The Minnesota Department of Health is looking to slap the owner of The Iron Waffle Coffee Co. with a $62,000 fine for continuing to operate without a license and in contempt of court.
The Office of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, which represents the health department in a lawsuit against the Lake Shore business, also filed paperwork Tuesday, Aug. 24, seeking to collect a $22,000 fine issued to owner Stacy Stranne last month by a Ramsey County judge.
If granted, the writ of execution would direct the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office to collect the fine ordered by Judge John H. Guthmann in July.
Guthmann reaffirmed a $2,000 per day fine established in late June as part of an order finding Stranne in contempt of court for continuing to serve customers, despite the revocation of her food and beverage license in response to documented violations of Gov. Tim Walz’s pandemic-driven executive orders.
On Aug. 16, Assistant Attorney General Kaitrin Vohs filed an expedited motion seeking enforcement of the court’s June 22 contempt order — the second time the state has done so, citing a total of 42 days of operation documented by a health department inspector since the initial fine was imposed.
“The Iron Waffle and Stacy Stranne have been warned multiple times about the very definite consequences of future actions,” the memorandum of law in support of the expedited motion states. “ … The Iron Waffle has decided that it would rather pay a $2,000 fine every day than follow the law and the orders of this Court. Without enforcement of the Court’s contempt power, the judicial power of Minnesota’s courts ‘would be a mere mockery.’”
The latest requests from the state come as 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.
"The Iron Waffle has decided that it would rather pay a $2,000 fine every day than follow the law and the orders of this Court. Without enforcement of the Court’s contempt power, the judicial power of Minnesota’s courts ‘would be a mere mockery.’”
— Assistant Attorney General Kaitrin Vohs
The state supported its enforcement motion with an affidavit from a health department sanitarian, who reported he’d inspected Iron Waffle 31 times between July 12 and Aug. 11 and found it illegally operating on all occasions. The state arrived at its $62,000 fine request by multiplying the $2,000 daily fine by the 31 days documented in violation. This was on top of 11 days of illegal operation reported in the state’s first motion seeking enforcement of the court’s order, which resulted in the $22,000 fine ordered last month.
“By operating without the required license, the Iron Waffle and Ms. Stranne have not only violated multiple orders from this Court, but they have also endangered the public health and shown a disregard for numerous health and safety regulations designed to protect the public health in the area of food safety,” the state’s motion stated.
While Stranne continued to operate her Lake Shore business, her lawyer Richard Dahl is fighting back against the sanctions and lawsuit in the courtroom. Dahl initiated an appeal late last month with the Minnesota Court of Appeals, raising several questions about whether the Minnesota Department of Health has the authority and jurisdiction to enforce executive orders through license suspension, as well as whether Stranne was properly notified of her license suspension. Dahl further argued Walz’s executive orders never asserted the right to revoke a license for a violation and state law also does not grant that authority, which he said means the licensing action was improper in the first place.
According to an appeals court order issued Wednesday by Chief Judge Susan L. Segal, however, Iron Waffle failed to submit its brief and addendum due Aug. 16. The court extended the deadline to Sept. 7, noting if the appellant failed to meet that deadline, sanctions including dismissal of the appeal may occur.
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.”
As of Friday, the district court had not yet scheduled a hearing in response to the state’s expedited request. A jury trial for the lawsuit is scheduled for April 11, 2022.