ALERT - Defending Against Governmental Actions Using Equitable Estoppel

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October 18, 2010

The Supreme Court has recently granted review to decide the availability of a defense of equitable estoppel against a governmental body.

The Case and Holding
City of North Oaks v. Sarpal.  The court of appeals held that when the government provides erroneous advice, even unintentionally, that the erroneous advice may constitute “wrongful conduct” that could prevent the government from taking an inconsistent position at a later time. 

The Facts and Claims
Homeowners sought approval to construct a shed, but were told they needed to show the shed’s location on a survey to ensure adequate setbacks.  The city gave a survey to the homeowners and told them it was accurate.  The homeowners then used the survey to obtain approval to build the shed in the plotted location.  The survey, however, was inaccurate.  After construction, the city informed the homeowners that the shed violated a setback ordinance;  the homeowners requested a variance, which was denied.  The homeowners refused to move the shed, so the city sued them.

After a bench trial, the district court ruled that the city was estopped from forcing the homeowners to move the shed.  The court of appeals affirmed.  It held that, although the city’s advice was not intentionally wrongful, equitable estoppel was available as a defense against the city’s lawsuit.

Equitable estoppel might affect many claims asserted by and against governmental bodies.

Amicus Participation
The League of Minnesota Cities will participate as an amicus on behalf of the City. 

Briggs' Appellate Group consults with law firms and individual practitioners on matters pending appeal, and also offers skilled representation in state and federal appellate courts.  If you have questions about the appellate process, including amicus representation, please contact a member of the Appellate Group.