This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota,
Hennepin County District Court
File No. EM 00-004903
Georgina Y. Stephens, 875 Laurel Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55104 (pro se appellant)
Mark B. Rotenberg, General Counsel, University of Minnesota, Tracy M. Smith, Marianne E. Durkin, Associate General Counsels, 360 McNamara Alumni Center, 200 Oak Street Southeast, Minneapolis, MN 55455-2006 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Minge, Presiding Judge; Hudson, Judge; and Parker, Judge.*
Appellant Georgina Stephens challenges the judgment and
order denying her motion for amended findings and motion to vacate, raising
various claims. We affirm.
Appellant was elected as the treasurer and appointed as an associate vice president for finance and operations at the University of Minnesota in 1997. In 1998, she complained of racial discrimination, but after an investigation, none was found. In June 1999, the board of regents reelected appellant to the position as treasurer and renewed her position as associate vice president through June 30, 2000.
In September 1999, the attorney for a former employee, who was suing appellant and the university after being terminated sent a settlement letter to the university. In the letter, the attorney challenged the university to assess appellant’s credibility by examining non-university-related bankruptcy litigation in which appellant had been involved. After a preliminary investigation, the university placed appellant on administrative leave on October 20, 1999. A university attorney reviewed the multiple court proceedings in which appellant had been involved and conducted interviews. Of particular concern was litigation regarding her mortgage, in which the district court determined appellant had lied or misrepresented the facts; her personal bankruptcy proceedings in federal court, in which she misrepresented that her husband had not filed for bankruptcy; and the failure of appellant and her husband to file federal and state income tax returns for several years. Other lawsuits in which appellant was involved were also of concern.
On December 3, 1999, the university advised appellant that effective immediately, she was relieved of all of her responsibilities as associate vice president and treasurer, she was reassigned different duties for the remainder of her contract term, and her contract would not be renewed. Between October 22, 1999, and February 11, 2000, several university officials made statements regarding the situation that were published in The Minnesota Daily, Star Tribune, the University Brief, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
sued, asserting 24 causes of action against the university, resulting in three
prior appeals to this court. The district court
ultimately granted summary judgment on the remaining claims and denied
appellant’s motion to amend and to vacate.
This appeal followed.
Appellant challenges the district court order denying her motion for amended findings and to vacate the judgment. She contends that because her appeal from an earlier ruling on her Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA) claims was pending at the time the district court entered this order, it was without jurisdiction. Peterson v. BASF Corp., 675 N.W.2d 57, 65 (Minn. 2004), pet. for cert. filed, 73 U.S.L.W. 3076 (U.S. July 16, 2004) (No. 04-81). This court has already rejected this argument in a special term order. When the appellate court rules on an issue, as a matter of policy it becomes the law of the case and should not be relitigated. See Sigurdson v. Isanti County, 448 N.W.2d 62, 66 (Minn. 1989) (holding issue decided by appellate court becomes “law of the case” and may not be relitigated in the trial court or reexamined in second appeal). We decline to reconsider this argument.
Appellant also argues that the district court abused its discretion in denying her motion to vacate the judgment pursuant to Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02(a), (f). Under Minn. R. Civ. P. 60.02(a), a judgment may be vacated due to “[m]istake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect.” The district court found that the only basis upon which appellant could be basing this claim was a “mistake” of law and that she was really seeking reconsideration. “Rule 60.02 is limited to the specific situations provided for in the rule itself and does not allow for general correction of judicial error.” Carter v. Anderson, 554 N.W.2d 110, 113 (Minn. App. 1996), review denied (Minn. Dec. 23, 1996). Appellant claims that spoliation of evidence, active collection of data by university employees, and refusal of the university to participate in its grievance process should be considered by this court under rule 60.02. Because these are claims of general judicial error, appellant has not shown that rule 60.02 is an appropriate basis for such relief. The claims have been argued from other perspectives.
Appellant, however, argues that her rule 60.02 motion was proper because she has shown that she satisfied the four-prong test under Finden v. Klass, 268 Minn. 268, 271, 128 N.W.2d 748, 750 (1964) (setting out factors to be applied in analyzing motions for relief from judgment under rule 60.02). Because appellant has not met the threshold question of showing that rule 60.02 applies, we do not reach the Finden factors.
Next, appellant sought relief under rule 60.02(f), which permits a district court to vacate a judgment for “[a]ny other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment.” This is considered a residual clause, allowing relief “only under exceptional circumstances and then, only if the basis for the motion is other than that specified under clauses (a) and (e).” Chapman v. Special Sch. Dist. No. 1, 454 N.W.2d 921, 924 (Minn. 1990). The district court ruled that such exceptional circumstances were not present because appellant’s motion raised no issues under the rule, but was an attempt to reargue her case. The essence of appellant’s argument to this court under rule 60.02(f) is based on her jurisdictional theory. Because, as discussed above, this court has already rejected appellant’s challenge to the district court’s jurisdiction, we decline to revisit that issue in the context of rule 60.02(f).
Finally, appellant argues for a variety of reasons that the district court was obligated to vacate the judgment sua sponte. These arguments have no merit.
Next, appellant contends that the district court erred in denying her motion to amend the complaint to add four counts under PELRA. In the special term order, this court ruled that because this court had affirmed dismissal of the PELRA claims in an earlier appeal, under the law-of-the-case doctrine, the claims would not be revisited and were dismissed. Accordingly, the district court did not err in denying appellant’s motion to amend the complaint to add PELRA claims.
Appellant challenges the district court’s decision to grant summary judgment on her claims under the data practices act. Statutory interpretation of the data practices act is a legal issue reviewed de novo. Star Tribune Co. v. Univ. of Minn., 683 N.W.2d 274, 279 (Minn. 2004). Summary judgment may be granted when there are no genuine issues of material fact and either party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.03.
Access to government data is regulated by the data practices act. Minn. Stat. § 13.01, subd. 3 (2002). It applies to the University of Minnesota. Minn. Stat. §§ 13.01, subd. 1, 13.02, subd. 17 (2002); Star Tribune, 683 N.W.2d at 279. Generally, there is “a presumption that government data are public and are accessible by the public for both inspection and copying,” unless explicitly classified otherwise. Minn. Stat. § 13.01, subd. 3; Annandale Advocate v. City of Annandale, 435 N.W.2d 24, 27 (Minn. 1989). Personnel data, however, are private unless falling within a category of information specifically identified as public. Minn. Stat. § 13.43, subds. 2, 4 (2002); Annandale Advocate, 435 N.W.2d at 27.
We first address whether the settlement proposal letter sent to the university by the attorney suing the institution constitutes personnel data. The letter contains information obtained from public court documents in cases in which appellant had been involved. Personnel data is defined as data “collected” on an individual based on the person’s status as an employee. Minn. Stat. § 13.43, subd. 1 (Supp. 2003). A public agency collects data by taking some “affirmative action . . . to gather or assemble data,” Westrom v. Minn. Dep’t of Labor & Indus., 686 N.W.2d 27, 34 (Minn. 2004), not when it is a mere “passive recipient” of the information. St. Peter Herald v. City of St. Peter, 496 N.W.2d 812, 814 (Minn. 1993). Because the university was a passive recipient of the letter, the district court properly ruled that the university did not “collect” this data.
Appellant also argues that the university took affirmative action to collect the data when university personnel copied documents from public court files. She further contends that even data collected from public sources can become temporarily classified as protected nonpublic data. Under the data practices act, government data are presumed public. Minn. Stat. § 13.03, subd. 1 (2002). Court documents regarding appellant’s litigation were public, and appellant has not shown that they constituted personnel data.
Appellant also contends that the district court was clearly erroneous in finding that the attorney for the former employee who informed the university of her personal litigation actually provided court documents to the university when, in fact, he only referred to them in his letter. Instead, she argues that the university itself obtained the copies of the court documents. A review of the district court order does not show that it found that the attorney actually provided documents, but instead that his letter referred to the documents.
Appellant next claims that the information supplied by the attorney was civil investigative data and was therefore confidential. Under Minn. Stat. § 13.39, subd. 2 (2002), data collected as part of an active investigation are protected nonpublic data. See Westrom, 686 N.W.2d at 33-34 (describing elements of civil investigative data). The district court ruled that the letter sent by the attorney was not part of an active investigation because it was a settlement offer in the lawsuit against appellant and the university by appellant’s former employee. See Everest Dev., Ltd. v. City of Roseville, 566 N.W.2d 341, 344 (Minn. App. 1997) (holding that settlement documents were not protected nonpublic data because they were not created for the defense of a lawsuit but for settlement). Appellant argues, however, that the district court’s ruling improperly carves out an exception for investigative work product for data gathered from public sources. There is no merit to this argument.
Next, appellant contends that the data were improperly disseminated in violation of sections of the data practices act relating to disciplinary actions. Under the act, regardless of the outcome of a disciplinary action, the existence and status of any complaints or charges against the employee are public data. Minn. Stat. § 13.43, subd. 2(a)(4). Appellant argues that in several memoranda, the university prematurely disclosed more than the “existence and status” of the investigation that is allowed to be released prior to final disposition. Id.
A data practices act violation may occur when a public employer, subject to the data practices act, publicly discloses specific allegations of poor performance gathered from complaints by students, parents, and other teachers. Navarre v. S. Washington County Sch., 652 N.W.2d 9, 22, 26 (Minn. 2002). But here the university referred to information gathered from the public court files and which was already public, not specific allegations of poor job performance. Consequently, there was no violation of Minn. Stat. § 13.43, subd. 2(a)(4).
Appellant also argues that the university improperly disclosed private data before the final disposition of the disciplinary proceeding. Under Minn. Stat. § 13.43, subd. 2(a)(5), public data include “the final disposition of any disciplinary action together with the specific reasons for the action and data documenting the basis of the action.” Final disposition occurs when the university “makes its final decision about the disciplinary action, regardless of the possibility of any later proceedings or court proceedings.” Id., subd. 2(b). Appellant asserts that in her case the final disposition occurred when the full board of regents made its decision on February 11, 2000, and that the district court erred in ruling it occurred on December 6, 1999. Even if this is correct, she cannot prevail unless private personnel data were disclosed; this issue is addressed below.
Appellant next contends that until final disposition occurred in February, Minn. Stat. § 13.43, subd. 2(a)(4), (5), limited the university’s disclosures regarding her discharge proceeding to comments concerning the “status” and “existence” of the investigation. Appellant claims the university exceeded those bounds by comments by the chair of the board of regents that she was “disappointed” and “shocked” by appellant’s problems, and by the general counsel that there were “certain misstatements and improprieties . . . involving Ms. Stephens that have resulted in the university concluding that she needs to be reassigned different work.” In analyzing this claim, we first note that only private personnel data are protected. Minn. Stat. § 13.43, subd. 4. Mental impressions of public employees formed by public officials during the course of employment do not constitute protected government data. Keezer v. Spickard, 493 N.W.2d 614, 617 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. Feb. 12, 1993); cf. Navarre, 652 N.W.2d at 25 (holding that mental impressions derived directly from “personnel data” recorded in physical form or derived directly from investigation data can constitute personnel data). As the district court held, statements by the university officials regarding mental impressions such as being shocked or disappointed do not constitute personnel data. Further, the statements from general counsel that there were certain misapprehensions and improprieties involving appellant arose from the public data in the court documents, not personnel data, and therefore cannot be considered personnel data in themselves.
Next, appellant challenges statements made by the university that she had been removed from her position as treasurer because she was not bondable. This was based on information from the university’s insurer, which in turn was based on a review of public court documents. Because the information was derived from public court documents, it does not constitute personnel data.
Next addressed is appellant’s challenge to the summary judgment on her gender and racial discrimination claims under Title 7 and the Minnesota Human Rights Act. Claims of discrimination are governed by the three-step McDonnell-Douglas test. Sigurdson, 386 N.W.2d at 719-20. “First, the plaintiff must present a prima facie case of discrimination by a preponderance of the evidence.” Id. at 720; Hubbard v. United Press Int’l, Inc., 330 N.W.2d 428, 442 (Minn. 1983). If she presents a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to present evidence of a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions. Hubbard, 330 N.W.2dat 443. If the employer satisfies the burden, the plaintiff must then demonstrate specific facts indicating that the reasons articulated by the employer were pretextual and the real reason for the adverse action was discrimination. Id.
The district court concluded that appellant failed to establish a prima facie case and that even if she had done so, the university offered a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for her discharge; namely, the judicial proceedings describing her dishonest conduct and other activities that caused her integrity to be suspect. The district court properly granted summary judgment.
Appellant makes claims regarding spoliation. These claims do not show that a genuine issue of material fact as to her discrimination claims exists or support a reversal of the district court’s grant of summary judgment.
Finally, we consider appellant’s challenge to the district court’s summary judgment on her whistleblower claim. The whistleblower act protects an employee who reports in good faith “a violation or suspected violation of any federal or state law . . . to an employer or any governmental body or law enforcement official.” Minn. Stat. § 181.932, subd. 1(a) (2002). “To establish a prima facie case of retaliatory discharge, the employee must show: ‘(1) statutorily-protected conduct by the employee; (2) adverse employment action by the employer; and (3) a causal connection between the two.’” Cokley v. City of Otsego, 623 N.W.2d 625, 630 (Minn. App. 2001) (quotation omitted), review denied (Minn. May 15, 2001).
The district court found that the only protected conduct that appellant could cite were her complaints regarding an alleged hostile work environment based on race and gender. Although the university’s termination of appellant’s employment was certainly adverse action, the court found that appellant had not introduced evidence showing a causal connection between her complaint and her discharge. Because appellant merely argues that she reported systemic discrimination against minorities and because she does not present a genuine issue of material fact, the district court properly granted summary judgment dismissing appellant’s whistleblower claim.
The district court’s decision granting summary judgment on appellant’s claims and the order denying the postjudgment motion are affirmed.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.
 Stephens v. Bd. of Regents, 2004 WL 237386 (Minn. App. Feb. 10, 2004), review denied (Minn. Mar. 30, 2004); Stephens v. Bd. of Regents, 2002 WL 1315809 (Minn. App. June 18, 2002), review denied (Minn. Aug. 6, 2002); Stephens v. Bd. of Regents, 614 N.W.2d 764 (Minn. App. 2000), review denied (Minn. Sept. 26, 2000).