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Missouri Law Blog Legal updates, news, and commentary from the attorneys of Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice LLC

City of St. Louis – Still A Judicial Hellhole

December 26, 2018 | Joshua Davis and Rebecca Guntli

The 2018-2019 ATRF Judicial Hellholes Report is out, and, surprise, surprise, the “Show Me Your Lawsuit” state, specifically the City of St. Louis, landed fourth on the list—only behind California, Florida, and New York City. While it must be noted that St. Louis has moved down in the ATRF Judicial Hellhole rankings (St. Louis was ranked No. 3 in 2017-2018 and No. 1 in 2016-2017), St. Louis is still considered by many to be one of the most plaintiff-friendly courts in the nation, making it an inhospitable venue for corporate defendants, or any defendants for that matter.  While the term “hellhole” may be a bit over the top, defense counsel must nonetheless be wary of this venue and advise their clients accordingly. And in-house counsel should pay particular heed when drafting jurisdiction and venue clauses in corporate agreements.

There was initial optimism from 2017 that political changes in the executive branch would aid business interests and result in certain statutory reforms. The ATRF Report bursts that balloon, reporting that optimism “quickly evaporated in 2018 as massive verdicts, blatant forum shopping, and legislative ineptitude plagued the ‘Show Me Your Lawsuit’ state.” 

The ATRF Report also attributes St. Louis’ inability to become a more balanced venue to its “loose” application of procedural rules, and an unwillingness to consistently follow Missouri appellate court and U.S. Supreme Court precedent, especially as it applies to a court’s exercise of jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants. A combination of these two elements is what generally encourages forum shopping and out-of-state plaintiffs to seek out this jurisdiction, which gained national recognition in recent substantial toxic exposure verdicts.

Looking ahead to the 2019 Missouri General Assembly legislative session, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Daniel P. Mehan, recently vowed to address this state’s litigious climate which he describes as a “black eye for Missouri.” He intends to push for new legislation to make Missouri’s courtrooms more balanced when the Missouri General Assembly convenes for their legislative session in January 2019. More recently, the Missouri Chamber Board of Directors has approved the organization’s 2019 Legislative Agenda which include several modifications that are aimed specifically at curtailing Missouri’s Judicial Hellhole status. These reforms contain measures that would:

1.    Clarify venue and joinder laws in an effort to curb venue/forum shopping;

2.    Strengthen the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act to reduce frivolous class action lawsuits;

3.    Increase transparency in toxic exposure litigation to curtail fraudulent claims and ensure compensation for future claimants;

4.    Strengthen Missouri’s employment arbitration climate in an effort to avoid costly litigation and resolve disputes rapidly;

5.    Establish a statute of repose to stop new regulations from opening additional paths to litigation; and

6.    Reforming the statutes regarding punitive damages to clarify the standard and define when an employer can be held liable for such damages.

Whether or not all of these reforms will make it to committee is still yet to be determined, especially since several of these reforms were attempted in 2018 but failed. Nonetheless, 2019 is a new year!

A Passive Website Is Insufficient to Confer Personal Jurisdiction in Missouri

December 20, 2018 | Robert Chandler

Over the years – and to the dismay of out-of-state defendants – state trial courts have often taken an expansive view of when they may exercise personal jurisdiction over companies with limited ties to Missouri. Recently, however, the Missouri Supreme Court made permanent a preliminary writ of prohibition in the case of State of Missouri ex rel PPG Industries, Inc. v. The Honorable Maura McShane, Case No. SC97006. Advertisement on a passive website by an out of state company is not conduct sufficient to confer personal jurisdiction under the Missouri long arm statute. 

Facts

Hilboldt Curtainwall, Inc. provided materials for a Missouri construction project. Some of these materials were to be coated with a product made by PPG Industries, Inc., a Pennsylvania corporation. Hildboldt reviewed PPG’s website and identified Finishing Dynamics, LLC as an “approved applicator” of the coating product manufactured by PPG. Finishing Dynamics failed to properly apply the coating product, rendering useless the products which were coated. Hilboldt subsequently filed suit in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, Missouri against Finishing Dynamics for breach of contract and implied warranty of merchantability. Hilboldt also sued PPG under a negligent misrepresentation theory stemming from the information obtained by Hilblodt from PPG’s website.

PPG filed a motion to dismiss Hilboldt’s negligent misrepresentation claim for lack of personal jurisdiction. PPG argued that its website advertising was insufficient conduct to confer personal jurisdiction, stating that representations on its passive website, which were not aimed specifically to Missouri consumers, were insufficient to confer personal jurisdiction. PPG had no other ties to Missouri.

Hilboldt argued that, under its negligent misrepresentation theory, PPG committed a tortious act in the state of Missouri. Hilboldt believed conduct sufficient to confer personal jurisdiction in Missouri existed because the representations on PPG’s website were received by Hilboldt in Missouri, relied upon by Hilboldt in Missouri, and caused injury to Hilboldt in Missouri.

The Circuit Court denied PPG’s motion to dismiss, and PPG filed a petition for a writ of prohibition in the Missouri Supreme Court to prevent the circuit court from taking any further action other than to dismiss PPG from the case. The Supreme Court issued a preliminary writ, and this decision followed.

PPG’s Conduct Was Insufficient to Confer Personal Jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court agreed with PPG that the passive website, visible within Missouri but not used for direct communication or negotiation, was not conduct falling under the Missouri long arm statute. The Court stated that, in light of “the broad and general nature of PPG’s website, PPG’s suit-related contacts with Missouri are not sufficient to be considered tortious acts in Missouri.”

Missouri courts apply a two part test to determine whether personal jurisdiction exists over a nonresident defendant. First, the nonresident’s conduct must fall within the Missouri long arm statute. That statute, RSMo. §506.500(3), confers personal jurisdiction upon foreign persons and firms who commit a tortious act within the state. Secondly, once it is determined that the conduct does fall under the statute, the Court must determine whether the defendant has sufficient minimum contacts with Missouri to satisfy due process.

The Court emphasized that no direct or individual communications occurred between Hilboldt and PPG, PPG did not contact any Hilboldt representative through the website and Hilboldt did not interact with any PPG representative using the website. The website was not used to complete any transaction, facilitate communication or conduct any interactions between Hilboldt and PPG. The website was merely accessible by Missouri residents, as well as residents of every other state, but PPG did not specifically target or solicit web traffic from Missouri.

Furthermore, the Court noted that the information from PPG’s website, even if false, was used by Hilboldt to enter into a contract with third-party Finishing Dynamics. The true basis for Hilboldt’s underlying claim was the mistakes made by the third-party in failing to appropriately apply PPG’s coating product, further “muddling” any connection between Hilboldt and PPG.

Because PPG’s limited conduct was found not to fall under the first prong of the Missouri personal jurisdiction analysis, the Court did not determine whether PPG’s contacts with Missouri were sufficient to satisfy due process under the second prong of the analysis.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court ruling establishes that a “passive website” which is used only for advertising and is not used to facilitate communication or negotiations will not provide the basis for conduct sufficient to confer personal jurisdiction against nonresident parties under the Missouri long arm statute. 

Who May Challenge an Allegedly Discriminatory Property Tax Assessment? And What is the Burden of Proof?

December 17, 2018 | Lisa Larkin

In Crowell v. David Cox, Assessor, Missouri’s Western District Court of Appeals reaffirmed that a taxpayer lacks standing to protest a property assessment made before the taxpayer owned the property. It also held that a taxpayer asserting a discrimination claim carries the burden of proving that other similarly situated properties were undervalued compared to their property, including presenting evidence of the fair market value of the similarly situated properties.

In 2014, the Crowells bought residential property in Parkville, Platte County, Missouri. As of 2006, the property had an appraised value of $48,832 (the value the assessor determined was the property’s fair market value) and an assessed value of $9,278 (a percentage of the appraised value which serves as the basis for calculating real estate tax liability). After extensive repairs and renovations, the property sold in December 2007 for $234,000. Based upon the sale, the appraised value increased in 2008 to $230,660, with the assessed value increasing to $43,825. These valuations were applied to the property for tax years 2008 through 2014 with no protests of the valuations. In October 2014, the Crowells purchased the property for $230,000.

After the purchase and after doing some research into the assessment and sales history, the Crowells engaged in informal negotiations with the assessor to have the appraised and assessed values of the property reduced. In 2015, the assessor reduced the appraised/assessed values to $210,660/$40,025. Dissatisfied with the reduction, the Crowells pursued formal review and appeal through the Platte County Board of Equalization, which affirmed, and the State Tax Commission. 

Before the State Tax Commission, the Crowells argued discrimination in that their property was appraised at a higher ratio of its sale price than five other comparable properties. The five other properties were all recent sales and, unlike the Crowells’ property, none of them received an increase in assessed value based upon the sale. The Crowells also presented a chart comparing 41 other Platte County properties, as to square footage, appraised/assessed values, tax amount, and tax amount per square foot. Based on this comparison, the Crowells argued their property was assessed at a higher rate per square foot than all 41 comparison properties. The Crowells did not dispute, however, that the fair market value of their property was $210,660. Nor did they present any evidence of the fair market value of the comparison properties. 

The State Tax Commission concluded the Crowells lacked standing to challenge the 2008 assessment because they did not own the property until 2014. It also found no discrimination because the Crowells failed to show that other properties in the same general class, i.e. residential, were undervalued. The Commission found the Crowells presented no evidence from which a comparison could be made between the median level of assessment of residential property in the county and the actual level of assessment of their property. 

The Crowells filed a petition for review in the Circuit Court asserting disparate and discriminatory treatment because the 2008 assessment increase was based on the property’s sale price whereas none of the other properties sold in the Crowell’s neighborhood between 2008 and 2015 received an assessment increase based on the sale price. The Circuit Court affirmed the Commission’s decision and order.

On appeal, the Crowells argued two points: (1) the 2008 assessment violated Missouri law and was thus void ab initio, even if the Crowell lacked standing to challenge the assessment at the time it was imposed; and (2) the Commission had erroneously concluded that the Crowells were required to prove all other property in the same class was undervalued.

As to the challenge to the 2008 assessment, the Western District reaffirmed the long-standing rule that individual taxpayer plaintiffs lack standing to challenge other taxpayers’ property tax assessments, as they are not injured personally by others’ assessment calculations. This is true even though the allegedly legally faulty 2008 assessment in this case set in motion a chain of events which was directly and causally connected to the performance of the Crowells’ 2015 appraisal and assessment. According to the Court, a taxpayer lacks standing to challenge another taxpayer’s assessment even if the assessment results in a tax increase for the complaining taxpayer. 

As to the Crowells’ discrimination claim, the Western District found the Crowells failed to meet their burden of showing that disparate treatment caused them to bear an unfair share of the property tax burden compared to the other properties.  Even had the Crowells’ property been the only one reassessed based on its sale price that alone, would be insufficient. The Crowells failed to prove that the other recently sold properties were not assessed at their fair market values, and that failure was fatal to their claim. 

Related Services: Appellate

Attorneys: Lisa Larkin

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The BSCR Missouri Law Blog examines significant developments, trends and changes in Missouri law on a broad range of topics of interest to Missouri practitioners and attorneys and businesses with disputes subject to Missouri law. Learn more about the editor, David Eisenberg.

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