For nearly 100 years, the common-law rule was that the state, as sovereign, could not be sued without its consent. However, in 1976, the Minnesota legislature passed the Minnesota State Tort Claims Act (“MSTCA”), which waives the state’s tort immunity “for personal injury . . . caused by an act or omission of an employee of the state while acting within the scope of office or employment.” The MSTCA defines “scope of office or employment” to mean that “the employee was acting on behalf of the state in the performance of duties or tasks lawfully assigned by competent authority.” This statutory definition was the focus of the Minnesota Court of Appeals’ decision in Sterry v. Minnesota Department of Corrections, issued in March 2023, in which the court held that the MSTCA’s definition of “scope of office or employment” mirrors the common-law understanding of that phrase. The Sterry decision, which will be reviewed by the Minnesota Supreme Court this term, has the potential to broaden school district tort liability under the MSTCA’s counterpart for local units of government, the Municipal Tort Claims Act.
In Sterry, a formerly incarcerated individual—Nicholas Sterry (“Sterry”)—sued the Minnesota Department of Corrections (“DOC”), alleging that a correctional officer had sexually harassed and assaulted him, and that the DOC was vicariously liable for the officer’s conduct. The DOC moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that it was immune from tort liability under the MSTCA, and the district court granted the motion. Considering the statutory language, the district court found that the correctional officer had not acted “within the scope of office or employment” under the MSTCA because the misconduct “was not part of [the officer’s] duty as a DOC employee and it certainly was not a lawful task performed at the behest of the DOC.” In reaching that finding, the district court reasoned that “the precise language of the [MSCTA’s definition of scope of employment] narrows the scope of employment for government employees more than the general scope that would apply under the common law to private-sector employees.”
On review, the Minnesota Court of Appeals interpreted the MSTCA’s definition of the scope of office or employment. As an initial matter, the court emphasized the general presumption that statutes are consistent with common law and noted the absence of any language in the MSTCA expressly abrogating the common-law concept of the scope of office or employment. Next, the court held that the only reasonable interpretation of the MSTCA’s scope-of-employment definition is consistent with the common law. Specifically, the court held that an employee acts within the scope of employment under both the statute and the common law when (1) the employee was acting as a representative or agent of their employer, (2) the act is related to the duties of the employee and occurs within work-related limits of time and place, and (3) the employee committed the tortious act while engaged in duties or tasks lawfully assigned by competent authority. Concerning the third part of the definition, the court clarified that “lawfully assigned by competent authority” means that the duties and tasks were lawfully assigned, not that the tortious act itself was an assigned duty or task.
The Court of Appeals then turned its focus to whether Sterry’s complaint stated legally sufficient tort claims against the DOC. The court held that it did, holding that Sterry had alleged facts relevant to all three parts of the statutory scope-of-employment definition: (1) at the time of the alleged sexual assault, the correctional officer was supervising Sterry as a representative of the DOC; (2) the officer was on duty, performing duties and tasks assigned by DOC; and (3) the officer was authorized, by virtue of her position, to order Sterry into the room where the assault occurred and to conduct bodily searches, and the officer used her authority to threaten Sterry with discipline and criminal charges if Sterry reported her. While the court noted that facts could develop that would undermine one or more parts of the scope-of-employment definition, the court held that Sterry’s allegations were sufficient to survive the DOC’s motion to dismiss. The Court of Appeals therefore reversed the dismissal of Sterry’s claims and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.
The Sterry decision is on appeal before the Minnesota Supreme Court, but its holding remains in effect for now. This holding has implications for school districts because the Minnesota Court of Appeals has previously held that the Municipal Tort Claims Act borrows its “scope of office or employment” definition from the MSTCA. As a result, the Sterry decision has the potential to increase the number of lawsuits brought against school districts arising out of their employees’ conduct and may heighten the risk of liability in such cases. School districts should keep this decision in mind and, if they become involved in such a lawsuit, analyze the specific facts of the case with the assistance of legal counsel to determine whether the employee’s alleged tortious conduct fell within the “scope of office or employment.”
This article is intended to provide general information with commentary. It should not be relied on as legal advice. If required, legal advice regarding this topic should be obtained from district legal counsel.
Shannon M. Smith is an attorney with the law firm of Kennedy & Graven, Chartered. For more information, please contact her at (612) 337-9302 or email@example.com.
Alemayehu Z. Ditamo is an attorney with the law firm of Kennedy & Graven, Chartered. For more information, please contact him at (612) 337-9306 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Shannon M. Smith and Alemayehu Z. Ditamo (2023). Used by permission.