While jury trials and in-person hearings are shut down during the COVID-19 crisis, Missouri’s appellate courts have been taking cases on briefs, hearing arguments remotely and issuing opinions regularly.
As of the court’s handdown on June 30, the Missouri Supreme Court has issued 39 opinions this year, slightly higher than the 33 issued in the prior six months.
So far, 15 cases, or 38 percent of the year’s output, have featured a dissent. In an average year, only a quarter of Supreme Court cases result in a split.
Here are some of the notable cases from the Supreme Court, as well as the Missouri Court of Appeals and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
You can always tell it’s an election year by the appellate courts’ dockets. The Missouri Supreme Court began the year with a ruling that the affidavit that some voters must sign under the state’s photo identification law is “misleading and contradictory.” The case is Priorities USA v. State of Missouri, SC97470.
And in June, the court deferred a ruling on whether the state’s recently amended absentee-voting laws are sufficient in the face of the pandemic, sending the case back for further litigation and an almost certain return to the Supreme Court. The case is Missouri State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People et al. v. State of Missouri, SC98536.
Meanwhile, the Western District held that a ballot measure proposing to expand Missouri’s Medicaid system can stay on the Aug. 4 ballot, despite challenges alleging that it would unconstitutionally appropriate money. The case is Cady and Johnson v. Ashcroft, WD83823.
The Western District also amended ballot summaries for proposed constitutional amendments meant to make it easier to vote. The case is Sedey v. Ashcroft, WD83356.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in March that the state cannot enforce a total ban on picketing by public employees without violating their right to free speech. The case, Karney et al. v. Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, SC97833, is unlikely to be the final word on the subject: The law at issue was part of a larger bill that restricts public-sector unions. A St. Louis County judge recently held that the entire bill was unconstitutional, setting up a Supreme Court case now waiting to be briefed.
Not all of the recent cases involve large public-sector unions. The 8th U.S. Circuit upheld a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board finding Dollar General engaged in an unfair labor practice by refusing to recognize a union at one of its stores where four of the six employees voted to unionize. The case is Dolgencorp LLC v. NLRB, 18-3695.
Even outside the union context, employment law was a hot topic in the past six months.
In a case of first impression, the Missouri Supreme Court held that an employee’s accommodation request alone is not enough to support a retaliation claim under the Missouri Human Rights Act. The case, Lin v. Ellis et al., SC97641, reversed a nearly $2.3 million judgment in favor of a former medical researcher at Washington University in St. Louis.
In a split ruling, the Supreme Court also ruled that litigation expenses cannot be taxed as court costs under the MHRA because no statute specifically identifies those expenses as court costs. The ruling knocked $9,600 off a total award of about $450,000 for a trash truck driver who was denied an accommodation. The case is Wilson v. City of Kansas City, Missouri, SC97712.
But a number of significant awards for discrimination were affirmed, including an $8.5 million verdict for a gas company employee (McGaughy v. Laclede Gas Co. et al., ED107498); a $2.1 million judgment for a woman who claims she was fired for refusing to unlawfully submit services for Medicaid reimbursement (Pitcher v. Centene Corp. et al., WD82564); a $376,000 award for a hospital housekeeper (McKinney v. Mercy Hospital St. Louis, ED107400); and a $300,000 punitive damages award for a Jackson County sheriff’s deputy (Darks v. Jackson County, Missouri, WD82797).
The Western District ruled that a man terminated for “poor performance” at work can’t be denied unemployment benefits. State law makes it hard for workers to claim benefits if they were fired for violating an employer’s rule, but the court said the purported rule was too vague. The case is Wayne v. Division of Employment Security, WD83132.
The Western District also revived a lawsuit against a school district and a company that employed a substitute teacher alleged to have called a student a racial epithet. The case is M.N. v. North Kansas City School District et al., WD82959.
The Eastern District said a student who allegedly was assaulted by a teacher can’t sue another instructor who failed to report her colleague, even though the instructor was a mandatory reporter. That rule creates a duty only to the general public, not a private cause of action. The case is E.M. v. Gateway Region Young Men’s Christian Association et al., ED108227.
And the 8th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a civil rights suit by a former Highway Patrol sergeant who said he faced retaliation for speaking out after a man drowned while in custody. The case is Henry v. Johnson et al., 18-3298.
Injury and work comp
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that a man allegedly injured by an exploding battery can’t sue a foreign battery manufacturer without some kind of direct connection to the state. The case is State ex rel. LG Chem Ltd. v. Watkins McLaughlin, SC97991.
The high court also ruled that a woman who was treated for exposure to ant spray in the workplace, then hurt her knee at the doctor’s office while being treated, doesn’t qualify for workers’ compensation. The case is Schoen v. Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center, SC98168.
And the court said no new trial was needed for a woman who blamed a lackluster verdict in her car crash case on the defendant’s use of poor-quality photographs of the damage. The case is Kappel v. Prater, SC98010.
The Western District ruled that under Kansas worker’s compensation and tort law, a former University of Kansas School of Law employee can’t sue her supervisor for a car crash in which they were involved at a Missouri law firm. The case is Hill v. Freedman, WD82657.
Also, the Western District said a man injured as the passenger in an automobile crash was unable to bring a negligent entrustment suit against the parents of the driver, who had excluded him from their auto insurance even though he was driving their car. The case is Matysyuk v. Pantyukhin et al., WD82414.
The Eastern District revived an asbestos suit against a boiler manufacturer, saying there was enough circumstantial evidence of the manufacturer’s use of the hazardous material for the case to proceed to a jury. The case is Callanan v. A.W. Chesterton et al., ED108140.
The Eastern District also ordered a new trial in a medical malpractice case, saying the plaintiff should have been allowed to ask a defense expert about his advocacy for tort reform. The case is Revis v. Bassman, ED107663.
The Missouri Supreme Court declined to halt the execution Walter Barton for a 1991 murder. Despite additional legal action and arguments about his guilt, the state carried out the execution on May 19. The case is State ex rel. Barton v. Stange, SC98343.
In two split opinions, the court says a recent reduction in the penalties for repeat drug offenses doesn’t apply to offenders whose lengthy sentences already are final. Gov. Mike Parson later granted clemency to one of the men, Dimetrious Woods, who otherwise would have had to return to prison. The cases are Mitchell v. Phillips, SC97631, and Woods v. Missouri Department of Corrections, SC97633.
The court also refused to expand a line of cases treating criminal defendants differently if they are under 18 at the time of the crime. The case is State v. Barnett, SC98268. It also said juveniles can appeal their certification to be tried as adults, overruling a half-century of precedent that held otherwise. The case is In the Interest of D.E.G. v. Juvenile Officer of Jackson County, SC97869.
In a 5-2 ruling, the court said a motorist’s brief crossing of a fog line on the highway was enough to justify a traffic stop that led to his conviction for drug possession. The case is State v. Smith, SC97811.
And, just in case you thought all of the issues in the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in State v. Bazell had played out, the court ruled that defendants who were sentenced after that ruling still can take advantage of the flaw the case identified in Missouri’s felony stealing statute. The cases are Hamilton v. State, SC97881, and State v. Russell, SC97916.
Examining self-defense law, the Eastern District ordered a new trial for a man convicted of fatally shooting an intoxicated and seemingly armed man outside a St. Louis bar. The case is State v. Endicott, ED107254.
And while not exactly criminal law decisions, two cases considered by the courts involved concealed-carry licensees for former felons. The Western District said in R.F. v. Owen, WD83043, that, based on a recent change to the state’s expungement law, a county sheriff cannot automatically deny a permit to a man whose felony record has been expunged. But the Eastern District said a man whose felonies would be just misdemeanors in some other states still can’t get a carry license. The case is Townsend v. Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, ED107660.
As allegations of police misconduct fills the streets with protests, several rulings have shown that it is possible to hold officers accountable under some circumstances.
The Western District declined to second-guess a Columbia city manager’s decision to fire a police officer who severely injured a man in detention. The case is Sanders v. City of Columbia, WD82527.
And an inmate’s suit against corrections officials was allowed to proceed after the 8th Circuit found the state failed to adequately argue that it was entitled to qualified immunity. The case is Spann v. Lombardi et al., 19-1768.
However, the 8th Circuit also said that, while a man might have been held illegally in jail, he has no remedy under the law for anyone responsible. The case is Hamilton v. City of Hayti et al., 18-3450.
The federal appeals court also tossed an injunction that had limited cash bail practices in the city of St. Louis, though the class action constitutional challenge continues. The case is Dixon v. City of St. Louis, 19-2251.
Every good lawsuit runs headlong into an insurance policy at one point or another, and the courts offered plenty of opinions on that front.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the family of a man who died from asbestos exposure cannot recover under an enhanced-benefit law that lawmakers enacted in 2014, long after his employer went out of business. The case is Hegger v. Valley Farm Dairy Company et al., SC97993.
Some policyholders succeeded in recovering or keeping awards. The Eastern District said an insurer that closed an injured man’s file without informing him that he could recover under his uninsured motorist policy was responsible for a $191,000 jury verdict. The case is Qureshi v. American Family Mutual Insurance Company, ED107661.
The Western District ruled that a hospital can’t claim a portion of a settlement that an injured patient received from his own insurer. The case is Truman Medical Center Inc. v. Progressive Casualty Insurance Co., WD82762.
And a split panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled March 17 that an insurer must defend Lincoln County from a lawsuit brought by former murder suspect Russ Faria. The case is Argonaut Great Central Insurance Co v. Lincoln County, 18-2930.
Others insurers escaped liability. The Western District held that a man injured at a Kansas City-area business can’t recover a $3 million arbitration award from an insurer for the business’ security provider, whom the insurer didn’t cover. The case is McConnell et al. v. West Bend Mutual Insurance Company, WD82865.
A few other cases of note that don’t quite fit a category: public defenders suffered a blow in the Western District, which said it would largely defer to presiding judges who have denied caseload relief for local defender offices. The case is In re: Area 16 Public Defender Office III v. Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, WD82962.
And the Supreme Court added a new procedural wrinkle to interlocutory appeals of trial court rulings. Wilson v. City of St. Louis, SC97544, re-examined what constitutes a “judicial unit” for purposes of a “final judgment” that can be appealed. The ruling has been cited multiple times in the Court of Appeals in the past six months, resulting in several dismissals.
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