Mining “or” for Grammatical Immunity

In Legal Interpretation, Minnesota Appellate Decisions, Supreme Court by Joe Pull0 Comments

In a dispute over whether a defendant could claim immunity from being sued, the Minnesota Supreme Court recently relied upon a principle of grammar to determine the meaning of the word “or” in the applicable statute.[1]  The Court deployed the terms “conjunctively” and “disjunctively” to explain its decision, and the cases cited in the Court’s opinion show that legal disputes concerning the meaning of “or” arise with some frequency — which means “conjunctively” and “disjunctively” are apt to recur as well.[2] What, exactly, do these grammar terms mean?

A conjunction is a connector; a disjunction is a separator or divider. To read “or” as a conjunction means to treat the words or phrases around it as connected, and thus equally modified by any other words or phrases that modify one or the other. For example, if “or” is read conjunctively in the phrase “men or women with red hair,” the phrase would include both “men with red hair” and “women with red hair.” The words “with red hair” would be connected to the words both before and after the “or.”

To read “or” as a disjunction means to treat the words or phrases around it as separated, and thus not equally modified by any other words or phrases that modify one or the other. For example, if “or” is read disjunctively in the phrase “elephants under the age of two or crocodiles in the water,” the phrase would embrace “elephants under the age of two” and “crocodiles in the water.” The words “in the water” would be separated from the words before the “or.”

As these examples show, in some contexts it makes sense to read “or” conjunctively and in other contexts it makes sense to read “or” disjunctively. Reading “men or women with red hair” to mean “women with red hair or all men no matter what color their hair” would not seem reasonable. Nor would it seem reasonable to read “elephants under the age of two or crocodiles in the water” to mean “crocodiles in the water and elephants under the age of two in the water.”

For purposes of writing and interpreting legal documents, though, it is useful to have a predictable rule, so that the legislature or someone writing a contract can predict what meaning will be given to their words. Accordingly, Minnesota courts ordinarily read “or” as a disjunctive word.[3]  One would be well-advised to remember that practice when encountering a legal text in Minnesota.

The question in Binkley v. Allina Health System arose in the tragic context of a young man who was declined voluntary commitment to the inpatient mental-health program at a hospital and then killed himself about a day later. A Minnesota statute granted immunity from suit to “persons acting in good faith . . . who act pursuant to any provision of this chapter or who physically assist in the commitment of any individual, pursuant to this chapter.”[4] The young man’s family brought suit against the hospital who declined to commit the young man, and the hospital argued it was immune under the statute. The court had to decide whether the limiting phrase “in the commitment of any individual” in the statute applied to the text “who act pursuant to any provision of this chapter,” or whether the limiting phrase only applied to the text following the “or” (“physically assist”) so that immunity could be claimed by persons who acted “pursuant to any provision of this chapter” even if no commitment actually occurred. The Minnesota Supreme Court had little trouble concluding it should follow its usual practice and read “or” disjunctively, meaning that immunity could apply even if no commitment actually occurred.[5]

[1] Binkley v. Allina Health Sys., no. A14-0794 (Minn. 2016). See pages 8-11.

[2] See id. at 10 n.5.

[3] See Binkley, no. A14-0794, at 9-10; Goldman v. Greenwood, 748 N.W.2d 279, 283 (Minn. 2008).

[4] Minn. Stat. § 253B.23 subd. 4 (emphasis added).

[5] Binkley, no. A14-0794 at 11-14.

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