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Home / Featured / Major Opinions: Supreme Court rulings dip as pandemic drags on

Major Opinions: Supreme Court rulings dip as pandemic drags on

Like many people working from home and meeting by video, the Missouri Supreme Court hasn’t been at its most productive in 2020.

The Supreme Court issued just 58 written opinions during the calendar year, the lowest annual total since at least 2001, according to a database of Supreme Court opinions maintained by Missouri Lawyers Media. The last six months of the year were particularly unproductive: Just 18 opinions came out between July and December, fewer than half of those issued between January and June.

The pandemic may have exacerbated a long-term trend in the court’s output. Its average annual during the past 20 years is 81 opinions, but the yearly average from 2001 to 2010 (89.5 cases per year) was well above that of the succeeding 10 years (72 opinions per year from 2011-2020). The high court’s previous low was in 2018, when it issued 63 opinions.

Of those 58 cases, 38 percent featured a dissent by at least one judge. In an average year, only a quarter of the cases result in a split, though that ratio has risen over time. In five of the past six years, the court has split in a third or more of its cases.

The court enters 2021 with 22 cases awaiting rulings — including four that were argued before the court began holding remote arguments in April. Two other pending cases were argued well more than a year ago: A challenge to the constitutionality of the taxing structure for a St. Louis County fire district that was argued in September 2019, and a case involving the propriety of a jury verdict for a man who was injured by a co-worker argued in May 2019.

Despite the difficulties of the past six months, the Supreme Court, the Missouri Court of Appeals and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have made significant rulings in many areas. For reviews of cases in the first half of 2020, please see our Major Opinions section in the July 6 issue.

Criminal Law

Some of the Supreme Court’s most impactful recent rulings have been in criminal law.

In September, the high court ruled 5-2 that experts may testify about potential problems with eyewitness identification of criminal suspects, based on recent changes to the state’s standards for expert testimony. Defendants previously were barred from bringing such testimony before juries. The case is State v. Carpenter, SC98088.

In November, the court unanimously declined relief for an inmate sentenced to life in prison without parole for a murder committed at age 16. Following a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that limited when juveniles can receive such permanent sentences, Missouri passed a law in 2016 allowing such inmates to seek parole hearings after they’ve served at least 25 years in prison. The court upheld the law. The case is Hicklin v. Schmitt, SC97692.

The 8th Circuit examined similar issues in December, holding that a 50-year sentence for a man who committed murder at age 16 wasn’t substantively unreasonable. The case is U.S. v. Barraza, 19-2718.

It wasn’t the only case where defendants got bad news. In September, the Western District ruled that an alleged jailhouse wedding wasn’t enough to prevent a woman from being called to testify against the man convicted of murdering her boyfriend. The case is State v. Stanley, WD81606.

And in October, the same court said that, because a criminal defendant was barred from claiming self-defense, he couldn’t tell much of his version of events in a deadly robbery. The panel split over whether that denied him a meaningful defense. The case is State v. Gates, WD83104.

Also in October, the 8th Circuit reinstated a death sentence against Carman Deck for the murders of a Jefferson County couple in 1996. Through the years, three separate juries had sentenced him to death, and the appellate court said a district judge was wrong to have imposed a life sentence based on the lengthy delay between the initial conviction and ultimate imposition of his death sentence. The case is Deck v. Jennings, 17-2055.

The Supreme Court in November ruled 4-3 that a county prosecutor doesn’t have to answer questions under oath about why he sought the death penalty against a criminal defendant several years into the case and soon before trial. The case is State ex rel. Becker v. Wood, SC98416.

But St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner got less deference from the Eastern District, which in December affirmed the appointment of a local law firm as a special prosecutor in an investigation stemming from Gardner’s prosecution of former Gov. Eric Greitens. The case is State ex rel. Gardner v. Carmody, ED108380. (The case is separate from recent circuit judges’ orders barring Gardner from participating in the cases against local attorneys Mark and Patricia McCloskey, based on comments Gardner’s campaign made during her recent re-election bid. That issue, however, could head to the Court of Appeals in 2021.)

And the 8th Circuit ruled in August that a grand juror can’t talk about her experiences during the decision not to indict former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. The appeals court upheld the constitutionality of Missouri laws swearing grand jurors to secrecy. The case is Grand Juror Doe v. Bell, 19-1436.

Tort

The Supreme Court also made significant rulings in tort law. In December, the court looked at both its 2019 ruling in State ex rel. Johnson & Johnson v. Burlison and a recent overhaul of the state’s venue laws. As a result, the court said 5-2 that two plaintiffs can’t pursue their case against a pharmaceutical company in St. Louis. The case is State ex rel. Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. et al. v. Noble, SC98222.

In September, the high court limited the liability for the St. Louis Metro system, despite a state law that referenced federal safety regulations appearing to require higher limits. As a result, a $1.878 million jury verdict was capped at $420,000. The case is Moore v. Bi-State Development Agency d/b/a Metro, SC98169.

Other large awards fared better. The Supreme Court in August affirmed a $2.75 million civil verdict against a Columbia man for burning down his neighbor’s home — even though he was acquitted of related criminal charges. The case is Green v. Fotoohighiam, SC98262. And the Western District affirmed a $3.6 million judgment for an injured motorcyclist, marking the latest in a series of cases interpreting recent changes to section 537.065 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri. The case is Price v. Thompson, WD83002.

In a 2-1 ruling in November, the Western District also granted a new trial for a child injured during birth, based on inadmissible defense testimony at trial involving possible alternative causes of the injuries. The case is Linton v. Carter et al., WD82637.

A split panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in July allowed a lawsuit to continue against a plant that released a cloud of noxious gas. The case is Scott v. Dyno Nobel Inc., 18-2897. But the court in September shut down a suit by a group of pharmacies suing St. Louis-based Express Scripts for allegedly misusing customer data. The case is Trone Health Services Inc. et al. v. Express Scripts Holding Co., 19-1774.

Employment

Whistleblowers saw mixed results in recent months. In July, the Western District said a caregiver who stood up for a client’s rights could qualify for whistleblower protections. The man alleges he was fired shortly after a local agency admonished the employer based on the caregiver’s report. The case is Jaeger v. Resources for Human Development Inc., WD83141.

The same court in October restored most of a $28.8 million jury award for a doctor who was fired after he raised safety concerns regarding emergency room staffing at Kansas City-area hospitals. The case is Brovont v. KS-1 Medical Services PA et al., WD82544.

But in October, a split panel of the 8th Circuit ruled that a terminated General Motors employee was not covered by a federal law protecting auto-worker whistleblowers, as his allegations concerned false reports of repairs rather than defects in the vehicles themselves. The case is Barcomb v. General Motors, 19-1350.

In October, Eastern District said an arbitrator had the authority not to enforce the arbitration clause that had allowed him to consider the case in the first place. The ruling allows a terminated employee to proceed in state court. The case is Caldwell v. UniFirst Corporation et al., ED108409.

And, while not an employment case, the Western District in August declined to compel arbitration for a man who claims not to have co-signed his grandson’s title loan, based on a dispute regarding who signed the document. The case, Duncan v. TitleMax of Missouri Inc., WD83330, applies a Supreme Court ruling from earlier in 2020, Theroff v. Dollar Tree Stores Inc., in which a workplace arbitration agreement was similarly thwarted by a factual dispute.

Workers’ Compensation

One workers’ compensation dispute has been teed up for the Supreme Court. In July, a split panel of the Western District said that, despite tighter requirements to qualify for the state’s Second Injury Fund, the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission still can take relatively minor ailments into account when deciding if a worker is permanently totally disabled. The court subsequently transferred the matter to the Supreme Court, which is set to hear the case on Jan. 20. The case is Treasurer of the State of Missouri v. Parker, WD83030. The Supreme Court case number is SC98704.

The Eastern District in August that the survivors of a police chief didn’t qualify for a state benefit for officers who are killed in the line of duty. The man had died while working at his second job at a warehouse. The case is Estate of Newman v. City of Leadwood, ED107986.

The Western District ruled in November that a woman who was fired after several unexcused absences wasn’t owed unemployment compensation. Even if the missed days weren’t her fault, they still violated the store’s attendance policy, the court said. The case is Reliford v. Division of Employment Security, WD83154.

Family Law

By a 4-3 vote, the Supreme Court in September declined to order a more favorable redistribution of marital assets for a woman who divorced her husband after he sexually abused a relative. Though the majority found the existing division of property favored the wife, the dissent said the trial court had improperly held the woman to have dissipated marital funds by paying debts and living expenses. The case is Lollar v. Lollar, SC97984.

In a split ruling in November, the Eastern District affirmed the termination of a woman’s parental rights to her two boys. She was unable meet the state’s fitness expectations to get them out of state custody after her boyfriend fatally beat her toddler. The dissent argued that she had no major problems such as substance abuse or a felony record, and that the decision likely would leave the boys in the foster care system for the rest of their childhoods. The case is In the Interest of: J.G.W., ED108803.

The Western District ruled in August that a couple’s inclusion on a state child-abuse registry is an unreviewable “collateral consequence” of an ultimately unfounded investigation of possible injuries to their infant girl. The court said the case became moot once it was closed, and that it would take a ruling from the Supreme Court to create an exception that would allow their challenge to procced. The case is In the Interest of: P.D.W.; Juvenile Officer v. S.W. and M.W., WD83186.

But not all cases had tough outcomes. The Western District in September ordered a new trial for a man who lost his parental rights, ruling that a key report by a social services agency that wasn’t complete at the time of trial should be considered. The case is In the Interest of: E.B.M.; Juvenile Officer v. B.M., WD83612.

Civil Rights

Two recent cases gave plaintiffs a chance to bring their claims against police officers.

In October, a split panel of the 8th Circuit reinstated a Black teen’s lawsuit against officers who misidentified him as an armed suspect and detained him for three weeks before charges against him were dropped. The majority said the plaintiff’s appearance was so different from that of the suspect’s that the officers lacked probable cause for an arrest. The case is Bell v. Neukirch et al., 19-1713.

And the Western District in August allowed part of a malicious prosecution suit to proceed against officers who arrested a man outside a bar. The court said some of his claims involve disputed factual matters to be resolved by a jury. The case is Daniels v. Terranova et al., WD82785.

Public Defenders

The Western District in October offered a possible pathway for overworked public defender offices to seek caseload relief. State law allows relief for individual public defenders but not the office as a whole. But, the court said, nothing prevents a judge from granting individual relief to everyone in the office.  The case is In re: Area 5 Public Defender Office v. Kellogg, WD83535.

In November, however, the Supreme Court declined to take transfer of a previous Western District case that had set a high bar for defenders seeking that relief. In June, the Western District applied a highly deferential abuse-of-discretion standard of review to a judge’s denial of relief for defenders in Jackson County in In re: Area 16 Public Defender Office III v. Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, WD82962.

Elections

In August, the Western District rewrote the ballot summary for a proposal to partially repeal the “Clean Missouri” amendment, which was passed in 2018 to change how state legislative districts are drawn. In November, voters presented with the court’s revised summary approved the repeal, largely returning Missouri to its previous redistricting method. The case is Pippens et al. v. Ashcroft et al., WD83962.

The vote went forward following the Supreme Court’s ruling in October against arguments that special voting procedures put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic did not go far enough. The lawsuit had sought to allow all Missourians to vote by mail without a notarization requirement. The case is Missouri Conference of the NAACP et al. v. Missouri, SC98744.

Another potential change that didn’t happen to the November election occurred when the 8th Circuit in October halted a district court ruling that would have allowed voters to return mail-in ballots in person, rather than trusting them to the mail as the law requires. The Court of Appeals stayed the case pending an appeal by Missouri officials, and it ultimately dismissed it in December. The case is Organization for Black Struggle et al. v. Ashcroft, 20-3121.

— Staff Reporter Jessica Shumaker contributed to this article

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