During a Zoom court hearing Thursday, Sept. 9, Ramsey County Judge Laura Nelson agreed with the Office of the Minnesota Attorney General’s request to issue a $98,000 fine — $2,000 for each of the 49 days for which a Minnesota Department of Health inspector found the business operating without a food and beverage license. Nelson also agreed to postpone the fine order for 30 days at the request of Iron Waffle owner Stacy Stranne’s attorney, a time period Nelson said provided the parties an opportunity to discuss an “offramp” to reaching a resolution in the case. In the meantime, the next step in the case is court-ordered mediation.
“If the Iron Waffle continues to operate without a license, that is contempt of court,” Nelson said. “ … There are procedures to challenge decisions you disagree with. There’s a process, and this is not it.”
Judge Laura Nelson
Thursday’s hearing came after an expedited motion from Assistant Attorney General Kaitrin Vohs — representing the Minnesota Department of Health — in mid-August seeking enforcement of the court’s June 22 contempt order. In that motion, Vohs sought a $62,000 fine in addition to the $22,000 fine already ordered by Judge John H. Guthmann. During the intervening weeks, however, the Minnesota Department of Health continued to inspect the business and found it operating without a license on 18 more days, which at $2,000 per day equated to $36,000 more in potential fines requested by Vohs Thursday.
As recently as Wednesday, Iron Waffle posted its hours of operation on Facebook, stating it would be open 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday Sunday and Monday. A number of recent posts also advertised Labor Day weekend hours.
“That fine request may seem high, but the Iron Waffle through Stacy Stranne has always been in control of the amount of that fine,” Vohs said. “ … They cannot continue to operate because they disagree with a final decision that was made by the department nine months ago. There is no exception to the law for people who disagree with the law.”
Vohs said health department officials do not take pleasure in constantly enforcing the orders in place. The department is seeking compliance through monetary pressure, she noted, and would not ask the court to exercise its inherent authority to issue a warrant for Stranne’s arrest. It would, however, reserve the right to seek that consequence in the future.
The open sign is lit up at The Iron Waffle Coffee Co. on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, in Lake Shore.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd dispatch
“It’s 49 times that the department has had to use its resources to send out an inspector to this restaurant, just to see if it’s open,” Vohs said. “(She) endangered the public health by operating without a license. The fine amount is high, but it’s high for a reason.”
Attorney Richard Dahl, who represents Stranne, said his client was not a threat to public health and was instead the subject of a relentless campaign by the state to abuse its political power and fraudulently revoke her license.
“No one has ever come out of her coffee shop with COVID. There are no documented cases of this,” Dahl said. “ … There is no other indication whatsoever in any way, shape or form that my client is a threat to public health, other than a random rule they claim they are correct on, and I disagree with them.”
The latest requests from the state are part of an ongoing civil lawsuit against Iron Waffle first initiated in December 2020. The lawsuit was the next step at the time after months of inspections, fines and other administrative actions failed to prevent the business from disobeying executive orders concerning mask usage and takeout requirements while continuing operation. Before the court’s contempt findings, Guthmann on May 18 granted a state motion for a temporary injunction, which sought to prevent Iron Waffle from operating without its license first revoked in December.
Dahl argued Thursday the health department lacked the authority to revoke the license in the first place under Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency powers. Dahl also made the case the state agency failed to properly notify Stranne of the revocation, depriving her of her right to appeal the decision in the proper venue and within the time frame allowed by law. He called the state’s assertion Stranne received proper notice a lie and “a pile of manure.”
“They have abused the law and declared here that they are going to twist the Emergency Powers Act and allow the governor to act as a dictator on all issues of law,” Dahl said.
Dahl said the unmasked Iron Waffle employees prompting the initial sanctions by the health department were not in violation of Walz’s order, which Dahl noted made exceptions for those unable to wear face coverings due to medical conditions. The two employees suffer from epilepsy, and Dahl told the judge their doctors told them masks and face shields would aggravate their conditions.
“The state has not only gone beyond the jurisdiction to come after my client, they ignored the governor’s order,” Dahl said. “ … Gov. Walz wasn’t even abusing his power in that way.”
The Iron Waffle Coffee Co. owner Stacy Stranne, pictured here in a 2016 file photo.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Nelson said Dahl already raised those issues with Guthmann and those arguments stand as the basis for Stranne’s appeal currently pending in the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Those arguments do not, however, relate to Stranne’s continued contempt of court, the judge said.
Nelson asked Dahl whether he was taking the position that a license wasn’t required for Stranne to operate her business, to which Dahl replied he thinks the state can have that requirement. But Dahl said he disputed the state’s allegations that Stranne was operating without the license, stating he was demanding certified proof.
“I haven’t discussed when she operates with my client,” Dahl said. “ … My client has a due process right to have her license revoked with a fair process. She has a liberty interest to choose the occupation she wants. She deserves personal service (of the license revocation), and I believe it was wrong for the former judge to enter these rulings.”
Nelson asked Dahl whether a contempt finding was the appropriate remedy when someone disobeys a court order. Dahl replied he’d never seen such extreme disregard for the law on the part of the plaintiff and the issue was now political instead of legal. When asked what kind of legal test a judge should evaluate facts of a case through to determine who should be found in contempt when a court order is willfully ignored, Dahl evoked the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
“The police stood down and didn’t enforce the law after the terrible murder of a Black man on the streets of Minneapolis because of police brutality. … They have a right to protest, and police might want to ignore some violations of the law,” Dahl said. “ … It is entirely appropriate for a judge or for police. You have discretion to wait to decide this until after the appellate court decides this.”
A sign posted on the door of the Iron Waffle Coffee Co., as seen here Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in Lake Shore.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
After issuing the ruling enforcing Guthmann’s order while agreeing to a 30-day stay, Nelson said she wanted to address one more thing before the hearing concluded. Noting the difficulty in scheduling the hearing with the judge newly appointed to the case in the wake of the expedited request, Nelson issued a warning to Dahl to treat court administration and her law clerk with respect.
“My law clerk was treated with disrespect. His motives were maligned inappropriately,” Nelson said. “ … It was horribly inappropriate, it was unprofessional and I will not have it happen again.”
The appeal of the lawsuit remains ongoing, with Dahl submitting a brief and addendum in the case Monday.
Separately, Iron Waffle is also pursuing a contested case hearing with the Office of Administrative Hearings concerning its licensure. Stranne applied for a new food and beverage license on July 23 but was denied by the health department, which according to an affidavit made its decision “based on the Iron Waffle and Ms. Stranne’s persistent pattern of violations at the restaurant.”
A prehearing telephone conference for the contested case is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Sept. 17.
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