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The Minch Family Lllp, A North Dakota Limited Liability, Limited v. Buffalo--Red River Watershed District; Roger Ellefson; Curtis Nelson

December 15, 2010

THE MINCH FAMILY LLLP, A NORTH DAKOTA LIMITED LIABILITY, LIMITED PARTNERSHIP; LOIS A. MINCH, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE A. R. MINCH ESTATE; LOIS A. MINCH, INDIVIDUALLY; ROGER J. MINCH, AS TRUSTEE OF THE HEIRS AND NEXT OF KIN OF A. R. MINCH, DECEASED, APPELLANTS,
v.
BUFFALO--RED RIVER WATERSHED DISTRICT; ROGER ELLEFSON; CURTIS NELSON; GERALD L. VANAMBURG; JOHN E. HANSON; E. ROBERT OLSON, IN BOTH THEIR PERSONAL CAPACITIES AS INDIVIDUALS AND AS OFFICERS AND MANAGERS OF CO-DEFENDANT BUFFALO--RED RIVER WATERSHED DISTRICT, APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Riley, Chief Judge.

Submitted: June 15, 2010

Before RILEY, Chief Judge, CLEVENGER*fn1 and COLLOTON, Circuit Judges.

During contentious litigation in Minnesota state court, a judge entered an order authorizing the Buffalo--Red River Watershed District (BRRWD) to "clean out" or remove accumulated silt and topsoil from a ditch running next to a road along the length of one of A. R. Minch's fields. The Minch Family LLLP, Lois A. Minch and trustee Roger J. Minch*fn2 (collectively, Minch) later sued BRRWD, Roger Ellefson, Curtis Nelson, Gerald L. VanAmburg, John E. Hanson, and E. Robert Olson (collectively, appellees) in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, contending BRRWD exceeded the scope of the clean-out order by entering upon Minch's property. Minch alleged causes of action for trespass, nuisance, and the wrongful death of A. R. Minch. The district court*fn3 granted appellees' motion for judgment on the pleadings' finding Minch's claims were (1) barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, (2) res judicata, and (3) insufficient to state causes of action as pled. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

In the 1970s, A. R. Minch bought approximately 560 acres of land in Kragnes Township, Clay County, Minnesota. See Minch Family Ltd. P'ship v. Buffalo-Red River Watershed Dist., 2007 WL 93084, at *1 (Minn. Ct. App. 2007) (unpublished).

A. R. Minch later transferred the land to the Minch Family Limited Partnership. Id.

Minch's land is divided between sections 28 and 34 of Kragnes Township. County State Aid Highway 5 borders the north side of Minch's section 34 property. See Minch v. Buffalo-Red River Watershed Dist., 723 N.W.2d 483, 485 (Minn. Ct. App. 2006). Adjacent to the highway on Minch's land lies the section 34 ditch, which "is a private ditch in which [BRRWD] has a public right-of-way easement." Id.

Flooding and drainage on Minch's land has been the focus of a significant amount of litigation in the Minnesota state courts. Relevant to this appeal, on November 22, 2004, BRRWD ordered Minch to clean the section 34 ditch. Id. at 486. Minch refused and sued BRRWD in Minnesota state court, arguing BRRWD lacked the authority to order him to clean the ditch. Id. On September 23, 2005, the Minnesota court granted BRRWD's motion for summary judgment and ordered Minch to clean the ditch, later dismissing the action. Id. Minch did not clean the ditch. BRRWD moved "to [c]ompel [Minch] to comply with the September Order, and/or for an Order holding [Minch] in contempt for failing to comply with said Order." While the motion was pending, Minch appealed the September 23, 2005 order to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Finding Minch's argument that BRRWD lacked the authority to order Minch to clean the ditch "is based upon a good-faith argument regarding an unsettled area of the law," on December 1, 2005, the Minnesota court declined to hold Minch in contempt for not cleaning the ditch, and declined to compel Minch to clean the ditch. However, the court did order:

1. [BRRWD] is hereby authorized to clean out the existing ditch referenced in the September 23, 2005 Order of this Court. Said clean-out operations may commence forthwith subject to the following rules and exceptions:

a. Said clean-out operation is limited to the existing ditch referenced in the Court's September 23, 2005 Order; c. Said clean-out operation may not be performed so as to interrupt [Minch's] ability to farm his land in the Spring, Summer or Fall of 2006; [and] d. Said clean-out operations shall not laterally enlarge or increase the depth of the existing ditch from how it existed prior to [Minch] allowing said ditch to fill with soil, mud or silt.

The Minnesota court also ordered Minch to reimburse BRRWD "for all reasonable and necessary costs related to [the] ditch cleaning."

The scope of the Minnesota court's clean-out authorization is the focus of this lawsuit. BRRWD conducted the clean-out on December 13, 2005. At the motion hearing, the district court recited non-controversial facts, saying, "In the process, agents of [BRRWD] entered upon the land of Mr. Minch to access the ditch. Certain of their equipment was parked on Minch's land overnight and left behind the spoils, the scrap, scraped-out topsoil."

The Minnesota Court of Appeals ultimately agreed with Minch that, under Minnesota law, BRRWD lacked the authority to order Minch to clean and maintain the ditch. Minch, 723 N.W.2d at 488. The court also held Minn. Stat. § 103E "explicitly authorizes the [BRRWD] to clean the silation present in the Section 34 ditch." Id. at 489. And when a watershed district determines an obstruction exists, see Minn. Stat. § 103E.075, and a landowner refuses to remove the obstruction, BRRWD "can file a lien against the property for the cost of removing the obstruction." Id. at 489. The court therefore remanded for a determination whether the silation constituted an obstruction within the meaning of § 103E.075. Id. at 492-93.

A. R. Minch died of lung cancer on February 24, 2006. On February 20, 2009, Minch brought this action in the district court, alleging causes of action for (1) trespass by exceeding the scope of the Minnesota court's clean-out order, (2) nuisance flowing from the trespass, and (3) a claim for the wrongful death of A. R. Minch. Appellees answered and moved for judgment on the pleadings. Ruling from the bench, the district court granted appellees' motion and dismissed Minch's complaint, citing res judicata and collateral estoppel, the ...


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