This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Nuro B. Dedefo,
Aliyi Wake, et al.,
Hennepin County District Court
File No. MC022448
Nuro B. Dedefo, 2630 Howard Street N.E., Minneapolis, MN 55418 (pro se appellant)
David E. Zins, 5353 Gamble Drive, Suite 125, Minneapolis, MN 55416 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Peterson, Presiding Judge, Harten, Judge, and Poritsky, Judge.
Appellant sued respondents for defamation. Respondents served an answer and moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Minn. R. Civ. P. 12.03. The district court, ruling that the offending statements were matters of opinion and thus not actionable, granted respondents’ motion. The court imposed sanctions under Minn. R. Civ. P. 11.03. Appellant challenges the district court’s grant of judgment on the pleadings and the imposition of sanctions. Because we conclude that the district court improperly granted judgment on the pleadings, we reverse and remand. Because appellant pleaded a valid claim upon which relief may be granted, we vacate the court’s award of costs and fees.
Appellant Nuro Dedefo and respondents Aman Kedir, Jato Wake, Aliyi Wake, Dube Chikaki, and Haji Chikaki are from the Oromo region of Ethiopia. Upon immigrating to Minnesota, appellant and respondents formed the Anole organization to promote friendship, support, and advancement among the Minnesota Ethiopian community. Anole, consisting of appellant and respondents, meets monthly. At the September 7, 2001, meeting, a dispute broke out between appellant and respondent Aliyi Wake. Appellant alleges that Wake attempted to assault appellant. At this point, appellant left the meeting. After appellant left, the remaining members of Anole voted to levy a fine of $100 against appellant for disrupting the meeting.
At the October Anole meeting, appellant was informed that he had been fined by the organization but was refused a written copy of the decision and was told to keep quiet or further action would be taken. At the November meeting, appellant again asked for, and was refused, a written copy of Anole’s decision. Sometime shortly after the November meeting, appellant received a certified letter from Anole warning appellant that if he caused more trouble, further action would be taken against him. Appellant subsequently stopped attending the Anole meetings.
In early November, respondents sent a petition to the Oromo Community of Minnesota (Oromo), an organization of Oromo immigrants. At the time of these events, appellant was a president of Oromo. The petition, written in Oromiffa, contained the following allegedly defamatory statements:
1. appellant engaged in the “destruction” of Anole,
2. appellant “continuously disturbed the members and the leaders by bringing personal issues outside of the agenda,”
3. appellant “is not a person who can be corrected,”
4. “[appellant] threatened us by saying he would get us,” and
5. “[appellant] acted as if he was above law.”
A copy of the petition was given to the Oromo board of directors. Although it is not clear from the record, the board of directors apparently took no action against appellant. Respondents gave a copy of the petition to the elders of the Oromo community, but the elders determined that the statements in the petition were false. The elders asked respondents to apologize and to pay appellant compensation, but respondents refused. Appellant thereupon filed the present defamation action in district court. The district court granted respondents’ motion for judgment on the pleadings and ordered appellant to pay respondents $2,200 for costs and fees under Minn. R. Civ. P. 11.03. This appeal followed.
D E C I S I O N
After appellant served his complaint, respondents served an answer and filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Minn. R. Civ. P. 12.03 and for sanctions under Minn. R. Civ. P. 11.03. The district court, concluding that respondents’ statements were constitutionally protected statements of opinion, granted judgment in favor of respondents.  The court further ruled that appellant’s claim was not based on applicable law and imposed sanctions in the amount of $2,200.
When reviewing a case in which the trial court grants defendant judgment on the pleadings, the appellate court “is limited to the facts asserted in the pleadings interpreted in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Capitol Supply Co. v. City of St. Paul, 316 N.W.2d 554, 554 (Minn. 1982) (citation omitted). In Ryan v. Lodermeier, 387 N.W.2d 652 (Minn. App. 1986), we held:
A motion for judgment on the pleadings is not a favored way of testing the sufficiency of a pleading, and will not be sustained if by a liberal construction the pleading can be held sufficient.
387 N.W.2d at 653 (citation omitted).
The district court based its ruling on a determination that respondents’ statements were statements of opinion and thus not actionable. But statements of opinion may be actionable if the plaintiff is not a public figure. In Harman v. Heartland Food Co., we pointed out that when the offending statements involve a private plaintiff and a private issue, the case is analyzed under principles of Minnesota common law. Harman v. Heartland Food Co., 614 N.W.2dat 240 n.1 (Minn. App. 2000). And in Weissman v. Sri Lanka Curry House, Inc., we held:
Minnesota common law makes no distinction between “fact” and “opinion.” A communication is defamatory if it causes enough harm to a person’s reputation to lower the community’s estimation of the individual or to deter others from associating or dealing with the individual.
Weissman v. Sri Lanka Curry House, Inc., 469 N.W.2d 471, 473 (Minn. App. 1991).
The United States Supreme Court and this court have stated that the constitutional protections that are afforded speech directed at public figures do not extend to “private plaintiff/private issue” defamation actions. See Dun & Broadstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U.S. 749, 759, 105 S. Ct. 2939, 2945 (1985) (speech concerning wholly private matters is of lesser First Amendment concern); Harman, 614 N.W.2d at 240 n.1 (constitutional safeguards for public figures and public matters do not extend to defamation actions involving private persons and private issues).
Although the district court made no specific finding as to appellant’s status, in ruling against him it concluded that the statements were constitutionally protected expressions of opinion, which is a standard appropriate only when the plaintiff is a public figure. Whether or not a person is a public figure is a question of law, which this court reviews de novo. Hunter v. Hartman, 545 N.W.2d 699, 704 (Minn. App. 1996), review denied (Minn. June 19, 1996).
There are three categories of public figures: (1) all-purpose public figures, (2) limited-purpose public figures, and (3) involuntary public figures. Jadwin v. Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co., 367 N.W.2d 476, 484 (Minn. 1985). An all-purpose public figure is typically a celebrity or social figure of prominence. Id. Clearly, appellant is not an all-purpose public figure. Appellant is neither a celebrity nor is he a social figure of prominence. See id.(all-purpose public figures usually enjoy celebrity status or occupy a position of social prominence).
A limited-purpose public figure is one who voluntarily becomes embroiled in a particular public controversy, intending to affect its outcome. Id. To qualify as a limited-purpose public figure (1) a public controversy must exist prior to the publication, (2) the plaintiff must assume a prominent role in the controversy, and (3) the allegedly defamatory statement must be related to the controversy. Metge v. Central Neighborhood Improvement, Ass’n., 649 N.W.2d 488, 496 (Minn. App. 2002); see Reuber v. Food Chem. News, Inc., 925 F.2d 703, 710 (4th Cir. 1991) (concluding that public controversy must exist prior to publication).
We conclude that appellant is not a limited-purpose public figure. There was no public controversy in this case. See Reuber, 925 F.2d at 710 (holding that existence of a public controversy is a requisite for a party to qualify as a limited purpose public figure). The conflict between appellant and the other members of the Anole organization is purely a private matter concerning private issues. The Oromo board of directors and the elders of the Oromo community became aware of the conflict only when the petition was published to them. For defamation purposes, the very publication of the objectionable statements cannot create the public controversy to which the statements purportedly relate. Wells v. Liddy, 186 F.3d 505, 539-40 (4th Cir. 1999) (the controversy must exist prior to publication of the statement).
The third type of public figure—the involuntary public figure—is “exceedingly rare.” Jadwin, 367 N.W.2d at 483 (quotation omitted). This rare type of public figure becomes a public figure through no purposeful action of his own, and for the most part, those who attain this status have assumed a role of special prominence in the affairs of society. Id. In order to be an involuntary public figure, the plaintiff must have
become a central figure in a significant public controversy and that the allegedly defamatory statement [must have] arisen in the course of discourse regarding the public matter.
See Liddy, 186 F.3d at 539-40. Significant public controversies are those that touch “upon serious issues relating to, for example, community values, historical events, governmental or political activity, arts, education, or public safety.” Id. at 540. To be a central figure in the controversy, the plaintiff must have embarked upon a course of action from which it was reasonably foreseeable that public interest would arise and plaintiff must have been the regular focus of media reports. Id.
We conclude that appellant is not an involuntary public figure. Here, no significant public controversy existed. The disagreement between appellant and respondents was about personal issues unrelated to “community values, historical events, governmental or political activity, arts education, * * * public safety[,]” or any other issue of significant public interest. Id. Additionally, appellant’s action here, voicing displeasure with another of the members of Anole, a small, private organization, certainly does not qualify as having pursued a course of conduct from which it was foreseeable that a public controversy would arise.
Based on the analyses set out above, we conclude that appellant does not fit into any of the classes of public figures. Because he is not a public figure, respondents’ statements about him do not receive the constitutional protection that expressions of opinion are otherwise entitled to. The appropriate analysis is to determine if, under Minnesota common law, appellant’s complaint sufficiently states a claim upon which relief may be granted. Harman, 614 N.W.2d at 240 (Minn. App. 2000) (noting that when analyzing private-plaintiff/private-issue cases, Minnesota common law is applied).
As we have noted, “Minnesota common law makes no distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘opinion.’” Weissman, 469 N.W.2d at 473. A statement is defamatory “if it causes enough harm to a person’s reputation to lower the community’s estimation of the individual or to deter others from associating or dealing with the individual.” Id. (citations omitted). Epithets or adjectives can rise to the level of defamation if they imply a specific kind of reprehensible conduct. Id. To prevail in an action for common-law defamation, the plaintiff must establish that (1) the statement was communicated to someone other than the plaintiff, (2) the statement was false, and (3) the statement tended to harm the plaintiff’s reputation and lower him in the eyes of the community. Stuempges v. Parke, Davis, & Co., 297 N.W.2d 252, 255 (Minn. 1980); Kuechle v. Life’s Companion P.C.A., Inc., 653 N.W.2d 214, 218 (Minn. App. 2002).
Our review in this case is limited to examining the complaint and the answer to determine whether the complaint pleads a claim upon which relief may be granted; we view the facts in the light most favorable to the appellant. Capitol Supply Co. 316 N.W.2d at 554. In doing so, we conclude that appellant has sufficiently pleaded a claim upon which relief may be granted. The complaint alleges all the elements of the tort of common-law defamation: (1) appellant alleges, and there is no dispute, that the objectionable statements were published to persons other than the appellant, (2) appellant alleges that the statements are false, and (3) appellant alleges that the statements have harmed his reputation and lowered him in the estimation of the community. Consequently, we conclude that the district court erred in granting respondents judgment on the pleadings, and we remand for further proceedings.
Pursuant to Minn. R. Civ. P. 11.03, the district court ordered appellant to pay respondents $2,200 for costs and fees associated with defending the defamation action. Appellant argues that because his claim was not frivolous, the district court erred in levying rule 11 sanctions against him. This court will not disturb a district court’s imposition of such sanctions absent an abuse of discretion. Brown v. State, 617 N.W.2d 421, 427 (Minn. App. 2000), review denied (Minn. Nov. 21, 2000). But it is an abuse of discretion to impose sanctions against an attorney who, in good faith, brings an arguably legitimate claim. Id. Rule 11 should be construed narrowly to avoid deterring legitimate or, at least, arguably legitimate claims. Id.
Because we have concluded that appellant sufficiently pleaded a claim upon which relief may be granted and that the district court erred in granting judgment on the pleadings, we vacate the district court’s imposition of rule 11 sanctions.
Vacated in part; reversed in part, and remanded.
* Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.
 Respondents agree that appellant’s translation was accurate only for purposes of the motion for judgment on the pleadings.
Appellant submitted the affidavit of Adem Webo in support of his complaint. Under Minn. R. Civ. P. 12.03,
If * * * matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the motion shall be treated as one for summary judgment and disposed of as provided for in Rule 56 * * * .
There is no indication in the record that the district court either considered or excluded this affidavit. But because the district court granted judgment on the pleadings, pursuant to rule 12.03, we assume that the court did not consider the affidavit.