Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1996).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Regents of the
University of Minnesota, et al.,
Filed June 9, 1998
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded;
Ramsey County District Court
File No. C1-97-271
Mark B. Rotenberg, Lorie S. Gildea, Office of the General Counsel, University of Minnesota, 325 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455 (for appellants)
Considered and decided by Peterson, Presiding Judge, Shumaker, Judge, and Foley, Judge.
*Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.
Appellants University of Minnesota and John Fetrow challenge the district court's jurisdiction to rule on certain claims related to University procedures and the district court's denial of summary judgment, claiming they are entitled to immunity. By notice of review, respondent Calvin Kobluk challenges the district court's dismissal of some of his claims. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.
Respondent Dr. Calvin Kobluk, a veterinary surgeon, was employed by the University of Minnesota as an assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Kobluk applied for tenure twice, once in 1992 and again in 1993, and was denied each time. While Kobluk's second tenure application was pending, Dr. John Fetrow, Chair of the Clinical and Population Sciences Department in the College of Veterinary Medicine, was informed of certain allegations against Dr. Kobluk. The investigation reports of these allegations were inserted into Kobluk's tenure review file. Kobluk was denied tenure in July 1994, in part because of the allegations. In June 1995, the decision to deny tenure was stayed after the University's senate judicial committee concluded that the review process had been tainted and found the allegations against Kobluk unsubstantiated. The committee recommended that all reports and reference to the allegations be removed from the review file. University President Nils Hasselmo reassigned the review to Provost Allen, who decided to deny tenure. Kobluk appealed to the senate judicial committee, which recommended by split vote another review because the committee determined that Allen considered irrelevant nonacademic conduct in his review.
Following the senate judicial committee's recommendation and reassignment of the review, Fetrow and Dr. David Thawley, both administrators who had previous responsibility for Kobluk's tenure decision, wrote letters to President Hasselmo recommending that the investigation reports be included in Kobluk's tenure review file and that his tenure be denied.
President Hasselmo rejected the senate judicial committee's recommendation for another review and, in October 1996, affirmed the denial of tenure. Kobluk appealed the denial by writ of certiorari. This court reversed the University, holding that Hasselmo violated procedural tenure regulations by communicating with Fetrow and Thawley regarding the inclusion of investigation reports in Kobluk's tenure file without notifying Kobluk. Kobluk v. Allen, No. C8-96-2562 (Minn. App. July 22, 1997).
In November 1996, Kobluk commenced the underlying action against the University of Minnesota and Fetrow for breach of contract, tortious interference with contract, defamation, and Data Practices Act violations. In September 1997, the University and Fetrow moved for summary judgment. The district court dismissed Kobluk's interference with contract claim, finding it reviewable only by certiorari to this court, but denied summary judgment on the defamation and Data Practices Act claims, finding genuine issues of material fact.
The University and Fetrow appeal from the district court's denial of summary judgment, claiming that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over claims related to the University's procedures and, in the alternative, that the University and Fetrow are entitled to immunity for their actions. Kobluk, by notice of review, claims the district court erred in finding it had no subject matter jurisdiction over his contract claims. By order dated February 17, 1998, this court declined to exercise jurisdiction over other issues in this appeal that did not relate to immunity or jurisdiction.
D E C I S I O N
A district court's order denying a summary judgment motion based on immunity and jurisdiction is appealable as a matter of right. McGowan v. Our Savior's Lutheran Church, 527 N.W.2d 830, 832 (Minn. 1995); Anderson v. City of Hopkins, 393 N.W.2d 363, 364 (Minn. 1986). On appeal from summary judgment, this court must decide if there are any genuine issues of material fact and if the district court erred in its application of the law. State by Cooper v. French, 460 N.W.2d 2, 4, (Minn. 1990).
Whether a court has subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law and is reviewed de novo. Nichols v. Borst, 439 N.W.2d 432, 433 (Minn. App. 1989). A district court's conclusions of law regarding the existence of absolute immunity are reviewed de novo. Board of Regents v. Reid, 522 N.W.2d 344, 346 (Minn. App. 1994), review denied (Minn. Oct. 27, 1994).
The University and Fetrow argue that a recent supreme court case addressing subject matter jurisdiction compels the conclusion that Kobluk's only review is by writ of certiorari to this court. In Willis v. County of Sherburne, 555 N.W.2d 277 (Minn. 1996), the court held that writ of certiorari to the court of appeals was the only method of judicial review of a discharged employee's claim that the county breached his employment contract by failing to follow procedures in an employee handbook. Willis applied the rule established in Dietz v. Dodge County, 487 N.W.2d 237 (Minn. 1992), which provides that
in the absence of an adequate method of review or legal remedy, judicial review of the quasi-judicial decisions of administrative bodies, if available, must be invoked by writ of certiorari.
Dietz, 487 N.W.2d at 239. The Willis court makes it clear that the manner in which a claim is characterized in a complaint does not change the jurisdiction analysis:
Regardless that the claim is cloaked in the mantle of breach of contract, when the alleged breach of the employment contract of a governmental employee results in termination of the claimant's employment by an executive body which does not have statewide jurisdiction--for example, a county--the claimant may contest the employer's action by certiorari alone, absent statutory authority for a different process. * * *
Willis would have us believe that his breach of employment contract count does not implicate the county's decision to discharge him. Just how a discharged employee can demonstrate the county's breach of termination and layoff procedures without implicating the county's decision to discharge escapes us.
Willis, 555 N.W.2d at 282 (emphasis in original).
The Willis court found that the district court retained jurisdiction over a defamation claim because it was "separate and distinct from the termination of his employment" and did not require inquiry into the county's discretionary termination decision. Id.
Kobluk contends that Dietz and Willis do not apply to the University because (1) the University has statewide jurisdiction and (2) a review of the University's discretionary reasons for denying tenure is not required. Kobluk cites to language in Willis that implies that the certiorari requirement only applies to executive bodies without statewide jurisdiction. Id. But Kobluk provides no support for his contention that the University has statewide jurisdiction. In fact, Minn. Stat. § 43A.02, subd. 22 (1996), characterizes the University as having "jurisdiction in specifically defined geographic areas," but not as an entity with statewide jurisdiction. The Dietz and Willis rules apply to the University.
Kobluk cites to cases recognizing the right to sue the University in district court for breach of contract, including Zahavy v. University of Minn., 544 N.W.2d 32, 42 (Minn. App. 1996) (holding that claim that University breached certain contract provisions contained in its tenure regulations should be brought in district court), review denied (Minn. May 9, 1996). But under the facts presented here, the Willis case controls.
Kobluk's contract claims and fraud claims arise out of incidents surrounding the tenure review process. Similarly, his defamation claims on appeal are too difficult to extract from the University's internal management process. Fetrow's actions were all connected to his teaching assignments or to Kobluk's tenure review. The University's Board of Regents, President, and department heads must be given latitude in making teaching assignments for those employed in various departments. A review of the University's and Fetrow's actions would require a district court to review the University's academic decision-making and tenure review processes, something the University already did when its senate judicial committee held hearings on the matter. "[T]he internal management of the University has been constitutionally placed in the hands of the regents alone." Winberg v. University of Minn., 499 N.W.2d 799, 803 (Minn. 1993). Because these claims cannot be examined without examining the University's internal management processes, the only manner of review is by writ of certiorari to this court. See Willis, 555 N.W.2d at 282 (holding that writ of certiorari to court of appeals only method of review of agency's quasi-judicial decision).
The University * * * occupies a unique position. Its governing body, the Board of Regents, is generally free of legislative, executive, or judicial interference as long as it properly executes its duties.
Reid, 522 N.W.2d at 346.
The Board of Regents has the power to control and manage the University's affairs. Winberg v. University of Minn., 499 N.W.2d 799, 801 (Minn. 1993). By permitting review by certiorari alone, we acknowledge the existence of the power granted to the University and acknowledge as well that review by certiorari provides adequate safeguards against arbitrary action by the University.
The district court does not have jurisdiction over Kobluk's claims of breach of contract, tortious interference with contract, fraud, and defamation because they arise out of the University's internal management processes. We affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment on Kobluk's contract claims and reverse the district court's denial of summary judgment on the remaining claims arising out of the University's internal management process.
But we find that the University is immune from the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act claim regarding Fetrow's disclosure to a Kansas State University department chair of the reasons for Kobluk's tenure denial, and we address that claim here.
The University contends that the July 22, 1994 letter from Senior Vice President Infante to Kobluk informing him of the reasons for his tenure denial is a public document and therefore it is entitled to immunity for Fetrow's disclosure of its contents to University faculty and to the department chair at Kansas State University. A public entity is immune from claims based on the disclosure of public information. Fieno v. State, 567 N.W.2d 739, 742 (Minn. App. 1997).
Documents that reflect "the final disposition of any disciplinary action together with the specific reasons for the action and data documenting the basis of the action" are public under the Act. Minn. Stat. § 13.43, subd. 2(a)(5) (1996). The University contends that the denial of tenure was disciplinary action in this case because it was based on specific instances of misconduct. Kobluk argues that the denial of tenure is not a disciplinary action because he could appeal his decision to the University President and Senate Judicial Committee. But University tenure regulations refer to the senior vice president's decision as the "final decision." Additionally, the possibility of an appeal is irrelevant under the Data Practices Act. See Minn. Stat. § 13.43, subd. 2(b) (providing that "a final disposition occurs when the state agency * * * makes its final decision about the disciplinary action, regardless of the possibility of any later proceedings * * *").
The document in this case was a final disposition of disciplinary action and therefore public. The University's disclosure of the contents of a public document is not a violation of the Data Practices Act. The district court erred in denying summary judgment on this claim.
We reverse the denial of summary judgment on this Data Practices Act claim. We remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion on all remaining issues. Respondent's motion to strike portions of the appellant's statement of facts is denied.
Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded; motion denied.
 See also Kobluk v. University of Minn., 574 N.W.2d 436 (Minn. 1998), which addresses issues of attorney-client privilege unrelated to the issues in this case.
 Kobluk moved to add claims and to add Thawley as a defendant and was permitted to add Thawley and to add a tortious interference with contract claim. Claims against Thawley have since been dismissed.
 The claims not addressed by this court include a defamation claim associated with a Christmas letter sent by Fetrow and Data Practices Act claims not related to the July 22, 1994 letter sent by Senior Vice President Infante.
 The University characterizes all claims on appeal as related to its tenure review or teaching assignment processes.
 Having determined this case on subject matter jurisdiction, appellants' characterization of facts played no part in our decision.