The key to resolving a trash-collection dispute in Kansas City, according to the Missouri Supreme Court, is an English legal doctrine dating back to 1606.
A unanimous bench on Oct. 15 ruled against a group of owners and managers of trailer parks and apartment buildings who previously had won $10.3 million in damages and reinstatement of the city’s program for trash pickup at their properties. That program had arisen in the 1970s after an earlier group of owners reached an agreement with the city during litigation and merged it into a judgment.
Yet under the centuries-old law of merger, the court ruled, only those original parties may bring viable claims against each other for not abiding by the judgment. Neither the new plaintiffs nor the class recently certified by the circuit court can prevail in this case, Judge Zel M. Fischer wrote for the court, because they weren’t original parties, and because class certification never occurred in the 1970s litigation.
Kansas City Associate City Attorney Tara Kelly referred an interview request to city spokesman Chris Hernandez, who wrote in an email: “We appreciate the Missouri Supreme Court’s clear, simple and straightforward opinion. This decision will help the city save taxpayer money and continue becoming more sustainable and efficient with our trash and recycling services.”
The plaintiffs’ attorneys, which included Edward D. “Chip” Robertson Jr. and Edward D. Robertson III of Bartimus Frickleton Robertson Rader, along with Richard F. Lombardo and Leland M. Shurin of Shaffer Lombardo Shurin, did not respond to a request for comment.
In 1971, Kansas City enacted an ordinance to provide trash collection for all residences except trailer parks and apartment buildings. Owners of excluded dwellings filed three separate lawsuits, which were consolidated into one.
The plaintiffs and the city struck a deal: The city would either collect trash for the owners of excluded dwellings or, in the alternative, pay each owner of an excluded dwelling a “rebate” of $1.15 per occupied unit per year, adjusting regularly for cost increases and decreases. Thus was born the trash-rebate program.
The city further agreed it would end the program only if it ends the entire trash-collection service. Upon the request of the parties, a judge merged the overall agreement into a judgment.
In 2010, however, the city effectively ended the trash-rebate program.
Five years later, Sophian Plaza Association, Townsend Place Condominium Association Inc. and Stadium View Apartments filed a class-action petition. Platte County Circuit Judge James Van Amburg certified a class consisting of “all managers and owners of trailer parks, condominiums, apartments and buildings containing seven or more dwelling units located in Kansas City” since May 2010. The class’s claims included breach of contract, specific performance and civil contempt.
After a trial, Van Amberg ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, assessing $10.3 million in compensatory damages, in addition to $1.4 million in attorneys’ fees. The city appealed. It was rebuffed by the Western District Court of Appeals but found a more sympathetic ear at the Supreme Court.
“The law of merger exists to prevent suits like Sophian Plaza’s,” wrote Fischer in a footnote. “Once parties turn to the courts to enforce their previously entered agreement . . . a party cannot later seek to separate and independently enforce the contract while retaining a right to enforce the court’s judgment through civil contempt proceedings.”
Fischer added that “this is not a new or novel legal doctrine — its roots race to the [English] Court of Common Pleas in 1606.”
As for the civil-contempt claim, Fischer wrote that “to bring a civil action, one must have been a party for whose benefit the original judgment was entered. No one in this class falls into that category.”
The plaintiffs had argued that the clear intention of the 1976 judgment had been to “afford relief to all owners of relevant properties,” but Fischer noted that no class was ever certified in 1976, so the judgment “can be enforced only by the parties to that judgment, even though the judgment extends benefits to others.”