King’s Day recalls litigation lore here

Minnesota and the nation pause this Monday (Jan. 18) to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, on the 30th anniversary of the day set aside to commemorate his life and work.

The civil rights leader, born on January 15, 1929, would have turned 87 years old last week. The national holiday to honor his achievements was enacted over some controversy 30 years ago. Several states still refuse to treat it as a free-standing holiday. Some, like Arizona, New Hampshire and Idaho link it as part of Civil Rights or Human Rights Day, while some states in the South ironically combine it with Robert E. Lee’s birthday.

But here in Minnesota and throughout the 8th Circuit region, it always has been and remains a day to venerate his memory, while contesting the themes of equality, dignity, and justice that he so valiantly pursued.

Martin Luther King Day also provides an opportune occasion to consider the litigation legacy spawned by the federal and state courts concerning Dr. King’s life, his inestimable accomplishments during his short 39-year lifetime and his untimely death by assassination on April 4, 1968.

Ray rulings

A pair of rulings of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals has addressed issues relating to Dr. King’s death.

In Ray v. U.S. Department of Justice, 658 F.2d 608 (8th Cir. 1981), James Earl Ray, the confessed assassin of Dr. King, sued the Department of Justice and a government investigator for defamation, claiming they had wrongfully accused him of criminal acts.

Affirming a ruling of the trial court judge, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld dismissal of the lawsuit. Ray’s request for declaratory relief against the Justice Department was denied because many of the individuals that he complained about were not Justice Department employees and the documents they relied on were innocuous. There was no way Ray would benefit from any sort of declaratory relief, the court said.

The defamation claim against the investigator stemmed from letters that Ray had written to his younger brother, Jerry, which were taken from the brother’s hotel room. But the admitted assassin could not challenge the taking of the letters because he did not retain a legitimate expectation of privacy in the documents and lacked standing to contest seizure from his brother’s hotel room.

Ray’s older brother, John, also failed in challenging a search of a hotel room in U.S. v Goldenstein & Ray, 456 F.2d 1000 (8th Cir. 1972).

The police searched a hotel room of John’s companion, where officers found money taken from a bank in Missouri. The accomplice, a registered guest at the hotel, obtained reversal of a robbery conviction because the search and seizure violated the Fourth Amendment.

But the elder Ray’s conviction was affirmed by the 8th Circuit on grounds that he lacked standing since he was neither present nor had any occupancy rights in the hotel room, which was registered to the other defendant. He also was not allowed to have his brother James Earl, who was incarcerated in Tennessee, testify because transporting the convict from Tennessee would constitute a very substantial security risk and pose a danger of escape.

Idealism issues

This idealism inspired by Dr. King underlay a lawsuit by prisoners in Nebraska who were forbidden from wearing a honor medallion containing a picture of King and the inscription “I have a dream” in Rowland v. Jones, 452 F.2d 1005 (8th Cir. 1987).

While it is inappropriate to allow some medals to be worn by prisoners and not others contingent upon their meeting an official standard of religious orthodoxy, the prison authorities properly exercised their discretion in deciding that the jewelry might be dangerous, and there was no discrimination in the application of this policy.

The principle of nonviolent civil disobedience espoused by Dr. King was rejected as a defense by a pair of Vietnam War protesters who were apprehended after entering a Selective Service office at night and taking draft registration cards in U.S. v. Kroncke, 450 F.2d 697 (8th Cir. 1972).

Upholding a decision of the U.S. District Court in Minnesota, the 8th Circuit affirmed their conviction for interfering with the administration of the military draft, rejecting a claim of moral jurisdiction based upon the philosophy of Dr. King and other advocates of nonviolent civil disobedience because the tenant requires that one “accept the penalty for his action” and that “society cannot tolerate the means they chose to register their opposition to the war.”

An altercation at a St. Paul high school after students viewed a film about Dr. King resulted in imposition of liability upon the school for negligent supervision in Raleigh v. Indep. Sch. DistNo. 625, 276, N.W.2d 672 (Minn. 1978).

Following the showing of a documentary about Dr. King’s civil rights activities, a white girl’s wrist was slashed by a black female student. The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld a determination by a Ramsey County District Court jury that the school district was negligent in failing to properly supervise the event. Although, the case was extremely close, the evidence showed that the school was aware of the racial tension, which was coupled with a lack of supervision and organization of the students viewing the film.

Holiday hassles

Two employment law rulings in the 8th Circuit concerned hassles over the King holiday.

In Ross v. Kansas City Power & Light Co., 293 F.3d 1041 (8th Cir. 2002), an African-American employee sued for racial harassment, failure to promote and retaliation based upon statements in the work place from co-workers that were racially based, including whether the employee planned to take the day off on a King holiday.

The 8th Circuit upheld dismissal of the harassment and retaliation claims because the comment about the holiday and other racial remarks “were not objectively offensive” to warrant a harassment claim. However, the court upheld the trial court’s determination that the employer was liable for failure to promote and the post-trial reduction of punitive damages from $1.5 million to $320,000.

A claim of racial harassment in Minnesota regarding the King holiday survived summary judgment in Callicull v. The Pepsi Bottling Group, Inc., 2002 WL 992767 (D. Minn. 2002).

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan Frank held that an African-American man could pursue a hostile-environment case based upon several incidents, including discovery on the company bulletin board on King’s Day of a doughnut stuck on a bulletin board that was decorated like an African-American figure with paperclips for pig tails. Although it constituted a close case, the King Day doughnut and other multiple instances of racism, were sufficiently severe and pervasive to be actionable.

Counting commemoration

As an official holiday, the King commemoration does not count for determining litigation time periods.

In Jasonach v Schwab Company, 465 N.W.2d 257 (Minn. 1993), the Supreme Court ruled that an employee was entitled to temporary and partial workers’ compensation benefits for King Day and Presidents Day, which were day-off holidays at his workplace. Nonpayment of benefits for such holidays that an employee does not work and is not paid is inappropriate because it would “frustrate” the legislative purpose “to reduce litigation of workers’ compensation claims.”

In Lee v. Hunt, 642 N.W. 2d 257 (Minn. 2002),the 10-day period for a post-trial motion to offset collateral benefits in a no-fault insurance case ended on a Sunday, which does not count in the 10-day period under Rule 6 of the Rules of Civil Procedure. Since the following day, King Day is a legal holiday, it also does not count. Thus, a motion served and filed the next day, 12 days after the judgment, was timely.

Not including King Day in a child visitation schedule did not warrant overturning the visitation arrangement ordered by an Otter Tail County District Court Judge in Schroeder v. Schroeder, 1998 WL 404850 (Minn. Ct. App. 1998) (unpublished).

The Court of Appeals refused to disturb the trial court judge’s scheduling protocol because the trial court judge “is in a far better position” in establishing the visitation schedule.

In Baldwin v. City of Mankato, 1993 WL 515817 (Minn. Ct. App. 1993) (unpublished), the Court of Appeals reversed a ruling by a Blue Earth County District Court Judge dismissing a lawsuit for failure to comply with a discovery order.

The claimant did attempt to comply with the deadline, but had trouble retaining counsel because his bank was not open on the Martin Luther King holiday, two days before the discovery due date, which apparently prevented him from getting funds to hire an attorney.

The suppression by a Murray County District Court judge of incriminating statements made by a defendant charged with criminal sexual conduct was upheld by the Court of Appeals in State v.Schmidt, 2004 WL 2984565 (Minn. Ct. App. 2004) (unpublished).

The defendant made an “unequivocal request” for counsel on Jan 18, a Sunday, but was not able to obtain counsel that day or the next day, the King holiday. The following day, he made inculpatory statements after he had been unable to obtain counsel in the interim. Since he did not make a valid waiver of counsel, it was inappropriate to question him without counsel because he was unable on Sunday and the ensuing King holiday to obtain a lawyer.

As Minnesotans join the rest of the nation in remembering Dr. King, they also have occasion to recall the legacy of litigation inspired by his life, achievements, and death.

As published by Minnesota Lawyer.

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