Appeals court revives Ringsred's lawsuit against city of Duluth, News Tribune
A three-judge panel said the former owner of the Kozy Bar and Apartments can proceed with defamation and retaliation claims, reversing two Duluth judges who dismissed the allegations.
DULUTH — Local preservationist Eric Ringsred can resume a lawsuit against the city, the News Tribune and several individual defendants, a three-judge panel ruled last week.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals said two Duluth-based district court judges erred in throwing out claims that included defamation and First Amendment retaliation, remanding the case back to the trial court for further litigation.
Ringsred, 71, an emergency room doctor who has owned several historic properties in the Twin Ports, has frequently butted heads with local elected officials and taken to the courts in an effort to prevent the demolition of various buildings.
In the past decade, he has been best known for his ownership of Pastoret Terrace and the Paul Robeson Ballroom — formerly home to the Kozy Bar and Apartments — at First Street and First Avenue East in downtown Duluth. The structure has been badly damaged by a series of fires, and Rinsgred, who lacked insurance and lost the property to tax forfeiture, continues to litigate against city efforts to have it torn down.
Ringsred initiated the separate defamation action in 2020, alleging a decades-long "conspiracy" to undermine his preservation interests and damage his professional reputation.
The plaintiff asserted that he was deprived of his First Amendment right to "petition, litigate and speak out in matters of public concern" due to ongoing "harassment and retaliation ... in the form of defamatory statements in the news media." He describes a "running battle" dating back to the 1990s, when he attempted and failed to stop demolition of historic buildings to make way for the Duluth Technology Village.
In the suit, Ringsred claims that officials retaliated against him by denying occupancy of undamaged parts of the Kozy property following its first major fire in 2010, refusing to allow him to repurchase the building after its forfeiture in 2015 and failed to provide him a normal level of policing at another property he owns.
He also alleges a series of false statements, particularly from then-Duluth City Attorney Gunnar Johnson to the News Tribune. Among the statements, Johnson said the building "already was structurally compromised when (the Duluth Economic Development Authority) took ownership" and "all that (building damage) occurred when Eric owned the building."
Ringsred claimed the public statements and news coverage have adversely affected his practice as an emergency room physician, forcing him in 2001 to relocate to hospitals outside Duluth, where there is "less influence by the Duluth city government and the Duluth News Tribune."
Judge Shaun Floerke, before leaving the bench in 2020, dismissed much of the suit. He said the newspaper was covered by a legal privilege that allows news organizations to publish or transmit statements that were made as part of a public proceeding.
Reversing that decision, the appeals court noted that Ringsred is alleging the paper had knowledge that Johnson's comments were false prior to publication, negating the privilege, and that they were not made in a public context.
The decision does not amount to a finding of any liability, but does allow Ringsred to continue pursuing those claims. The panel noted that he is a "limited-purpose public figure," requiring him to prove "actual malice," the highest standard for defamation claims.
The appeals court also reversed several decisions by Judge David Johnson, who assumed control of the case after Floerke's retirement. Johnson had dismissed remaining allegations and denied Ringsred's motion to add several defendants, both on largely procedural grounds.
The panel said Ringsred was erroneously ordered to "show" the elements of his retaliation claim, whereas the law simply required that he make a sufficient allegation in order to pursue litigation.
"Minnesota courts faced with a motion to dismiss do not assess a claim’s plausibility … or the likelihood that the plaintiff will be able to prove the facts alleged," Judge Louise Dovre Bjorkman wrote in the 19-page opinion. "Rather, we assume the truth of the plaintiff’s allegations and permit the claims to ‘go forward unless there is no way to construe the alleged facts — and the inferences drawn from those facts — in support of the plaintiff’s claim.’”
The judges also concluded that Ringsred should've been allowed to amend his complaint to bring claims against Mayor Emily Larson, Duluth City Councilor and DEDA Commissioner Roz Randorf, and a former member of both bodies, Zack Filipovich.
The panel sent the case back to Judge Johnson with instructions to allow Ringsred to file a new complaint alleging defamation claims against the News Tribune, Forum Communications Co. and reporter Peter Passi; a First Amendment retaliation claim against the city; defamation and First Amendment retaliation claims against Filipovich and Randorf; and a First Amendment retaliation claim against Larson.
News Tribune Publisher Neal Ronquist and city spokeswoman Kelli Latuska both declined to comment on the ruling, citing the pending litigation.
The Kozy legal fight also continues, though it has been put on hold while local businessman Rod Raymond explores a potential renovation of the property that could resolve the long-running litigation. Judge Eric Hylden is set to receive a status update from the parties on Nov. 21, with a trial expected in early 2023 if the case is not settled.