Management Policies Generally Will Not Abrogate Employment-At-Will

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The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently reversed a circuit court decision that awarded a physician-employee $2.2 million against his employer, Dean Health Systems (Dean). Bukstein, M.D. v. Dean Health Systems, Inc., No. 2016AP920 (Wis. Ct. App. July 20, 2017) (recommended for publication). The dispute revolved around whether Bukstein was an employee at-will who Dean could terminate for any reason, with or without cause, without being subject to a breach-of-employment contract claim.

Background

Bukstein initially signed an employment agreement with Dean that confirmed that Buckstein was an at-will employee.  After an investigation into allegations of inappropriate touching of patients, Dean fired Buckstein “without cause,” pursuant to the at-will provision in the initial agreement.  Bukstein sued, arguing that one of Dean’s management policies modified his at-will employment status, and afforded him greater employment protection from termination. Buckstein argued that the policy “‘change[d] the employment relationship by creating a ‘contract separate from or supplemental to the [employment agreement].’”  The decision did not identify relevant content of the policy at issue.    

Court’s Decision

The court of appeals rejected Bukstein’s argument in one fell swoop, stating that “[t]he problem with Bukstein’s reliance on the [management] policy is that, under controlling case law, the policy does not modify Dean’s right to terminate Bukstein under the at-will provision in the employment contract.”  The court explained that a policy such as the one in this case “does not modify or take precedence over an at-will employment agreement” unless the “only when” rule applies.

The “only when” rule provides that policies “alter an established at-will employment relationship ‘only when’ the policy ‘contains express provisions from which it can reasonably be inferred that the parties intended to bind each other to a different employment relationship’ than the established at-will relationship.’” The court stated that Bukstein failed to point to any language in Dean’s management policy that could support a reasonable inference that the parties intended to change their at-will employment relationship.  Therefore, the court held that Dean did not breach its contract with Bukstein when it relied on the at-will provision in the employment agreement to terminate Bukstein “without cause.”

Employer Take-Away

Employers that issue policies governing the employment relationship, such as policies setting the duration of employment or conditions upon which it may terminate employees, should carefully examine the policy language to determine whether that language could trigger the “only when” rule. A decision from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Ferraro v. Koelsch, 124 Wis.2d 154, 163-65, 368 N.W.2d 666 (1985), gives a few examples of the kinds of polices that might trigger the “only when” rule.  Such policies include those that (1) govern employees in exchange for “continued employment,” (2) establish a layoff procedure based on seniority, and (3) provide that “discharge [will] only be for ‘just cause.’”

Associate Olivia Pietrantoni assisted in researching and writing this post.

Seventh Circuit Clarifies Applicability of Economic Loss Doctrine to Liability Insurance Coverage

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The Seventh Circuit recently clarified the potential impact of Wisconsin’s Economic Loss Doctrine on the availability of liability insurance coverage for commercial insureds facing defective product claims.  See Haley et al. v. Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork Co. et al., Nos. 16-3563 & 16-3648 (7th Cir. 2017).  In holding that coverage was available for the defective residential windows claims at issue in this case, the Seventh Circuit concluded that Wisconsin common law requires a case-by-case analysis to determine liability insurance coverage for underlying claims subject to the Economic Loss Doctrine, thus rejecting the more broad proposition that any claim subject to the doctrine is per se not covered.

The Economic Loss Doctrine is a common law rule that has been adopted by the Wisconsin courts to allocate monetary risks arising from the purchase of commercial goods between buyers and sellers.  The rule eliminates a purchaser’s access to tort-based causes of actions to recover purely economic losses from the manufacturer of a defective product.  Injuries to people or third-party property continue to be redressable in tort, but purely economic claims (i.e., loss of economic value of the product itself and/or consequential monetary loss arising from the product’s failure to function as expected) can be compensated only under contract law. 

Wisconsin courts also have expanded the Economic Loss Doctrine by adopting the integrated-system rule. Under that rule, when a defective product has been incorporated with other products to function cohesively as an “integrated system,” the Economic Loss Doctrine applies to preclude tort-based claims for damage to any other component of that system.  See, e.g., Wausau Tile, Inc. v. County Concrete Corp., 226 Wis. 2d 235, 249-53 (1999).

In March 2016, the Wisconsin Supreme Court applied the Economic Loss Doctrine and the correlating integrated-system rule to hold that no liability insurance coverage was available for defective product claims brought against a pharmaceutical supplement supplier.  See Wis. Pharmacal Co. v. Neb. Cultures of Cal., Inc., 367 Wis. 2d 221 (2016).  In that case, Pharmacal was sued for producing defective daily supplement tablets; the tablets as a whole were alleged to be defective because they contained an incorrect probiotic bacterial species. Pharmacal had obtained that probiotic species from a downstream supplier and combined it with other ingredients when formulating the defective tablets.

Pharmacal’s liability insurance policies included standard coverage for damage to other property, but excluded coverage for damage to Pharmacal’s own property.  The Pharmacal Court, citing the Economic Loss Doctrine and the integrated-system rule, concluded that no coverage was available.  The Court reasoned that, although only one ingredient used in the supplement tablets was defective, the ingredients were combined into an inseparable integrated system.  As a result, damage to any component of the tablets was considered damage to Pharmacal’s own property.

Based on the Pharmacal decision, Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork’s insurers argued that they had no obligation to defend the defective windows claims at issue. They started from the proposition that in prior decisions Wisconsin courts have applied the Economic Loss Doctrine to defective windows claims, holding that windows form an integrated system with the other structural components of a house.  They then argued that, just as Pharmacal’s insurer had no duty to cover damage to an integrated system, they had no duty to cover the alleged damages to any component of the plaintiffs’ homes.

The Seventh Circuit rejected the broad proposition that Pharmacal required an integrated system analysis under all circumstances.  In doing so, the Court noted that whether insurance coverage exists depends instead on the nature of the underlying plaintiff’s alleged loss.  In contrast to the claims at issue in Pharmacal, where the plaintiff sought to replace the supplement tablets entirely because the defective ingredient was indistinguishable from the non-defective ingredients, here the class-action plaintiff homeowners were seeking repairs to identifiable components of the houses other than the defective windows themselves.  The Seventh Circuit accordingly concluded that the resulting damage to the drywall, wood framing, and brick surrounding the defective windows constituted damage to “other property” under the policy language, thus triggering the insurers’ coverage obligations notwithstanding that the claims were subject to Wisconsin’s Economic Loss Doctrine.

Assuming the Seventh Circuit has interpreted the Pharmacal decision correctly, Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork serves as a significant clarification regarding the impact of the Economic Loss Doctrine on liability insurance coverage under Wisconsin law.  As a result, commercial insureds facing product defect claims alleging damages to distinguishable components of integrated systems should be able to assert the Economic Loss Doctrine as an absolute defense to any tort-based causes of action without in turn eliminating their liability insurers’ obligation to defend the litigation.

From a practical standpoint, it is also noteworthy that in this case the Western District of Wisconsin federal court denied the insurers’ request to stay the underlying product defect lawsuit when they intervened to litigate the related insurance coverage issues for the matter.  As a result, the insurers were forced to continue to pay to defend Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork in the ongoing defective windows litigation while simultaneously seeking a ruling that they were not obligated to do so under their liability insurance policies.

Going forward, therefore, insurers may be better off litigating any defense coverage disputes for underlying product defect claims in Wisconsin state courts, where it is standard practice for courts to stay the underlying litigation pending resolution of an insured’s defense obligations and where an insurer may have more success in arguing that the Seventh Circuit inappropriately narrowed the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s holding in Pharmacal.

The Not-So-Scenic Pit: Court Reaffirms Limited Local Control Over Certain Solid Waste Facilities

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The issue of local control is once again front and center in a recent Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision, Scenic Pit LLC v. Village of Richfield, No. 2015AP2291 (June 28, 2017) (recommended for publication).

Scenic Pit LLC sought to open a clean fill solid waste facility in the Village of Richfield. Such facilities accept disposal of only certain low hazard wastes. The Village took the position that Scenic needed to obtain several local approvals, including for rezoning the property, for a conditional use permit, and for a construction storm water and erosion control permit. Id., ¶4. Scenic applied for construction permits from the Village, but it did not attempt to acquire the storm water and erosion control permit or the rezoning of the property. Id., ¶4. The Village denied Scenic’s application for construction permits. Id.

Scenic also applied for and obtained a Wisconsin Pollution Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) general permit from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for construction site storm water runoff and erosion control. Id.

When the Village denied the construction permits, Scenic sued seeking a declaratory judgment that it was not required to comply with local approvals and an injunction ending the Village’s interference with its proposed plan. Id., ¶5. Both Scenic and the Village moved for summary judgment. Id.

The circuit court granted summary judgment to the Village, on the ground that under the authority of Willow Creek Ranch, LLC v. Town of Shelby, 2000 WI 56, 235 Wis. 2d 409, 611 N.W.2d 693, Scenic was required to comply with all local ordinances unless “‘state and local interests are diametrically opposed,’” which the court found they were not. Id.

On appeal, Scenic argued that the DNR had exempted clean fill facilities from needing to obtain the kind of local approvals the Village was requiring. The court of appeals agreed with Scenic. The court explained that the legislature has designated the regulation of solid waste facilities as a matter of statewide concern. Id., ¶8. While a municipality may regulate matters of statewide concern, it may only do so as long as local ordinances do not conflict with state law. Id.

The court relied heavily on DeRosso Landfill Co. v. City of Oak Creek, 200 Wis. 2d 642, 547 N.W.2d 770 (Wis. 1996), which it explained was directly on point. The DeRosso court had previously determined that the statutory and regulatory scheme allowed DNR to exempt low hazard waste facilities from local requirements that applied to most other waste facilities and that this scheme amounted to an express withdrawal of municipal power to require local approvals. Id., ¶11. 

The Village attempted to distinguish DeRosso on the ground that the precedent does not apply to local zoning. That, the Village argued, placed its dispute with Scenic beyond the scope of DeRosso decision. Id., ¶14-19. The court disagreed, explaining that the precedent on which the Village was relying, Willow Creek Ranch, LLC v. Town of Shelby, 2000 WI 56, 235 Wis. 2d 409, 611 N.W.2d 693, was inapposite and simply did not address the issue raised here, nor did it conflict with the rationale in DeRosso. Id., ¶¶14-19.

After holding that DeRosso controlled and that any local approvals required to construct Scenic’s facility were preempted, the court went on to examine whether the Village’s zoning ordinance and construction storm water and erosion control regulations were local approvals. Id., ¶19. The court concluded that they were, based on the very broad definition of “local approval” found at Wis. Stat. § 289.33(3)(d). Id., ¶29.

The takeaway from this case is that municipalities have limited control over the siting of certain solid waste facilities such as low-hazard clean fill facilities. However, the court was careful to point out that DNR regulations still control siting of such facilities. As the court explained, “[l]eaving the regulation of clean fill facilities to DNR may or may not be good policy, but it is what the legislature and DNR have done through statute and administrative rule (as interpreted by the supreme court.)” Id., ¶24.

WI Courts Continue To Limit Criminal Expungement, Even as Legislature Considers Expanding Scope

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In May, Representatives Steffer (R-Howard) and Hoyke (D-Milwaukee) introduced 2017 AB 331 in the Wisconsin Assembly. The proposed legislation would change current Wisconsin law to make expungement available to those previously convicted of a crime or who were ineligible for expungement at the time their case was resolved, and it would expand the number of defendants who can seek expungement. However, this legislative proposal is at odds with the current trend in Wisconsin courts interpreting existing expunction law.

Wisconsin’s current expungement statute, Wis. Stat. § 973.015, allows courts, at the time of sentencing, to order a defendant’s conviction to be expunged after “successful completion” of a sentence, if the defendant is under age twenty-five at the time of conviction and the offense has a maximum period of imprisonment of six years or less. This statute gives the court a chance to “shield youthful offenders from some of the harsh consequences of criminal convictions.” State v. Matasek, 2014 WI 27, ¶42.

The combination of Wisconsin’s Open Records Law and the availability of court records online through the Consolidated Court Automation Program (CCAP) means that anyone with Internet access—read: nearly everyone—can easily obtain criminal history and case history from any Wisconsin court. Without expungement, convictions (whether of the original charge or a lesser, amended charge), charges that do not lead to convictions, and dismissed charges are all viewable by prospective employers, admissions officers, landlords, in-laws, etc. This access has practical consequences. For example, the American Bar Association has identified 38,000 statutes that impose collateral consequences for those with criminal convictions—of those, nearly half negatively impact employment opportunities. State v. Ozuna, 2017 WI 64, ¶ 39 (A.W. Bradley, J., dissenting).

While the purpose and scope of Wis. Stat. § 973.015 seem straightforward at first glance, the law contains ambiguities that courts have interpreted to limit access to expungement. Recent court cases have featured debates over what “expunge” and “successful completion” mean within the statutory context. The judicial trend has been to answer these questions in favor of narrowing the availability and scope of expungement under Wisconsin law.

The committee notes to Wis. Stat. § 973.015 define “expunge” as “to strike or obliterate from the record all references to the defendant’s name and identity.” Comm. Note to Wis. Stat. § 973.015(3) (citing 67 Atty. Gen. 301). But recent decisions have limited the efficacy of expungement in practice. Yes, the criminal record is sealed, with access barred absent a court order—but the police and some other governmental entities can still view the arrest. The court records still exist despite being removed from CCAP and can still be accessed by some individuals. Additionally, the record is still accessible in the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Crime Information Bureau (CIB) database and the Criminal Justice Information Services Division of the federal Department of Justice’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.

Moreover, under State v. Leitner, 2002 WI 77, courts can use information from judicial records, Department of Corrections files, and police reports relating to a prior, expunged conviction to formulate the sentence for a subsequent conviction, even though the record of the earlier conviction was “obliterate[d].” The Leitner Court clarified that, while § 973.015 bars formal consideration of a prior, expunged conviction, it does not otherwise “shield a misdemeanant from all of the future consequences of the facts underlying a[n expunged] record of a conviction,” so long as “those facts are not obtained from expunged court records.” Leitner, 2002 WI 77,38.

In one recent decision, the Supreme Court expanded even further the acceptable use at sentencing of underlying facts from an expunged record. In State v. Allen, 2017 WI 7 (Feb. 9, 2017), the criminal background check contained in the Pre-Sentence Investigation Report detailed the incident behind the defendant’s ostensibly obliterated record: “This incident involved a fight with another boy at high school and he was charged because the other boy lost a tooth in the fight.” Id., ¶10. Although the report acknowledged that the record was “officially expunged,” the circuit court sentenced more harshly based on the fact of prior offense, noting that Allen “had an opportunity to learn something from that [occasion].” Id., ¶12. The Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court, holding that, even where a record is expunged, many (if not all) of the incriminatory details are still available for a sentencing court’s review and may factor into the court’s subsequent sentencing decision.

In another recent decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court further limited the availability of expungement. State v. Ozuna, 2017 WI 64, addressed another ambiguity in Wis. Stat. § 973.015: where expungement automatically occurs upon the successful completion of a probation sentence, who decides what “successful” means? Under the terms of his plea agreement, Ozuna’s convictions for criminal damage to property and disorderly conduct were to be expunged once he successfully completed probation. At the end of Ozuna’s probation, the DOC filed a “Verification of Satisfaction of Probation Conditions for Expungement” with the circuit court, indicating that Ozuna had “successfully completed” his term of probation. Notwithstanding the DOC’s determination, the circuit court disregarded the DOC form and denied Ozuna’s expungement. The circuit court based its decision on Ozuna’s receipt of an underage drinking citation—in violation of a no-alcohol probation rule.

The question on appeal was narrow: had Ozuna successfully completed probation, entitling him to expungement? Ozuna’s brief to the Supreme Court pointed out that, “upon successful completion of the sentence the detaining or probationary authority shall issue a certificate of discharge which shall be forwarded to the court of record and which shall have the effect of expunging the record.” Under the statute, he argued, the expungement process is ‘self-executing’ once the probation officer determines the sentence is complete.

Ozuna relied on State v. Hemp, 2014 WI 129, and State v. Matasek, 2014 WI 27. Under Hemp, a probation officer was given discretion to determine whether or not probation had been successfully completed. Moreover, once the officer determined the sentence was completed, expungement would be automatic, or self-executing. Under Matasek, the decision of expungement should be made at the sentencing stage, rather than after completion of the sentence. In other words, the circuit court’s role is before the sentence is served, and the probation officer’s role is after. In response, the State claimed that Ozuna had not successfully completed his probation sentence, differenting him from the defendants in Hemp and Matasek, who had done so.

The Supreme Court sided with the State. Its reasoning was simple. The statute says a record can be expunged “upon successful completion” of the sentence—here, probation. Successfully completing his probation required Ozuna to follow all of its requirements. Because Ozuna did not follow the no-drinking conditions of his probation, he did not successfully complete his probation. It did not matter that the DOC indicated otherwise. Nor did it matter that expungement is typically self-executing. What controlled the outcome of the case was that “Ozuna did not meet the criteria for expungement, because he did not satisfy the conditions of his probation.” 2017 WI 64, ¶19.

While the courts have consistently limited expungement, the legislature continues to consider changes in the opposite direction. A series of failed legislative efforts last session would have expanded the expungement statute. AB 1005 would have allowed defendants to petition for expungement of records related to a criminal prosecution after either acquittal or dismissal of charges. AB 1004 would have required expungement of records related to a criminal prosecution where the defendant was found not guilty or the conviction was reversed on appeal. And AB 1008 would have allowed courts to consider expungement after a defendant served their sentence, rather than only at the sentencing hearing.

In light of these failed measures, the prospects for 2017 AB 331 remain unclear. Unlike last session’s proposals, AB 331 has bipartisan sponsorship, but that does not mean it will gain sufficient support to become law. In the meantime, while the expungement statute appears straightforward, defendants should be cautious, bearing in mind judicially imposed limitations.

Law clerk Charles Ureña assisted in researching and writing this post.

Discharged Police Officer Has No Constitutional Entitlement to Pay During Pendency of His Appeal

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As we reported in November 2016, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld a decision by the Milwaukee City Board of Fire and Police Commissioners (“Board”) to terminate the employment of Milwaukee Police Department (“MPD”) Officer Daniel Vidmar for falsifying a document to take possession of an unclaimed dirt bike from MPD inventory. While Officer Vidmar did not seek Wisconsin Supreme Court review of that decision, the court of appeals’ decision ended only one of Officer Vidmar’s legal challenges arising out his termination.

In a parallel federal case asserting due process and state law wage claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently slammed the door on another of Vidmar’s related challenges to his termination. Milwaukee Police Ass’n v. Flynn, No. 16-3743, 2017 WL 2962017 (7th Cir. July 12, 2017). The federal claims advanced by Vidmar and other discharged officers alleged they were denied due process when the City of Milwaukee terminated their pay and benefits upon discharge, even though they had not yet exhausted their right to challenge their terminations by appeals to the Board.

The Seventh Circuit concluded that the discharged officers had no entitlement to pay during the pendency of their appeals. As the court framed its holding, under Wisconsin law the former officers had no “property interest” in their employment once they were discharged for cause. 2017 WL 2962017 at *7. The court rejected the officers’ assertion that the chief’s “authority is limited to suspending a member’s police powers pending a trial before the Board,” concluding that the argument was “directly contradicted by the language of the statute.” Id. at *4. Instead, the court construed the statute to provide that the chief’s decision to terminate the officers was a final employment action, subject to the officers’ right to appeal the decision to the Board. As the court described it, the statute clearly provides that the officers’ property interest in their employment “is lost at the first juncture,” that is, with the chief’s decision to terminate for cause, while the discharged officer had the “opportunity to reclaim his property interest in employment on appeal after a trial.” Id. at *5.

Although not cited by the court, Wis. Stat. § 62.50(22) would have entitled the discharged officers to back pay if they had successfully challenged their discharge. This access to back pay plainly factors into the court’s statement about the officers’ opportunity to “reclaim” their property interests. Additionally, as the court noted, under Wis. Stat. § 62.50(18) an officer suspended for a period of time without pay is entitled to continue to be paid until exhaustion of the appeal. However, this provision does not apply to discharged officers.

The Seventh Circuit’s decision addresses Wis. Stat. § 62.50, which applies only to the City of Milwaukee Board. However, the statutory language of Wis. Stat. § 62.13, which governs all other municipal Boards of Police and Fire Commissioners, appears indistinguishable. Wis. Stat. § 62.13(5)(h), just like Wis. Stat. § 62.50(18), provides that an officer may not be deprived of compensation while suspended pending disposition of charges but does not address discharged officers. The latter are entitled to have all lost pay restored only if the charges are not sustained. Wis. Stat. § 62.13(5)(e). Therefore, the Seventh Circuit’s decision should not be viewed as peculiar to the City of Milwaukee.

Notably, the Seventh Circuit decision does not mark the end of Vidmar’s collateral attacks on his discharge. Presently pending before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals is Milwaukee Police Association v. City of Milwaukee, No. 2016AP1573, an appeal by Vidmar and his collective bargaining unit from a judgment dismissing their challenge to the Board’s compliance with political affiliation and training requirements set by Wis. Stat. § 62.50(1)(h) and Milwaukee City Ordinance § 314. Among other things, in that matter Vidmar seeks judgment declaring that his discharge was “unlawful” because the City’s appointment of Board members did not meet these requirements. So the Vidmar discharge matter has not yet officially reached the end of the road.

If you have any questions about the PFC disciplinary process, contact a member of Stafford Rosenbaum LLP’s Government Law Team members.

Court of Appeals Issues Decision in O’Donnell Park Parking Structure Litigation

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On July 11, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals addressed a couple of notable legal issues in litigation arising out of the O’Donnell Park Parking Structure panel collapse.  Wosinski et al. v. Advance Cast Stone Co. et al., Nos. 2014AP1961, 2213, 2274, 2660, 2015AP1212 (Ct. App. 2017).  Steven and Amy Wosinski, their son Eric, and their son’s friend, Jared Kellner, were on their way to Summerfest in June 2010 when a decorative concrete panel fell from the side of the parking structure.  Jared was killed, Amy suffered severe ankle trauma that resulted in a partial leg amputation, Eric’s leg was fractured, and Steven incurred significant emotional distress from witnessing the event.  The Kellner estate and the Wolinskis subsequently filed wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits against a number of parties, including Advance Cast Stone Company (“ACS”), the entity responsible for installing the decorative concrete panels when the garage was built in the late 1980’s.

ACS’s Statute of Repose Defense

Prior to trial, ACS moved for summary judgment on the ground that the accident occurred well beyond Wisconsin’s 10-year statute of repose for improvements to real property (Wis. Stat. § 893.89).  The trial court denied the motion.  It found that there was a material issue of fact as to whether ACS concealed or misrepresented the defective and deficient manner in which the concrete panel was installed and, therefore, fell within an exception to the repose statute for parties who commit fraud, concealment, or misrepresentation (Wis. Stat. § 893.89(4)(a)).  As a result, the court allowed all of the plaintiffs’ causes of action against ACS to proceed, even those based on allegations of ACS’s negligent installation of the panel rather than the subsequent concealment and misrepresentation of those negligent installation activities.

At trial, the jury determined that ACS had used a negligent installation method that was not safe for the size of the concrete panel per the building codes in effect at the time and, therefore, was liable for 88% of the plaintiffs’ compensatory damages.  The jury also concluded that ACS’s failure to follow the building design plan by employing this suspect and defective installation method, combined with its subsequent concealment and misrepresentation of its negligent installation activities, demonstrated a “heightened state of mind” that goes beyond ordinary negligence, justifying an award of punitive damages.  The trial court denied ACS’s statute-of-repose defense based on the jury’s finding that ACS had concealed and misrepresented its defective installation of the concrete panel.  ACS appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.  Specifically, the court highlighted (1) the jury’s findings that the final As-Built drawings filed with Milwaukee County reflected a design inconsistent with the method actually employed by ACS, and (2) ACS employee testimony that the company chose not to document the construction design changes in writing, despite being contractually obligated to submit written change orders to the County for approval and to maintain accurate As-Built drawings in the public file.  These facts were sufficient to prove that ACS’s conduct fell squarely within the exception to the statute of repose for parties who engage in concealment and misrepresentations, and the Court of Appeals affirmed that the exception operates to preserve all causes of action against the offending party, even those based on allegations independent of the fraud, concealment, or misrepresentations that triggered the exception.

Wosinski serves as an important warning to parties engaging in reckless or nefarious conduct that they likely will not be afforded the same time-limitation defenses as parties that, at worst, have acted negligently.  Here, for example, ACS ended up with a judgment of over $10 million in damages arising from its negligent installation of the concrete panel, though liability for those claims very well may have been barred by the statute of repose had ACS not subsequently concealed and misrepresented its construction method.

ACS’s Insurance Coverage Claim Against Liberty

Concurrent with the plaintiffs’ wrongful death and personal injury claims, ACS also was engaged in a dispute with Liberty, its liability insurance carrier, regarding defense and indemnification coverage for the plaintiffs’ claims.  Liberty had agreed to defend ACS under a reservation of rights, asserting its position that the negligence claims were barred by the statute of repose and that the allegations of fraud, concealment, and misrepresentation not subject to the repose statute would otherwise fall under the policies’ intentional acts exclusion.

Interestingly, Liberty did not file a pre-trial declaratory judgment motion seeking a ruling on its defense obligations or a motion to bifurcate the coverage issues from the liability issues.  Liberty did, however, assert its coverage position in its pre-trial report by proposing special verdict questions to be presented to the jury regarding the fraud, concealment, and misrepresentation allegations pending against ACS.  The plaintiffs and ACS both objected to Liberty’s proposed jury questions and moved to bifurcate all coverage issues from the liability trial.  The trial court granted the motion to bifurcate, holding that Liberty was not permitted to participate at trial because its strategy would jeopardize ACS’s defense, particularly with regard to punitive damages.

After trial, Liberty filed a number of post-verdict motions, including a request for a declaration that it owed no duty to indemnify in light of the jury’s findings regarding ACS’s concealment and misrepresentations.  The trial judge denied Liberty’s motions, finding not only that there was indemnification coverage as a matter of law for the damages arising from ACS’s negligent installation activities, but also that Liberty’s pre-trial conduct amounted to a breach of both the duty to defend and the duty of good faith and fair dealing it owed to ACS.  The trial court concluded that Liberty was liable for all damages that naturally flowed from its bad-faith conduct and was therefore obligated to pay the full compensatory and punitive damages award against ACS—in excess of $39 million—despite the $10 million coverage limit on ACS’s policies with Liberty.  Liberty appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s holding that coverage was triggered under the Liberty policies based on the jury’s conclusion that ACS had negligently installed of the concrete panel.  However, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling that Liberty’s decisions not to seek bifurcation and to assert its coverage positions at trial had breached the defense obligations it owed to ACS.  The Court held that the focal point of the duty of defend is whether or not the insurer has provided the insured a defense at all, and that Liberty’s decision to provide a defense under a reservation of rights was an acceptable approach under Wisconsin law.  The Court went on to explain that an insurer’s duty of good faith and fair dealing is separate and distinct from its defense obligations, and that the lower court overstepped its authority in holding that Liberty’s litigation strategy had been employed in bad faith because ACS had not filed a bad-faith tort claim against Liberty.  The Court vacated the order obligating Liberty to pay the full $39+ million damages amount and remanded for determination of what amount of the damages award fell within the $10 million in coverage afforded by the Liberty policies.

This holding demonstrates the imperative for a party to properly plead its claims and, if necessary, amend its causes of actions as litigation progresses.  Had ACS properly placed Liberty’s litigation conduct before the court by amending its claims to add a bad-faith claim, this proceeding may have resulted in the Court of Appeals affirming the trial court decision requiring Liberty to pay all $39+ million in damages.  Instead, ACS now faces the potential of having to pay a substantial portion of the verdict out of its own pocket, as well as having to invest additional time and resources into litigating Liberty’s alleged bad faith conduct in future proceedings.

Wisconsin Court of Appeals Upholds Municipal Snowplowing Against Public Purpose Doctrine Challenge

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The Town of Argonne is a small community in northern Wisconsin, near Michigan’s upper peninsula. For more than 60 years, the Town has removed snow from residents’ private driveways upon request. The Town handled snow removal pursuant to contracts, funding the work through fees paid for the service and not through tax revenues. The Town’s road-crew employees performed the contracted snow removal work, which brought in more fee revenue than the work cost to perform. The Town did not provide snow removal services for private roads or parking lots. In 2014, the Town adopted a resolution enunciating this longstanding policy. Id.

In 2015, three local residents engaged in the business of snow plowing brought a declaratory judgment action seeking to invalidate the Town’s resolution. The plaintiffs alleged that the Town’s snow plowing work served no public purpose because private companies were available to do such work. Generally speaking, no local government may legislate on a matter that does not serve a public purpose. See Town of Beloit v. County of Rock, 2003 WI 8, ¶21, 259 Wis. 2d 37, 657 N.W.2d 344. Both the plaintiffs and the Town moved for summary judgment.

The circuit court granted the plaintiffs’ motion. The court acknowledged that Wis. Stat. § 86.105 specifically authorizes municipalities to contract for snow removal from private driveways. And it recognized that the Town did not rely on tax revenue for removing snow from private driveways. Nonetheless, the court agreed with plaintiffs’ argument that, because private entities were available to provide snow plowing services, the Town’s contracts to do so served no public purpose and were therefore not authorized by law.

The court of appeals disagreed. The court explained that under the public purpose doctrine, public funds can be expended only for public purposes. Samz v. Town of Argonne, No. 2015AP267 (Wis. Ct. App. April 11, 2017) (per curiam), ¶7. A court is not to overrule the determination of what constitutes a public purpose unless that determination is “‘manifestly arbitrary or unreasonable.’” Id. (quoted source omitted). The court concluded that the Town’s determination that there was a public purpose in contracting for snow removal from private driveways was neither arbitrary nor unreasonable, citing numerous examples of how such plowing benefited the public. Id., ¶8. The court also distinguished the Town’s resolution from actions invalidated in prior court decisions, because, in this case, the Town did not rely on taxpayer funding to conduct the challenged service. Id., ¶¶9-10.

Importantly, the court explicitly rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that no public benefit can exist where a private entity could provide the same services the municipality is undertaking. Id., ¶12. The court cited prior case law rejecting this broad proposition, and explained that such a holding would put courts in the unworkable position of determining whether there were sufficient private services available to obviate a public purpose. Id., ¶¶12-14. While this case was decided per curiam—without one judge acknowledging authorship of the opinion—and therefore lacks precedential value under Wis. Stat. § 809.23(3), the decision pulls together a number of prior decisions and clearly asserts that the public purpose doctrine is not defeated any time a municipality engages in services that a private entity could alternatively provide.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Decision Raises Fair Dealership Law Questions Beyond Municipal Liability

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The primary issue in Benson v. City of Madison, 2017 WI 65, is clearly the question of whether the Wisconsin Fair Dealership Law (“WFDL”) reaches contractual relationships involving municipalities. As discussed here, this is an issue of first impression, and the Court’s holding has broad implications.

There are, however, additional aspects of the decision worth consideration. Three in particular bear mention.

First, the Wisconsin Supreme Court had not heard a WFDL case in a while. In the interim, the composition of the Court changed substantially, and that turnover yielded a majority oriented toward a more free-market paradigm. Some commentators have wondered how the WFDL would be applied by the current Court. Benson suggests that in many respects not much has changed. The Benson majority, joined by all five Justices perceived as more conservative, follows settled law granting the WFDL a broad construction. (Indeed, by holding that municipalities are covered by the WFDL, the majority significantly expands the law’s scope.) And it firmly forecloses arguments that a party can contract around the WFDL, nullifying a contractual provision that the City of Madison cited as exculpatory. See 2017 WI 65, ¶48.

Second, the Court shed a little light on the doctrinal Gordian knot at the heart of most WFDL litigation. The vast majority of WFDL cases turn on the question of whether the parties’ relationship constitutes a “community of interest.” This has always been a vague standard. Three decades ago, the Court identified two “guideposts” for this inquiry: “continuing financial interest” and “interdependence.” Ziegler Co. v. Rexnord, Inc., 139 Wis. 2d 593, 604-05, 407 N.W.2d 873 (1987). The Ziegler Court also identified ten, non-exclusive facets of a relationship that might shed light on one or both guideposts. See id. at 606. Lower courts have been somewhat vexed by applying the various facets—and others that might seem relevant in individual cases—to the guideposts. Benson provides some wiggle room, noting that the Ziegler facets need not all be measured in every case, because “it is more accurate to say that some or all ‘may’ be considered; the factors are meant to be a helpful aid in addressing the overriding community of interest question, not an unwieldy burden.” Benson, 2017 WI 65, n.15.

Third, the Court’s newest Justice, Dan Kelly, wrote a separate concurring opinion to, in his words, address “one persnickety point.” Id., ¶64 (Kelly, J., concurring). But his point is not a minor one: he disagrees with the majority about what goods and services should be considered the subject of the contract that binds the parties in a dealership. Justice Kelly believes that only those goods and services that belong to the grantor (here, the City of Madison) can be considered part of the dealership, while the majority opinion cites both those and additional goods and services provided wholly by the dealer (here, the golf pros). See id., ¶¶65-66.  The fact that Justice Kelly raised this issue and that none of the other five Justices in the majority joined his concurrence can be read to suggest that a majority of the Court—at least four Justices—disagree with his reading of the statute and believe that a dealer can bring its own goods and services into a dealership relationship. That issue was not decisive here, but it could loom large in a future dispute about application of the WFDL (and in calculating damages due to the golf pros on remand).

Wisconsin Supreme Court Holds Municipalities Are Subject to Wisconsin Fair Dealership Law

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In a shocking decision that will increase the cost of local governance and limit the ability of local governments to control their own affairs, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held last week that the Wisconsin Fair Dealership Law (“WFDL”) applies to municipalities. Benson v. City of Madison, 2017 WI 65. The remainder of this post discusses the municipal law implications of the decision; a companion post addresses additional aspects of the decision of interest to those who rely upon or follow the evolution of the WFDL.

The City of Madison owns four municipal golf courses. Beginning in 1977, the City contracted with golf pros, to operate, manage and provide services at the City-owned courses. Under the contracts, the golf pros were each responsible for one course, at which they collected green fees, hired and managed attendants, supervised golfing, operated the clubhouse and pro shop, sold concessions, and gave lessons; City employees handled all physical maintenance of the golf courses. On October 8, 2012 (less than 90 days before the most recent contracts’ expiration date of December 31, 2012), the City informed the golf pros that it would not be renewing their contracts.

The golf pros filed a lawsuit against the City. The lawsuit alleged that the City failed to comply with the WFDL in ending its contractual relationships with them and sought damages. Briefly, the WFDL, adopted in 1974, governs “dealerships,” which are specially defined contracts entered into between “grantors” and “dealers.” Wis. Stat. §§ 135.02-135.025. The WFDL prohibits grantors from terminating dealership contracts without good cause, Wis. Stat. § 135.03, and requires 90 days’ notice prior to termination, Wis. Stat. § 135.04. If a grantor violates the WFDL, a dealer may bring an action against such grantor for damages. Wis. Stat. § 135.06.

The circuit court dismissed the golf pros’ lawsuit on summary judgment, concluding that the relationships between the golf pros and the City did not constitute “dealerships” protected by the WFDL, Wis. Stat. § 135.02(3). When the golf pros appealed, the court of appeals affirmed. The golf pros appealed again, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed, answering two principal questions in the affirmative: first, whether the WFDL applies to the City at all; and second, whether the relationships between the golf pros and the City are “dealerships” under the WFDL.

First, the Court determined that the WFDL applies to the City. To determine this issue, the Court started with the defined terms of the statute. The WFDL defines “dealer” as “a person who is a grantee of a dealership situated in this state,” Wis. Stat. § 135.02(2), and “dealership” as “[a] contract… between 2 or more persons, by which a person is granted the right to sell or distribute goods or services, or use a trade name, trademark, service mark, logotype, advertising or other commercial symbol, in which there is a community of interest in the business of offering, selling or distributing goods or services at wholesale, retail, by [contract],” Wis. Stat. § 135.02(3)(a). Because the terms dealer and dealership require a “person” to be a party to the contract, the Court then turned to the first issue—whether the City is a “person” under the WFDL. Again, the Court looked to the definitions in the WFDL and found that the WFDL’s definition of “person” included “corporation or other entity.” Wis. Stat. § 135.02(6). The Court concluded that because the City is a municipal corporation, it falls within the category of “corporation” and therefore qualifies as a person subject to the WFDL.

Second, the Court held that the contractual relationships between the golf pros and the City are “dealerships” under the WFDL. The Court found that all three statutory elements for a dealership were satisfied: (1) a contract between two or more persons existed; (2) the contract granted the golf pros the right to sell or distribute a City service (here, access to the golf courses); and (3) the golf pros’ business of selling the City’s services created a “community of interest.”

In dissent, Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley argued that the Fair Dealership Law should not apply because the City is not a “person” under the WFDL. Notably, the dissent emphasized that the majority’s analysis “neglects to address the relationship of the Dealership Law, municipal constitutional and statutory home rule, and other statutes governing governmental entities.” 2017 WI 65, ¶136.

The majority’s analysis failed to consider the City’s home-rule authority at all. This case continues the trend in Wisconsin cases of ignoring entirely, or limiting the extent of, municipal home rule. As the dissent notes, this decision has far-reaching consequences.

Contracts municipalities thought were terminable at will or on a specific date now may not be terminable without giving 90 days notice and having good cause. Lacking the funds to continue a contractual relationship does not fall within the WFDL’s definition of good cause. Thus, if a municipality does not have sufficient funds to renew a contract, it may face the choice of either cutting essential services or getting sued by its golf pros or other contractors for violation of the WFDL.

In considering future contracts, municipalities will need to assess whether their contractual relationships might be considered dealerships and if there is a way to avoid that status. The municipality may decide not to provide certain services rather than take the chance of being bound under the WFDL.

Until or unless the law is changed in light of this decision, the Benson case will certainly give municipalities pause when considering privatizing municipal functions.

U.S. Supreme Court Decides Wisconsin Takings Case, Adopts Complex Test, and Approves Merger Clauses

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The U.S. Supreme Court decided a major regulatory takings case last week, ending a Wisconsin land-use battle that lasted more than a dozen years. See Murr v. Wisconsin, No. 15-214 (U.S. June 23, 2017). It is not common for a case to jump from an unpublished, non-precedential opinion in a state intermediate court of appeals to the nation’s highest court. Even less often does a local case provide an opportunity to resolve a long-standing doctrinal puzzle that has stymied courts and litigants for decades. Murr v. Wisconsin was notable, and the Supreme Court’s decision is both interesting and instructive. In particular, the Court’s express endorsement of a zoning provision commonly used in Wisconsin and across the country should set municipal regulators’ minds at ease.

The facts of the Murr case

I have written about the case in detail, summarized the parties’ arguments, and shared my assessment of the oral argument. (Full disclosure: Stafford Rosenbaum submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the Wisconsin Counties Association, the Wisconsin Towns Association, and the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, urging the Supreme Court not to reach the constitutional issue at the heart of the case. The views in this post are my own; they go beyond the arguments expressed in the amicus brief and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my clients.)

The essential facts are these: The Murrs who litigated this case were the second generation to own the property in question. Their parents purchased two lots along the Lower St. Croix River, in northwestern Wisconsin, more than fifty years ago. They built a small cabin on one lot and transferred ownership to their family business. A couple of years later, they purchased the adjacent lot, which they kept in their own names and never built on. In the 1990s, the parents transferred the land to their children, bringing the two adjacent lots into common ownership for the first time.

This mattered a great deal because, in the intervening years, the federal, state, and local governments all adopted laws to protect the river’s scenic beauty. The regulations limited development to those lots with at least one acre of land, excluding the river’s floodplain and the slope of the bluffs that tower above the river. Neither of the Murrs’ lots, though approximately 1.25 acres each, had enough buildable space to meet the development requirements on its own. The regulations addressed this fairly common issue through two complementary provisions. The first grandfathered in any property owners who had purchased their land prior to the regulations; they could still build, even if their lots lacked one acre of buildable space. The second merged adjacent lots without sufficient buildable space if those lots came under common ownership.

Here, when the two adjacent lots passed to the second generation, they came under common ownership and therefore merged as a matter of law. When the Murrs later sought a zoning variance to sell the empty lot and use the proceeds to improve the cabin on the other lot, the County said no. The Murrs alleged that the state and county regulations amounted to an uncompensated taking of their property in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The Murrs’ takings claim was rejected by the trial court, the state appellate court, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court.

The applicable legal framework

The Constitution provides that private property cannot “be taken for public use, without just compensation.” U.S. Const., amend. V. The framers and early courts were focused on physical appropriations of property for public use (to build a road, for example). But for almost a century courts have recognized that regulations restricting an owner’s use of property can amount to a compensable taking. How and when regulations impose enough of a burden to require compensation has been a vexing question. In response, the Supreme Court has provided two tests. Where a regulation deprives the owner of all economically beneficial use of the property, that is a taking. See Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Comm’n, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992). Even where a regulation is less invasive, it can still require compensation, based on a balancing of several factors, including the economic impact of the regulation, the character of the regulation, and the extent to which the regulation interferes with reasonable investment-backed expectations for the property. See Penn Central Transp. Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104 (1978).

Under either test, however, there is a predicate question: How do courts define the relevant property against which to measure the effects of the regulation at issue? The Murrs complained that the merger provision deprived them of the right to use or sell the vacant lot adjacent to their cabin. When a court considers that alleged deprivation, does it measure the loss against only the vacant lot (in which case it could be seen as a near-total taking) or against the Murrs’ combined riverside properties (in which case it appears to be a smaller loss)? As legal commentators have long discussed, in many cases “the answer to this question may be outcome determinative.” Murr, slip op. at 9.

The prospect that the Murr case would answer this question drew significant interest. The case presented the Court with multiple options:

  • The Murrs argued that the right answer begins and (largely) ends with the lot lines on the property rolls. They conceded that evidence of how the property is actually used might be sufficient to overcome the lot lines in certain instances.

  • The State of Wisconsin argued that the answer is found in the application of state law, including but not limited to the lot lines and, importantly in this case, also including the merger provision.

  • St. Croix County, for its part, argued that multiple factors are relevant, beginning with state property law, but also including the physical characteristics of the property and the economic impact the regulation has on the property.

  • Finally, the federal government, appearing as an amicus curiae (friend of the court), offered an alternative multi-factor balancing test, placing no special weight on state law and instead looking to achieve fairness and justice.

The Murrs obviously argued that their proposed test would favor their taking claim. All of the various governmental entities argued that there was no taking in this case.

The majority opinion

The Court fully adopted St. Croix County’s approach, holding that “the question of the proper parcel in regulatory takings cases cannot be solved by any simple test,” such that “courts must consider a number of factors.” Id. at 11, 20. “These include the treatment of the land under state and local law; the physical characteristics of the land; and the prospective value of the regulated land.” Id. at 11. In doing so, the Court incorporated the factors both the Murrs and the State had offered as bright-line tests, explaining that “courts should give substantial weight to the treatment of the land, in particular how it is bounded or divided, under state and local law,” but also insisted that those factors were, on their own, insufficient. Id. at 12-15.

Notably, the Court also gave a full-throated endorsement to the merger provision that the Murrs challenged, calling it “a legitimate exercise of government power.” Id. The Court rooted its approval in both tradition and efficacy. After noting that merger provisions “originated nearly a century ago” and are now widely used, the Court praised those provisions as a way of “balancing the legitimate goals of regulation with the reasonable expectations of landowners.” Id. at 15-16. The St. Croix County zoning provisions at issue “represent a classic way of doing this: by implementing a merger provision, which combines contiguous substandard lots under common ownership, alongside a grandfather clause, which preserves adjacent substandard lots that are in separate ownership.” Id. While one criticism of balancing tests is that they lack certainty, here the Court clearly mapped one way in which zoning ordinances can strike a judicially sanctioned balance between limiting development and protecting existing property rights.

The dissenting opinions

Chief Justice Roberts wrote the primary dissent, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito. (Justice Gorsuch did not participate in the case, which was argued before he joined the Court.) The Roberts dissent adopted the State of Wisconsin’s approach. Chief Justice Roberts did not argue the Murrs should win their suit, but he eschewed the multi-factor test adopted by the majority.

Chief Justice Roberts identified two primary rationales for his position. First, because “[t]he question of who owns what is pretty important,” it follows that “[t]he rules must provide a readily ascertainable definition of the land to which a particular bundle of rights attaches that does not vary depending upon the purpose at issue.” Slip op. at 6 (Roberts, C.J., dissenting). On this basis, the dissent decried “[t]he majority’s new, malleable definition of private property” for the takings inquiry. Id. at 2.

Second, Chief Justice Roberts asserted that the majority’s balancing test improperly advantages the government in every takings dispute. Because one factor relevant to defining the property is “the reasonableness of the regulation as applied to the claimant[,] … the government’s regulatory interests will come into play not once, but twice—first when identifying the relevant parcel, and again when determining whether the regulation has placed too great a public burden on that property.” Id. at 9-10. (This is true only for regulations assessed under Penn Central; any per se taking under Lucas will not be subject to the second analysis.)

Ultimately, the Roberts dissent argued, the majority decision “knocks the definition of ‘private property’ loose from its foundation on stable state law rules and throws it into the maelstrom of multiple factors that come into play at the second step of the takings analysis. The result: The majority’s new framework compromises the Takings Clause as a barrier between individuals and the press of the public interest.” Id. at 12.

Justice Thomas also wrote his own separate dissent. He affirmed his agreement with Chief Justice Roberts’s application of the Court’s regulatory takings precedent, but he reiterated his belief that the Court should reexamine the past century’s regulatory takings jurisprudence to see if it can be rooted in the original meaning of the Constitution.

Takeaways

The balancing test adopted in Murr will not make takings litigation any simpler or more predictable. It amplifies the subjectivity—and thus the variability—of the takings analysis. In different courts, that may redound to the benefit of the government or to the benefit of the property owner. However, the Murr decision is a clear victory for municipal governments, environmentalists, and other proponents of regulation inasmuch as the Court rejected efforts to rewrite the takings analysis in ways that would more frequently require compensation to property owners. The decision also provides a modest degree of clarity by expressly endorsing merger provisions for adjacent, substandard lots that share an owner. That alone marks Murr as a big win for municipal governments in Wisconsin and across the country that utilize this common tool.

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