Union Station: Minnesota Court dismisses challenge to state collective bargaining agreement

Minnesota District Court dismisses Republican legislators’ challenge of state collective bargaining agreement   

On July 19, Minnesota’s Second Judicial District Court dismissed a lawsuit that two Minnesota Republicans brought against the state’s office of management and budget. The legislators alleged that the state’s collective bargaining agreement violated state law because it was implemented without being ratified by both chambers of the state legislature.    

Parties to the suit

The plaintiffs are Minnesota state Rep. Marion O’Neill (R) and state Sen. Mark Koran (R) in their official and individual capacities. Attorneys from the Upper Midwest Law Center (UMLC) represent the plaintiffs. The UMLC says its “mission is to initiate pro-freedom litigation to protect against government overreach, special interest agendas, Constitutional violations, and public union corruption and abuses.” 

The defendants are Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter in his official capacity and Minnesota Management and Budget, which is “responsible for producing the state budget, economic forecast, payroll, and human resource policies for the state enterprise.” State attorneys represented the defendants. 

What’s at issue 

The plaintiffs filed their complaint on December 30, 2020, in the Second Judicial District Court. The UMLC said: “Under Minnesota law, a majority vote of both the House and Senate must approve the state employee union bargaining agreements for them to be legally implemented. In this case, MMB implemented the agreement even though the Senate failed to approve the bill. Representative O’Neill and Senator Koran seek a writ of quo warranto or declaratory judgment to have the invalid bargaining agreements set aside.”

In a March 30 memorandum in support of their motion to dismiss, the defendants’ attorneys said, “Two legislators seek to overturn lawfully bargained-for and legislatively approved pay raises for approximately 50,000 State employees. … As a legal matter, however, this case is simple. Petitioners Representative Marion O’Neill and Senator Mark Koran do not have standing to pursue these claims.” State employee organizations filed an amicus curiae brief on April 7. The groups said that “by waiting until the challenged collective bargaining agreements (“CBAs”) have been in effect for many months before filing suit, Petitioners have ensured that granting the requested relief would have the maximum disruptive impact on established CBA terms and on the collective bargaining process under the Public Employment Labor Relations Act … Accordingly, Petitioners’ unreasonable delay in asserting their purported rights would result in significant prejudice to the bargaining parties and to the public if the requested relief were granted.” 

A hearing was held on April 27. 

How the court ruled

On July 19, Judge Lezlie Ott Marek, who Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) appointed in 2010, wrote:

Legislator standing is extremely narrow. Members of a legislature have standing to sue in their capacity as legislators only when they demonstrate injuries that are personal to them, as opposed to institutional injuries to the legislative body as whole. … Where a legislator fails to establish personal standing via vote nullification, the alleged injury is institutional. … Here, the Petitioners allege an injury that belongs to the legislature as whole—not to them as individuals. …

No Minnesota court has ever found that individual taxpayers have standing to seek an Order enjoining the implementation of negotiated collective bargaining agreements. Here, extending the doctrine of taxpayer standing on the facts of this case would make bad public policy on labor relations. The purpose of [the Public Employment Labor Relations Act] is to “promote orderly and constructive relationships between all public employers and their employees.” … The amicus brief filed by the unions correctly notes that allowing this lawsuit to proceed would interfere with the ”delineation of separate and distinct roles for the Commissioner and for the Legislature to establish an orderly and constructive system on collective bargaining.” …

For all of the reasons stated herein, Petitioners lack standing to bring this lawsuit, either as legislators or taxpayers, and the Petition must be dismissed on this threshold ground alone. Because the motion to dismiss has been granted, Petitioners’ motion for temporary injunction has been mooted and does not require ruling.

The case name and number are O’Neill v. Schowalter (62-CV-20-5865). Case documents can be viewed here.


Julie Bleyhl, executive director of AFSCME Council 5, said, “We are pleased that the courts have dismissed the harmful and egregious lawsuit … that would have directly harmed tens of thousands of state employees and our rights as workers. … As many thousands of our members are currently negotiating their next contract, it is clear that our union members will continue to fight for contracts that treat all workers with the respect and dignity they deserve and demand and lift up all workers throughout our state.”

James V. F. Dickey, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said, “We respectfully disagree with Judge Marek’s decision. … It’s unclear how any taxpayer in Minnesota could ever challenge illegal government spending based on the decision.” Dickey said the plaintiffs plan to appeal the ruling. An appeal would go to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.  

About Minnesota’s Second Judicial District Court 

The Minnesota district court system handles criminal, civil and family cases in each of Minnesota’s 87 counties. The counties are divided into ten judicial districts. The Second Judicial District encompasses Ramsey County. There are 29 judges on the court. 

The Minnesota Court of Appeals hears appeals from the state’s district courts, and the Minnesota Supreme Court is the state’s court of last resort.  

What we’re reading

The big picture

Number of relevant bills by state

We are currently tracking 98 pieces of legislation dealing with public-sector employee union policy. On the map below, a darker shade of green indicates a greater number of relevant bills. Click here for a complete list of all the bills we’re tracking. 

Number of relevant bills by current legislative status

Number of relevant bills by partisan status of sponsor(s) 

Recent legislative actions

Below is a complete list of relevant legislative actions taken since our last issue. 

  • Maine LD449: Existing law requires public employers and collective bargaining agents to meet within 10 days of receiving written notice of a request for a bargaining meeting.  This applies only if the parties have not otherwise agreed in an earlier contract. This bill would eliminate that exception.
    • Democratic sponsorship. 
    • Carried over to the next session on July 19.
  • Maine LD555: This bill would grant most public-sector employees the right to strike. Select public safety and judicial employees would not be allowed to strike. 
    • Democratic sponsorship. 
    • Carried over to the next session on July 19.