A common question I have been getting lately goes something like this: “I think I have a claim against my neighbor/friend/family member/ex-boyfriend/ex-girlfriend. I found this statute, 609.749, that prohibits stalking and I want to bring a cause of action in civil court.”
This question is not unusual because there are so many laws and statutes out there that prohibit all sorts of activity. The real issue is to figure out either the right statute or common law to properly initiate a lawsuit in civil court.
In my example, Minnesota Statute § 609.749 is Minnesota’s statute that prohibits stalking. This statute falls under Chapter 609, Minnesota’s Criminal Code. Any violations of statutes under the criminal code can only be enforced by the State (think city or county prosecutors). Therefore, if a private person wanted to seek civil damages based on a violation of a criminal statute, there must be either an explicit manifestation in the statute allowing for civil damages, or a clear implication by the legislature that there was intent to do so.
Most of the statutes in the Criminal Code, including § 609.749, do not provide for a civil remedy; however, there are some statutes that do. For example (this list is not exhaustive):
- 609.284 (sex trafficking)
- 609.215 (aiding suicide)
- 609.903 (racketeering)
- 609.226 (dog bite)
- 609.7495 (physical interference with safe access to health care)
The statutes listed above have explicit language allowing for civil remedies. The rule, however, is “criminal statutes do not give rise to civil causes of action absent some manifestation of legislative intent to do so.” Summers v. R&D Agency, Inc., 593 N.W.2d 241, 245 (Minn. Ct. App. 1999). This rule means that even if a criminal statute does not explicitly allow for civil remedies, one could still prove that there was some other type of “legislative intent.” Stated another way, a potential plaintiff would attempt to pursue a civil remedy based upon an “implied cause of action.”
When a statute is silent on civil implications, one must prove the following elements in order to pursue civil damages:
- Whether the plaintiff belongs to the class for whose benefit the statute was enacted;
- Whether the legislature indicated an intent to create or deny a remedy; and
- Whether implying a remedy would be consisted with the underlying purposes of the legislative enactment.
These factors are called the “Flour Exchange Standard” after the case Flour Exchange Bldg. Corp. v. State, 524 N.W.2d 496 (Minn. Ct. App. 1994), rev. denied (Feb. 14, 1995). This standard is very hard to meet and there are more cases than not denying a plaintiff’s argument to imply civil remedies into various statutes. In fact, Minnesota courts are very reluctant to imply a private right of action.
Minnesota’s criminal code is not the only set of statutes where one is attempting to create a civil cause of action by implication, discussed as follows:
Patient Bill of Rights
Two Minnesota Court of Appeals decisions (unpublished) have held there is no implied cause of action in Minnesota’s Patient’s Bill of Rights, Minn. Stat. § 144.651, et. seq. J.T.P. v. St. Paul Ramsey Med. Ctr., 1997 WL 65511 (Minn. Ct. App. Feb. 18, 1997); McDeid v. O’Keefe, 2003 WL 21525128 (Minn. Ct. App. July 8, 2003).
Workers’ Compensation Act
A plaintiff tried to sue a workers’ compensation insurance carrier for civil damages under a theory that the carrier failed to inspect the workplace where an employee was killed in an explosion. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled there was no private right of action and no breach of a statutory duty since insurance carriers are immune from liability under Minn. Stat. § 176.031 and § 79.253, subd. 2. They also did not create a private right of action since that provision was created for employers who cannot secure insurance, not to protect employees. The court further reasoned that the Flour Exchange test failed since the intended beneficiary of the statute was not an injured employee. Buck v. Freeman, 619 N.W.2d 793 (Minn. Ct. App. 2003), rev. denied (Feb. 21, 2001).
Reporting of Maltreatment of Minors Act
A person who was subjected to a child abuse investigation attempted to sue the various government agencies and officials who had conducted the investigation, claiming that the investigation violated the Reporting of Maltreatment of Minors Act. The Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed with plaintiff’s allegations, stating there was no intent by the legislature to create such a private cause of action. The court specifically cited to § 626.55, subd 5 (liability for making a false report) as an example of when the legislature created a private cause of action, which was absent in the Reporting of Maltreatment of Minors Act. Kuelbes v. Williams, 609 N.W.2d 10 (Minn. Ct. App. 2000), rev. denied (June 27, 2000).
Pupil Fair Dismissal Act
A high school sophomore attempted to get civil relief after she was suspended for verbal remarks to another student. Much like the other cases cited, the court found no private right of action since the Pupil Fair Dismissal Act already had its own appellate process and there was no intent to create a private right of action. Eason v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 11, 598 N.W.2d 414 (Minn. Ct. App. 1999).
When a Plaintiff is Successful
One plaintiff was successful in proving that there was an implication to create a private cause of action. In Pretressed Concrete, Inc. v. Blandholm Bros. Culvert Col., 498 N.W.2d 274 (Minn. Ct. App. 1993). In that matter, the plaintiff sued a manufacturing competitor claiming violation of state Antitrust Law of 1971 alleging that the competitor was trying to monopolize the bridge girder market. Although the court did not discuss the Flour Exchange test, they concluded that since Minnesota’s Antitrust Law was similar to the federal Sherman Act, which prevented conspiracies to monopolize, there should be a cause of action when there is proof of a conspiracy. This is one of the few times that a plaintiff has convinced a court to imply legislative intent for civil damages when one was not explicitly stated.