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David L. Laase v. County of Isanti; Jeffrey R. Edblad

April 20, 2011


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

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gruender, Circuit Judge.

Submitted: March 16, 2011

Before WOLLMAN, MURPHY, and GRUENDER, Circuit Judges.

After David Laase's Minnesota state-court challenge to the forfeiture of his vehicle failed, he brought a lawsuit in federal district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the forfeiture of his vehicle violated the United States and Minnesota Constitutions. The district court*fn1 concluded that, as a matter of Minnesota law, Laase's suit was res judicata and dismissed the case for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. For reasons that follow, we affirm.

Under Minnesota's statutory forfeiture scheme, a vehicle is subject to forfeiture "if it was used in the commission of a designated offense," Minn. Stat. § 169A.63(6)(a), and "[a]ll right, title, and interest in a vehicle subject to forfeiture . . . vests in the appropriate agency upon commission of the conduct resulting in the designated offense," § 169A.63(3). However, upon seizure, the state agency must "serve the driver or operator of the vehicle with a notice of the seizure and intent to forfeit the vehicle," § 169A.63(8)(b), and the vehicle's owner may "file a demand for a judicial determination of the forfeiture," § 169A.63(8)(d). The state agency is permitted to file an answer to this demand, "including an affirmative counterclaim for forfeiture," § 169A.63(9)(c), but whether or not it does so, "[t]here is a presumption that a vehicle seized . . . is subject to forfeiture if the prosecuting authority establishes that the vehicle was used in the commission of a designated offense," § 169A.63(9)(e). The owner may raise a number of affirmative defenses to forfeiture, but she "bears the burden of proving any affirmative defense raised." Id.

In 2006, David Laase's wife was convicted of second-degree driving while impaired, see Minn. Stat. §§ 169A.20(2), 169A.25(1)(b), a designated offense under section 169A.63(1)(e). The County of Isanti, Minnesota, seized the Laases' 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe, and David Laase filed a demand for judicial determination, raising multiple affirmative defenses, including the "innocent owner" defense and a claim that the forfeiture statute is unconstitutional because "it violates the double jeopardy provisions of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments." Laase also asserted the unspecified affirmative defense that "the forfeiture statute . . . is unconstitutional, both on its face and applied."*fn2 The Minnesota district court ruled for Laase based on the innocent owner defense, concluding that Laase "did not actually or constructively know that his wife was going to use the vehicle in a manner contrary to the law." Laase v. 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe, No. CV-06-383, slip op. at 1 (10th Jud. Dist. Minn. June 19, 2007); see § 169A.63(7)(d). The court did not address his constitutional claims.

The County appealed, and the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that "Minn. Stat. § 169A.63 does not authorize forfeiture of a vehicle used by one of its joint owners to commit a designated offense when the other joint owner has proved by clear and convincing evidence that he did not know the vehicle would be used in a manner contrary to law." Laase v. 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe, 755 N.W.2d 23, 26 (Minn. Ct. App. 2008). The court of appeals did not address any claim that the forfeiture statute was unconstitutional, either facially or as applied. The Minnesota Supreme Court granted the County's petition for review and reversed, holding that "[b]ecause Ms. Laase is both an owner and the offender, . . . the 'innocent owner' defense does not apply, and . . . the vehicle was properly forfeitable." Laase v. 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe, 776 N.W.2d 431, 439-40 (Minn. 2009). The court reversed without remanding or addressing any of the other affirmative defenses raised by Laase before the Minnesota district court, including his constitutional claims, specifically noting that "Laase did not argue that his constitutional rights would be violated in the absence of operation of the innocent owner defense." Id. at 440 n.11.

Laase then brought suit in federal court, claiming that the forfeiture of his vehicle violated the takings clauses of both the Fifth Amendment*fn3 and Article I, section 13 of the Minnesota Constitution,*fn4 and the excessive fines clauses of the Eighth Amendment*fn5 and Article I, section 5 of the Minnesota Constitution.*fn6 The County moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine or, alternatively, for failure to state a claim, based on state principles of res judicata. The federal district court concluded that Rooker-Feldman did not bar the suit but that the doctrine of res judicata did, and consequently the court granted the motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Laase appeals this dismissal.

We review de novo the district court's grant of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim based on res judicata. Yankton Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 533 F.3d 634, 639 (8th Cir. 2008). In conducting this review, we accept the plaintiff's factual allegations as true. M.M. Silta, Inc. v. Cleveland Cliffs, Inc., 616 F.3d 872, 876. (8th Cir. 2010). By enacting the Full Faith and Credit Statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1738, "Congress has specifically required all federal courts to give preclusive effect to state-court judgments whenever the courts of the State from which the judgments emerged would do so." Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 96 (1980). "The law of the forum that rendered the first judgment controls the res judicata analysis." St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. Compaq Computer Corp., 539 F.3d 809, 821 (8th Cir. 2008).

Under Minnesota law, the disposition of an earlier claim constitutes a res judicata bar against the litigation of a subsequent claim where "(1) the earlier claim involved the same set of factual circumstances; (2) the earlier claim involved the same parties or their privies; (3) there was a final judgment on the merits; [and] (4) the estopped party had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the matter." Hauschildt v. Beckingham, 686 N.W.2d 829, 840 (Minn. 2004). "Res judicata applies equally to claims actually litigated and to claims that could have been litigated in the earlier action." Brown-Wilbert, Inc. v. Copeland Buhl & Co., 732 N.W.2d 209, 220 (Minn. 2007). Where a plaintiff's claims come to a final judgment, that judgment "constitutes an absolute bar to a second suit for the same cause of action, and is conclusive between parties and privi[]es, not only as to every matter which was actually litigated, but also as to every matter which might have been litigated, therein." Beutz v. A. O. Smith Harvestore Prods., Inc., 431 N.W.2d 528, 531 (Minn. 1988) (quoting Youngstown Mines Corp. v. Prout, 124 N.W.2d 328, 340 (Minn. 1963)). The parties in this lawsuit and in the former state proceedings are plainly the same, and Laase does not contend otherwise on appeal. He does challenge, however, each of the other three elements.

Laase urges that the first element is not met because his federal claims arise from different factual circumstances than the claims adjudicated in state court. The underlying facts-the arrest and conviction of Ms. Laase and the seizure of the vehicle-are the same. However, Laase suggests that although in state court he challenged the seizure and forfeitability of the vehicle, he now challenges its actual forfeiture. The state-court determination that his vehicle is forfeitable, he claims, constitutes a crucial additional fact. Indeed, Laase opines that his constitutional claims could not have been brought until the state judicial proceedings concluded, resulting in the determination of forfeitability, and until the County takes the additional step of procuring a judgment of forfeiture. Alternatively, because the County has pointed to no such judgment of forfeiture, Laase claims that the third element also is not met because there was no final judgment on the merits. Moreover,

because he could not have litigated his constitutional challenge to forfeiture until the state litigation determined forfeitability, he argues that he had no full and fair opportunity to litigate his constitutional claims in the state lawsuit and that the fourth res judicata element therefore also is not satisfied.

Laase's challenge to these three elements of the res judicata doctrine misapprehends the nature of Minnesota's statutory forfeiture scheme. Under Minn. Stat. section 169A.63(8), (10), if the owner of a seized vehicle fails to file a demand for judicial determination within 30 days after receipt of the state agency's notice of intent to seek forfeiture, the vehicle is automatically forfeited. Under section 169A.63(9), (10), if the owner does file a demand for judicial determination and the court determines that a vehicle is subject to forfeiture, the state agency is immediately authorized to "sell the vehicle and distribute the proceeds" or "keep the vehicle for official use." § 169A.63(10)(a). Accordingly, even if a demand for judicial determination is filed, forfeiture is automatic upon a determination that the owner committed a designated offense and has failed to prove an affirmative defense.

Because of this automatic nature of forfeiture under the statute, the fact that state litigation over forfeitability has concluded adds nothing to the "group of operative facts" that gives rise to Laase's state and federal excessive fines and takings claims. See Hauschildt, 686 N.W.2d at 840 (quoting Martin ex rel. Hoff v. City of Rochester, 642 N.W.2d 1, 9 (Minn. 2002)). Laase's newly asserted constitutional claims are based on the same set of facts as the affirmative defenses to forfeiture that Laase asserted in state court-the arrest and conviction of Ms. Laase, the seizure of their vehicle, and the County's notice of intent to forfeit. Because both sets of claims are based on the same facts, they are supported by the same evidence. See id. at 840-41 ("The 'common test for determining whether a former judgment is a bar to a subsequent action is to inquire whether the same evidence will sustain both actions.'" ...

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