Law. Since the supreme court continues to recognize the right to jury trial “as it existed in Territorial days” and a “line of cases” that preceded statehood reveals that “a cause of action for replevin is an action at law that gives rise to a right to a jury trial,” the appellate court found a jury trial was warranted.  Because the issue should have been submitted to jury, the trial court’s ruling was reversed and remanded.

Jury Jousts

These latest jury jousts in Minnesota jurisprudence come full circle from the earliest jury-related ruling in this millennium, which also was a real estate case. In Denman v. Gans, 607 N.W.2d 788 (Minn. App. 2000) rev. den’d. (Minn. 06/27/2000), the appellate court ruled that a claimant asserting title to real estate by adverse possession is not entitled to a jury trial as a matter of right.  The case was brought by owners of a waterfront property in Prior Lake, who asserted that they had acquired rights all the way to the water line by adverse possession or, alternatively, that the owners of landlocked properties had abandoned their claims to the waterfront. Following a bench trial, the waterfront owners appealed a ruling of the Scott County District Court in favor of the landlocked owners that rejected the adverse possession claim of the waterfront property holders.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court ruling with a slight modification. But its principal holding rejected the contention that a jury should have been impaneled for the adverse possession claim.  Because the issue was essentially one to quiet title, it “would traditionally be considered equitable.”  As such, the trial court had discretion whether to submit the case to a jury or decide in a bench trial.  The absence of a “bright line rule,” coupled with the “factual and legal complexities” of this particular case, warranted affirming the trial court’s determination to adjudicate the issue without a jury.

Landowners also failed, a couple of years later, to obtain a jury trial in Zaluckyj v. Rice Creek Watershed District, 639 N.W.2nd 70 (Minn. App. 2002), rev. den’d (Minn. 04/16/2002). Claiming that their land was being flooded due to overflow of a public ditch, the property owners sued in Washington County prior to a declaratory judgment action and petition for writ of mandamus in Washington County District Court that denied their request on grounds of failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

The court of appeals affirmed, holding that the landowners were not entitled to jury trial on the issue of exhaustion of administrative remedies, even though there were disputed factual issues in the case. The court reasoned that the determination whether a party is entitled to a jury trial is not based on “how the case is to be tried before the decision maker, but who is to be the decision maker.”  Whether the landowners would be entitled to a jury trial on valuation of their property in a condemnation proceeding, on issues relating to exhaustion of remedies and a claim by the landowners that exhaustion was futile, are “ general legal questions” to be decided by a judge, not a jury.

Employee Enigmas

A pair of important employment actions a decade ago further shed light on the enigmatic right to a jury trial. In Olson v. Synergistic Technologies Business Systems, Inc., 620 N.W.2nd 142 (Minn. 2001), a dispute arose over an alleged promise by the sole shareholder of a company and the company that acquired it. The shareholder’s former live-in companion alleged she had been promised stock in the corporation and claimed monetary damages, as well as seeking promissory estoppel and equitable estoppel.  The claimant, who had worked for the company before her personal relationship with the sole shareholder ended, was awarded $60,000 on equitable grounds after a bench trial, but lost her promissory and equitable estoppel claims. The court of appeals affirmed dismissal of the two estoppel claims and reversed the $60,000 judgment.

The Minnesota Supreme Court rejected the claimant’s challenge to the lack of a jury trial.  It held that both the promissory and equitable estoppel claims were equitable in nature and therefore were not recognized as being subject to a right to jury trial “at the time the Minnesota Constitution was adopted.” Tracing the history of estoppel claims from the early days of English law, the supreme court concluded that Minnesota courts have “consistently recognized the equitable aspects” of the estoppel claims.  The central element of the claims, good faith reliance, has “roots in equity and is based on equitable principles,” which precludes trial by jury as a matter of right.  While the trial court has “discretion to decide whether … an equitable action will be [decided by] the judge or the jury,” in this case the court did not abuse its discretion in holding a bench trial.

The supreme court further rejected the claimant’s argument that a jury should have been impaneled under Rule 38.01 of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure.  Although the rule “defines the scope of a right to a jury trial … it does not enlarge or diminish the historical right to a jury trial” under the state constitution.  Therefore, even though the claimant sought monetary relief, “that does not automatically create a right to a jury trial” because of the “nature and character” of the equitable claims asserted in the case.

Less than a year later, a Hennepin County employee won the right to a jury trial when claiming violation of the Minnesota Whistle Blower and Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) laws in Abraham v. County of Hennepin, 639 N.W.2d 342 (2002). The case resolved a number of significant issues, including the right to a jury trial for whistleblower claimants under Minn. Stat. §181.931 and for parallel OSHA violations under §182.669.  Invoking the same constitutional analysis as in Olson, the court found the right to a jury trial under both statutes.  Although the whistleblower and OSHA claims were created by statutes that did not exist when the constitution was adopted, the “nature and character” of those claims each comprises a cause of action at law with a constitutional right to jury trial under Article 1, §4 of the state constitution.

Political Problems

The right to a jury trial in connection with political problems has been addressed by the Minnesota courts too. In Riley v. Jankowski, 713 N.W.2d 379 (Minn. App. 2006), rev. denied (Minn. 07/19/2006), the administrative hearing process for determining alleged violations of  Minnesota statutes regarding financial reporting requirements of political candidates and laws regulating campaign practices was deemed not to be an unconstitutional denial of the right to a jury trial.  Addressing a dispute involving a heated election for members of the city council in Greenfield, Minnesota, the appellate court held that the process established under the campaign practices law, Minn. Stat. 211B.31-.37, did not invoke a right to a jury trial because those “rights and remedies” did not exist at the time the constitution was adopted in 1857. Although civil penalties may result, the process does not constitute a criminal prosecution that would give rise to a constitutional right to a jury trial under Article I, §6, which guarantees the right in criminal cases.  Nor did the process violate the separation of powers doctrine.

A political dispute in Mille Lacs County, concerning whether the city of Onamia and Mille Lacs County might permit expansion of a new residential treatment center for juvenile sex offenders, yielded a defamation lawsuit in Nexus v. Swift, 785 N.W.2d 771 (Minn. App. 2010) A community activist who was sued for critical remarks about the facility invoked the provision of Minnesota’s anti-SLAPP law, Minn. Stat. §554.01, et seq., which allows the court to dismiss a lawsuit that is brought as reprisal against individuals who have sought to “procure favorable governmental action.”

Overturning the Hennepin County District Court, the court of appeals ruled that the judge’s pretrial determination whether the case might proceed, as provided by statute, did not transgress the constitutional right to jury trial because “it preserves the right to have triable issues of material fact decided by the jury” if the court initially determines that the lawsuit does not violate the reprisal statute.  Requiring a claimant to show “clear and convincing evidence” of defamation in determining whether a case should go to trial does not have the effect of “usurping the jury” in making the ultimate determination whether defamation occurred.

Procedural Permutations

Procedural issues dealing with right to jury trial in federal and state courts give rise to several permutations. Under Rule 38 of the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure, if a jury trial is allowable under state law, either party may be entitled to one without demand.  Similarly, both prosecution and defense in a criminal proceeding are entitled to a jury trial, which cannot be waived by one without the consent of the other.  State v. Lessley, 779 N.W.2d 825 (Minn. 2010).

In federal court, the parallel provision of Rule 38 calls for a jury trial. But under local practice the request for jury trial should be identified in the cover sheet to the civil filing, and pursuant to local Rule 381, denoted in the initial pleadings or may be subject to waiver.

The right to jury trial under the Constitution overrides state law precluding jury trial.  Claims arising under some Minnesota laws, such as the Human Rights Act, Minn. Stat. §363A.33, subd. 6, do not include a trial by jury. But if those claims are brought in federal court, either through removal or by supplemental jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §1367 if combined with federal claims, the claimant is entitled to a jury trial on the state claims in the federal forum, even though not under state law.  Kampa v. White Consol Industries, Inc., 115 F.3d 585 (8th Cir. 1997).

Supremely Seminal

A pair of seminal criminal law decisions of the United States Supreme Court at the beginning of this millennium seems to account for much of the current interest in issues involving the right to trial by jury. In Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), the justices held that any findings that increase the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be decided by a jury, unless knowingly waived by the defendant, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.  Four years later, in Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004), the high court, by a 5-4 margin, applied Apprendi to the states by holding that a state criminal defendant cannot be sentenced above the statutory maximum on grounds of “deliberate cruelty” unless a jury makes such a finding.

The role of a jury in criminal sentencing proceedings, as established in Apprendi and then Blakely, collided in Minnesota with the doctrine of retroactivity in State v. Houston, 702 N.W.2d 268 (Minn. 2005). The defendant, convicted of a drug offense, received enhanced sentences determined by the judge.  While the defendant’s appeal was pending, the Supreme Court decided Blakely, requiring a jury to make such determinations.  Reviewing the sentences, the Minnesota Court of Appeals determined that Blakeley did not apply retroactively on collateral review.

The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the Blakely requirement for jury determination of enhancement factors constituted a “new” constitutional doctrine that applied retroactively to cases that were on direct appellate review but did not necessarily apply to cases on collateral review.

The Blakely doctrine does not apply retroactively on collateral review because it “does not impact the accuracy of underlying determination of guilt or innocence,” which is necessary to reach the “watershed” threshold necessary for “full retroactivity,” applicable to both direct and collateral review.  Although not expressly stated, the “practical considerations” that the court disowned in United Prairie Bank may have underlain its decision that the Blakely doctrine is “not a watershed rule” to be applied retroactively in collateral challenges.  Otherwise, nearly all state court criminal convictions that result in enhanced sentencing might be subject to habeas attack.

The clash between Blakely and retroactivity concerning the right to a jury trial continues to be adjudicated in Minnesota, including cases within the past year.  The courts’ determinations have interwoven a variety of legal doctrines, attempting to vindicate important principles underlying the state and federal constitutional rights to a jury trial while adhering to the historical roots of those rights.

Concluding Considerations

Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in Democracy in America (1835), deemed juries “the most energetic means of making the people rule.” Yet at the same time, others such as James Fenimore Cooper (writing in The Redskins, 1846) have viewed juries less charitably as “placing the control of the law in the hands of those who would be most apt to abuse it.” These divergent perspectives from esteemed observers of early American jurisprudence aptly reflect the colliding contemporary considerations that color the right to a jury trial in Minnesota law.

Marshall H. Tanick is an attorney with the law firm of Hellmuth & Johnson, PA, headquartered in Edina. He is certified as a civil trial specialist by the Minnesota State Bar Association (MSBA) and represents parties in a variety of legal matters, including trials both to the court and to the jury. 

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