In Re the Matter of: Patrick S. Blair, et al., Respondents, vs. Duane F. Palme and Joyce A. Palme, individually, and d/b/a D&S Construction of Forest Lake, a/k/a D&S Construction, Appellants.

This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).

 

STATE OF MINNESOTA

IN COURT OF APPEALS

CX-01-778

 

 

In Re the Matter of:

 

Patrick S. Blair, et al.,

Respondents,

 

vs.

 

Duane F. Palme and Joyce A. Palme,

individually, and d/b/a D&S Construction of

Forest Lake, a/k/a D&S Construction,

Appellants.

 

Filed November 20, 2001

Reversed

Lansing, Judge

 

Chisago County District Court

File No. C3981473

 

 

Keith J. Broady, Timothy C. Matson, Abdo and Abdo, P.A., 710 Northstar West, 625 Marquette Ave., Minneapolis, MN  55402 (for respondents)

 

Daniel J. Boivin, Meshbesher & Spence, Ltd., 1616 Park Ave., Minneapolis, MN  55404 (for appellants)

 

Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge, Lansing, Judge, and Harten, Judge. 

 

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N LANSING, Judge

In litigation that arose from the sale of property, the district court found the sellers to be "responsible persons" under the Minnesota Environmental Response and Liability Act ("MERLA").  The court imposed remedies under MERLA and, despite the sellers' compliance with all remedial orders, later issued an injunction that prevented the sellers from enforcing the terms of their contract for deed with the buyers.  Because the district court did not have a legal basis to enjoin enforcement of the contract-for-deed terms, we reverse.

F A C T S

 

Duane and Joyce Palme sold an 11-acre land parcel to Patrick and Cynthia Blair in October 1996, by contract for deed.  The contract provided for a total purchase price of $325,000 and required an initial cash payment of $45,000 and continuing monthly payments.  It also required that the Blairs make balloon payments of $20,000 on October 25, 2000, and $60,000 on October 25, 2004.

After the sale, the Blairs discovered debris buried on parts of the property.  Soil samples from the property showed the presence of hazardous substances, including PAH compounds, lead, and diesel-range organics.  In October 1998, the Blairs sued the Palmes, alleging common law fraud, statutory consumer fraud, and MERLA claims for sale of contaminated property. 

While the action was pending, the Blairs requested a preliminary injunction that would relieve them of any payments due under the contract for deed.  In a written order the court weighed the factors for and against an injunction.  The court concluded that the Blairs should not be permitted to live on the property without making payments to the Palmes and denied the request.  The court noted that if the Blairs succeeded in their fraud claim they would be entitled to equitable relief from the contract. 

The fraud and consumer-fraud claims were submitted to a jury for resolution, and the MERLA claim was submitted to the jury for advisory findings.  On the fraud claim, the jury found that the sellers misrepresented material facts, but the misrepresentations were not done with intent to induce reliance or under circumstances that justified reliance.  On the consumer-fraud claim, the jury found that the Palmes did not use fraud or deceptive practice with the intent of reliance. 

Based on the jury findings, the district court dismissed the fraud and consumer-fraud claims against the Palmes.  On the MERLA claim, consistent with the jury's findings, the district court found that the Palmes were "responsible persons" under the criteria set out in MERLA.  The court ordered judgment against the Palmes for investigation and response costs, past economic losses, and MERLA-related attorney fees, expert fees, and expenses, totaling $44,638.54.  Because cleanup on the property was not complete, the district court retained jurisdiction "to enforce [the] judgment including the award of future response costs, future economic loss, if any, and future attorneys' fees and expenses." 

About one year after the trial, the Blairs filed a motion in the same action seeking declaratory relief, including a declaration that the $20,000 balloon payment in the contract for deed due on October 25, 2000, would be deferred until six months after the MPCA issues a Certificate of Completion on the property and enjoining the Palmes from canceling the contract for deed.  In the motion papers, the Blairs claimed that they were unable to obtain financing on the property to fulfill their contract-for-deed obligations because of the contamination.  The Palmes objected, arguing that the contamination was not the cause of the Blairs' inability to get financing, that injunctive relief was not available because the jury had found no common law liability, and that the MERLA claim over which the district court retained jurisdiction did not permit enjoining enforcement of the contract for deed.

            The district court granted the Blairs' motion to defer the $20,000 balloon payment until six months after the MPCA issues its certificate of completion, essentially enjoining the Palmes from enforcing the contract-for-deed terms.  Although the court analyzed other issues argued at the same hearing, the order contained no findings relating to the injunction.  The Palmes appeal the order enjoining the enforcement of the contract for deed.

D E C I S I O N

Minnesota law requires that every order granting an injunction and every restraining order must set forth the reasons for its issuance in specific terms.  Minn. R. Civ. P. 65.04 (prescribing form and scope of injunction or restraining order).  The district court's failure to provide reasons to justify the injunctive relief requires, at a minimum, that the order be remanded for findings.  The Palmes contend, however, that the injunction has no legal basis and thus a remand would be unavailing.  Because both the Blairs and the Palmes have briefed the merits of the issue rather than the deficiencies of the findings, we address the dispositive issue of whether the injunction has a legal basis.

The Minnesota legislature enacted the Minnesota Environmental Response and Liability Act ("MERLA") to impose strict liability on those responsible for harm caused by release of hazardous substances, to allow the state to clean up contamination and collect the cleanup costs later, and to fund state cleanup activity.  Musicland Group, Inc. v. Ceridian Corp., 508 N.W.2d 524, 529 (Minn. App. 1993), review denied (Minn. Jan. 27, 1994).  MERLA provides a range of remedies to enforce its provisions.  See Minn. Stat. § 115B.04, subd. 1 (2000) (imposing liability for response costs and damages resulting   from   release  or   threatened   release  of  hazardous  substance);    Minn. Stat. § 115B.05, subd. 1 (2000) (imposing liability for economic loss, death, personal injury, and disease from release of hazardous substance). 

MERLA specifically permits the attorney general to seek injunctive relief in only two instancesto compel responsible persons to perform clean-up efforts or to enjoin the release or threatened release of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants.  Minn. Stat. § 115B.18, subd. 2, 3 (2000).  Neither of these circumstances applies to the injunction that prevents enforcement of the Blairs' contract for deed.  Thus, MERLA does not provide authority for the court's exercise of injunctive power.  See Alsides v. Brown Inst., Ltd., 592 N.W.2d 468, 476 (Minn. App. 1999) (concluding that person who seeks relief under Deceptive Trade Practices Act is limited to the statutory remedy provided in the act because the statutory liability did not exist under common law).

            In addition to statutory powers, courts have inherent authority to control the performance of judicial functions.  State v. C.A., 304 N.W.2d 353, 358 (1981).  Inherent judicial power includes power that is essential to the court's functioning as a court.  In re Clerk of Lyon County Courts' Compensation, 241 N.W.2d 781, 784, 308 Minn. 172, 176 (1976).  A court's inherent power to enforce its orders is the basis for its contempt power, but that power is subject to legislative and prudential limitations.  Hampton v. Hampton, 303 Minn. 500, 502, 229 N.W.2d 139, 140 (1975).

            The facts of this case do not support the issuance of the injunction as an exercise of the court's inherent power to enforce its judgment or its remedial powers.  The district court denied the pretrial request for an injunction pending the outcome of the litigation.  See Minn. R. Civ. P. 65.01-.04 (permitting temporary restraining orders and temporary injunctions in specified circumstances).  The jury found no common law fraud or consumer fraud that would form a basis for remedies not provided under MERLA, and the district court issued an order dismissing all claims except the MERLA claim.  The district court's order for judgment contained no reference to the contract for deed or any provision for an injunction. 

The court entered judgment for money damages on the MERLA claim that included response costs, economic loss, and attorneys' fees.  The court retained jurisdiction to enforce the judgment, including future response costs, future economic loss, if any, and future attorneys' fees and expenses.  The Palmes complied with all of the court's orders and paid all amounts required by the court.  Thus, the court did not have a legal basis in this action, more than a year after entry of judgment, to enjoin the operation of the contract for deed and to defer the $20,000 balloon payment until six months after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issues its certificate of completion. 

The Blairs argue that MERLA does not extinguish their rights to other statutory and common law claims, and we agree.  See Minn. Stat. § 115B.12 (2000) (preserving common law remedies relating to pollution and contamination).  But injunctive relief is a remedy, not an independent cause of action.  Ryan v. Hennepin County, 224 Minn. 444, 448, 29 N.W.2d 385, 387 (1947).  The injunctive relief was denied pending trial, was not a part of the order at the conclusion of trial, and does not now have an underlying cause of action or any oppositional conduct that would warrant its issuance.

A district court may have broad discretion to fashion an appropriate coercive remedy in the face of noncompliance, but it cannot restructure the available remedies and expand the determination of damages 15 months after the trial is complete and the findings and conclusions are entered.  See Firefighters Local Union No. 1784 v. Stotts, 467 U.S. 561, 575-76 (1984) (holding that a court is without power to issue an injunction under the guise of enforcement when the injunction modifies relief previously granted by the court).

            Our reversal of the court's unauthorized expansion of remedies under the MERLA action implies no opinion on whether the Blairs may have an equitable defense in an action by the Palmes to cancel the contract for deed if the balloon payment is not made. See Minn. Stat. § 559.211 (2000) (permitting district court, consistent with Minn. R. Civ. P., to temporarily restrain proceedings to terminate contract for deed).

Reversed.