Filed November 25, 2003.
Appeal from the District Court, Douglas County, File No. C0-02-379.
Christopher D. Karpan, Douglas County Courthouse, (for appellant)
Ann L. Carrott, (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Toussaint, Chief Judge; Willis, Judge; and Shumaker, Judge.
This opinion will be unpublished and may not be cited except as provided by Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
Appellant Douglas County challenges the district court's imposition of sanctions pursuant to Minn.R.Civ.P. 11.02. The district court granted attorney fees under Rule 11 on the grounds that, in an attempt to stop the closing of a substandard lot, appellant knowingly enjoined the wrong party in its motion for a temporary restraining order. Appellant argues that rule 11 sanctions were improper because (1) the rule 11 procedural safeguards were not followed; (2) the county had an objectively reasonable basis to presume that respondent was a proper party to enjoin; (3) rule 11 sanctions are improper when a party prevails at an earlier stage of the litigation; and (4) imposing sanctions in this case does not further the policy of deterrence. Because the district court's finding that appellant enjoined the wrong party was clearly erroneous as a matter of law, and because respondent failed to file the separate motion required by Minn.R.Civ.P. 11.03(a)(1), we reverse.
A district court's decision to impose sanctions under Minn. R. Civ. P. 11 will be reversed only if the district court abused its discretion. Gibson v. Coldwell Banker Burnet, 659 N.W.2d 782, 787 (Minn.App. 2003). The district court's findings of fact will only be set aside if clearly erroneous. Minn.R.Civ.P. 52.01.
Appellant challenges the district court's grant of attorney fees, arguing that respondent never filed a separate motion requesting rule 11 sanctions. Under the rules of civil procedure however, a request for rule 11 sanctions can be initiated either by a separate motion made by the moving party or, "[o]n its own initiative, the court may enter an order describing the specific conduct that appears to violate Rule 11.02 and directing an attorney . . . to show cause why [he] has not violated Rule 11.02 with respect thereto." Minn.R.Civ.P. 11.03(a)(1), (2).
Here, a separate motion for rule 11 sanctions was not necessary because the record shows that the district court, on its own initiative, issued an order to show cause pursuant to Minn.R.Civ.P. 11.03(a)(2). In the order, the court found that appellant's conduct was in violation of rule 11 because respondent "was not the proper party to restrain." This finding, however, was clearly erroneous as a matter of law.
Minnesota law provides that
[i]n the event of a violation or a threatened violation of . . . any ordinance, regulation, or other official control adopted hereunder, the board, or any member thereof, in addition to other remedies, may institute appropriate actions or proceedings to prevent, restrain, correct, or abate such violations or threatened violations and it is the duty of the county attorney to institute such action.
Minn. Stat. § 394.37, subd. 3 (2002) (emphasis added). Appellant received a letter signed by an employee of respondent on April 1, 2002, indicating that on April 2 respondent intended to close on the sale of a substandard lot, which would result in a violation of the Douglas County zoning ordinance. Under these circumstances, appellant had statutory authority and an obligation to enjoin respondent in order to prevent the threatened violation of the zoning ordinance. Thus, in light of the law and the facts in this case, the district court's finding that respondent was the wrong party to enjoin was error as a matter of law, and its award of attorney fees under rule 11 based on this finding was an abuse of discretion.
There is some debate in the record as to whether the court's order was procedurally proper. This debate is irrelevant, however, because even if the district court had not granted rule 11 sanctions on its own initiative, the sanctions would have been an abuse of discretion. Under the rules of civil procedure, "[a] motion for sanctions under [rule 11] shall be made separately from other motions or requests and shall describe the specific conduct alleged to violate Rule 11.02." Minn.R.Civ.P. 11.03(a)(1).
Here, the record shows that respondent did not file a separate motion requesting attorney fees under rule 11. In fact, respondent never specifically asked for rule 11 sanctions. Instead, respondent only made a general request for attorney fees, which it incorporated into its April 4 motion to dissolve the temporary restraining order. Considering respondent's failure to follow proper procedure, an award of rule 11 sanctions under these circumstances would have been an abuse of discretion.
Because the district court's finding that appellant enjoined the wrong party was clearly erroneous as a matter of law, and because respondent did not file a separate motion for rule 11 sanctions as required by rule 11.03(a)(1), the district court abused its discretion in imposing rule 11 sanctions. Furthermore, because we reverse on these grounds, we need not address appellant's other arguments.