This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).







Margaret DiBlasio,



Helen Murphy,





City of Saint Paul,



University of Saint Thomas, intervenor,




Filed June 20, 2006


Lansing, Judge


Ramsey County District Court

File No. C6-05-2659


Margaret DiBlasio, 1954 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105 (pro se appellant)


Helen Murphy, 1440 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105 (pro se appellant)


Manuel J. Cervantes, St. Paul City Attorney, Eric D. Larson, Assistant City Attorney, 550 City Hall and Court House, 15 West Kellogg Boulevard, St. Paul, MN 55102 (for respondent City of Saint Paul)


Scott R. Strand, Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P., 2800 LaSalle Plaza, 800 LaSalle Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55402 (for respondent University of Saint Thomas)


            Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge; Stoneburner, Judge; and Collins, Judge.*

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N


Margaret DiBlasio and Helen Murphy appeal pro se from the district court’s dismissal of their Minnesota Environmental Policy Act claim.  Because we conclude that the failure to serve a summons compels dismissal and that the thirty-day statutory period to appeal the denial of a third environmental assessment worksheet had expired, we affirm.


This appeal arises from the University of St. Thomas’s plan to expand its campus by developing an area adjoining Summit Avenue in St. Paul.  In 2001, as required by the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), the city of St. Paul, as the responsible governmental unit (RGU), initiated an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) to determine whether the impacts from the project warranted an environmental impact statement (EIS).  The city revised the project proposal in 2003 in response to public comments.  Because the revised proposal differed significantly from the previous proposal, the city prepared a second EAW to assess the project’s impacts.  The second EAW was submitted for public comment, and, in 2004, the city concluded that an EIS was unnecessary.

            Twenty-eight St. Paul residents filed a petition to initiate a third EAW, alleging procedural errors in the previous EAW.  The city denied the petition on February 15, 2005, based on its conclusion that the revised proposal resulted in fewer impacts than those considered in the previous EAWs and that the previous EAWs were adequate.

            Two of the petitioning citizens, Margaret DiBlasio and Helen Murphy, filed a pro se complaint against the city on March 16, 2005, seeking a declaratory judgment that a third EAW was required.  Although DiBlasio and Murphy served the complaint on the city on March 16, 2005, they did not serve a summons.  The city filed a motion to dismiss and for summary judgment, alleging that service was ineffective, the statute of limitations had run, the claim was barred by res judicata, and the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.  The University of St. Thomas intervened and joined the city’s motion. 

The district court dismissed the case with prejudice and, in the alternative, granted the summary-judgment motion.  DiBlasio and Murphy appeal from this judgment.



            A civil action in Minnesota is commenced when the plaintiff serves a summons on the defendant.  Minn. R. Civ. P. 3.01; Wallin v. Minn. Dep’t of Corr., 598 N.W.2d 393, 400 (Minn. App. 1999) (explaining that, although federal rules specify that action begins with filing of complaint, action in Minnesota commences with service of summons), review denied (Minn. Oct. 21, 1999).  Service in a manner not authorized by the rules of civil procedure is ineffective.  Tullis v. Federated Mut. Ins. Co., 570 N.W.2d 309, 311 (Minn. 1997).  When service of process on necessary parties is invalid, the district court does not have personal jurisdiction to resolve the controversy, and the case is properly dismissed.  Lewis v. Contracting Nw., Inc., 413 N.W.2d 154, 157 (Minn. App. 1987).  The question of whether service of process is valid is a question of law subject to de novo review.  Amdahl v. Stonewall Ins. Co., 484 N.W.2d 811, 814 (Minn. App. 1992), review denied (Minn. July 16, 1992); see also McBride v. Bitner, 310 N.W.2d 558, 561-63 (Minn. 1981) (applying de novo review when considering whether service was proper).

            We strictly apply the rules on service of process and the requirement of a summons.  Nieszner v. St. Paul Sch. Dist. No. 625, 643 N.W.2d 645, 648 (Minn. App. 2002); see also Lebens v. Harbeck, 308 Minn. 433, 434, 243 N.W.2d 128, 129 (1976) (requiring strict compliance with service rule when contesting election).  And we construe the rules related to commencement of a judicial action to provide a single, uniform course of procedure applicable to all civil actions.  Leek v. Am. Express Prop. Cas., 591 N.W.2d 507, 508-09 (Minn. App. 1999), review denied (Minn. July 7, 1999).  

            A limited exception to strict compliance has been recognized when the plaintiff has substantially complied with the rules on service and the defendant has actual notice of the law suit.  O’Sell v. Peterson, 595 N.W.2d 870, 872 (Minn. App. 1999).  Actual notice without substantial compliance, however, is insufficient to establish jurisdiction over a defendant.  Tullis, 570 N.W.2d at 311.  And the actual-notice exception to the service requirement only applies to substituted service of process at a defendant’s usual place of abode.  Turek v. A.S.P. of Moorhead, Inc., 618 N.W.2d 609, 612 (Minn. App. 2000), review denied (Minn. Jan. 26, 2001).

            The relevant facts are undisputed.  DiBlasio and Murphy failed to serve a summons on the city or the University of St. Thomas at any point in this litigation, and both entities timely raised the defense of ineffective service.  DiBlasio and Murphy contend that failure to serve a summons is a technical error that does not justify dismissal in light of their pro se status.  The law, however, does not support this argument.  The rules of service are strictly construed, and pro se status “does not entitle a party to modification of procedural rules.”  Ronay v. Ronay, 369 N.W.2d 12, 14 (Minn. App. 1985).  The procedural rule requiring service of a summons is not a mere technical rule; it constitutes a significant failure to abide by an essential part of the litigation process.  See Doerr v. Warner, 247 Minn. 98, 103, 76 N.W.2d 505, 511 (1956) (explaining that service of summons is fundamental requirement for initiation of lawsuit).  Consequently, a litigant cannot withstand a motion for dismissal by arguing that the failure to serve a summons is only a technical error.  See Year 2001 Budget Appeal of Landgren v. Pipestone County Bd. of Comm’rs, 633 N.W.2d 875, 878-79 (Minn. App. 2001) (concluding that, because timely service is jurisdictional issue, technical error in service does not defeat grounds for dismissal).

            DiBlasio and Murphy argue that the city and the University of St. Thomas received actual notice of the lawsuit when they received service of the complaint.  But the actual-notice exception only applies to cases involving substituted service, which is different from the personal service at issue in this case.  In addition, actual notice may only excuse ineffective service when the plaintiff substantially complies with the service rules.  According to the record, DiBlasio and Murphy did not attempt to serve any form of summons.  See Minn. R. Civ. P. 4.01 (stating necessary form and content of summons), 4.03 (specifying methods of serving summons).  Because this case does not involve substituted service and because the evidence does not demonstrate substantial compliance with the rules of service, actual notice of the litigation is insufficient to establish effective service and personal jurisdiction.  The district court did not err by dismissing the complaint.


            The district court dismissed the complaint with prejudice because the statutory period for appealing the denial of an EAW had expired.  Judicial review of a decision on the need for an EAW “shall be initiated within 30 days after the governmental unit makes the decision.”  Minn. Stat. § 116D.04, subd. 10 (2004); see also Minn. R. 4410.0400, subp. 4 (2005) (“Decisions by a[n] RGU on the need for an EAW . . . are final decisions and may be reviewed by a declaratory judgment action initiated within 30 days of the RGU’s decision.”).  Thus, the statutory limitation period for challenging the denial of a petition for an EAW is thirty days.  Save Our Creeks v. City of Brooklyn Park, 682 N.W.2d 639, 647-48 (Minn. App. 2004) (discussing thirty-day limitation period for commencing declaratory-judgment action challenging environmental-review process), aff’d 699 N.W.2d 307 (Minn. 2005).  The construction and application of a statutory limitation period is a question of law, which we review de novo.  Benigni v. County of St. Louis, 585 N.W.2d 51, 54 (Minn. 1998).

            The city, as the RGU, issued a decision that denied DiBlasio and Murphy’s petition for an EAW on February 15, 2005.  They had thirty days from this date to initiate judicial action against the city and the University of St. Thomas by serving them with a summons.  See Minn. R. Civ. P. 3.01 (providing that service of summons commences civil action).  They did not commence the action within thirty days, and their claim is therefore barred by the statute of limitations.  Although DiBlasio and Murphy served the city with a complaint within thirty days of the city’s decision, service of a complaint does not commence an action in Minnesota.  Because the action was never initiated and the statute of limitations had run when the city and the University of St. Thomas moved for dismissal, the district court did not err by dismissing the suit with prejudice.


* Retired judge of the district court, serving as judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.