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Brainchild Holdings, LLC v. Cameron

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Third Division

April 25, 2017

BRAINCHILD HOLDINGS, LLC, Plaintiff/Respondent,
v.
STEPHANIE CAMERON, Defendant/Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis Hon. Michael Noble

          OPINION

          Lisa S. Van Amburg, Judge.

         Appellant Stephanie Cameron appeals the trial court's judgment in favor of Respondent Brainchild Holdings, LLC, arguing that the trial court improperly denied Cameron's request for a trial by jury. We would reverse and remand. However, a Supreme Court case regarding the right to a jury trial in rent and possession actions predates the elimination of special courts in Missouri. As a result, we transfer the case to the Supreme Court under Rule 83.02 for the purpose of reexamining existing law and due to the importance of the issues presented.

         Discussion

         The underlying lawsuit concerns a Chapter 535 rent and possession action by Brainchild Holdings against Cameron for rent and possession of the premises. Cameron filed an answer to Brainchild Holdings' petition and made a jury demand.

         The trial court heard arguments concerning Cameron's jury trial demand. Cameron asserted that she had a right to a jury trial, citing Supreme Court precedent in Rice v. Lucas, 560 S.W.2d 850, 857 (Mo. banc 1978), holding that legislation denying a party's right to a jury trial before a magistrate judge did not violate the constitutional right to a jury trial as long as the party was able to appeal to the circuit court and obtain a jury trial de novo. Cameron contended that recent amendments to Chapter 535 and other procedural statutes eliminated her ability to obtain a jury trial on appeal, so the recent amendments to Chapter 535 must be interpreted to preserve her constitutional right to a jury. Specifically, prior to 2014, §512.180 made rent and possession actions subject to appeal to the circuit court for a trial de novo. See §512.180 R.S.Mo. Supp. 2004. However, in 2014, the legislature amended the law and provided that Chapter 535 "[a]pplications or appeals shall be allowed and conducted in the manner provided as in other civil cases." §535.110. The provisions in §512.180 allowing parties to a rent and possession action to seek trial de novo on appeal were also removed, so rent and possession appeals were to be directed to this court. The legislature thereby effectively extinguished the possibility of a jury trial in rent and possession actions unless §535.040 is interpreted to allow a jury trial. Otherwise, Cameron argues, the legislature's amendments violated her constitutional right to a jury trial under the Constitution of the State of Missouri.

         In the trial court, [1] Brainchild Holdings asserted that, in the absence of specific statutory authority, litigants do not have a right to a jury trial in rent and possession actions. In light of the legislature's amendments to Chapter 535 and other procedural statutes, Brainchild Holdings argued Cameron no longer had a right to a jury trial under the statute. The trial court agreed and denied Cameron's request for a jury trial. After a bench trial, the trial court entered a verdict in favor of Brainchild Holdings.

         Jurisdiction

         This court has the duty of examining our jurisdiction in every case. See Sharp v. Curators of Univ. of Missouri, 138 S.W.3d 735, 737-38 (Mo. App. E.D. 2003). We look first to the jurisdiction granted this Court under the Missouri Constitution. Article V, section 3 of the Missouri Constitution, which provides that the Court of Appeals has general appellate jurisdiction in all cases except those within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Among the cases that fall within the Supreme Court's exclusive appellate jurisdiction are those involving the validity of a state statute. Mo. Const. art. V, sec. 3. Therefore, we must first consider whether this Court has jurisdiction to decide the constitutional challenge.

         Cameron presents two points on appeal. In Point I, Cameron submits that the trial court erred when it denied her request for a jury trial for a claim brought under Chapter 535 because she has a right to a jury trial under Article I, Section 22(a) of the Missouri Constitution. In Point II, Cameron asserts that §535.040 impliedly provides for a trial by jury in rent and possession actions in light of the legislature removing a previous provision in the statute explicitly barring a jury trial.

         Though Cameron's points on appeal seem to present a constitutional challenge to the validity of the rent and possession statute, she does not. Rather, Cameron expressly argues that §535.040 should be interpreted in a way that avoids an unconstitutional result. Simply put, Cameron challenges the trial court's interpretation of a statute. Statutory interpretation and construction in light of the Constitution is well within the jurisdiction of this court. See, e.g. State ex rel. Neville v. Grate, 443 S.W.3d 688, 693 (Mo. App. W.D. 2014) ("As a principle of statutory construction, this court should reject an interpretation of a statute that would render it unconstitutional, when the statute is open to another plausible interpretation by which it would be valid."). Therefore, we have jurisdiction over this case.

         Standard of Review

         In a court-tried case, this court will affirm the judgment of the trial court unless there is no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence, it erroneously declares the law, or it erroneously applies the law. Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo. banc 1976). In addition, statutory interpretation is an issue of law that this Court reviews de novo. Finnegan v. Old Republic Title Co. of St. Louis, 246 S.W.3d 928, 930 (Mo. 2008).

         Discussion

         Cameron presents two points on appeal. In Point I, Cameron argues that the trial court erred when it interpreted §535.040 to deny her a trial by jury. In Point II, Cameron contends that §535.040 impliedly provides for a trial by jury in rent and possession actions in light of the legislature removing a previous provision in the statute explicitly barring a jury trial.

         The statutory language at issue states:

Upon the return of the summons executed, the judge shall set the case on the first available court date and shall proceed to hear the cause, and if it shall appear that the rent which is due has been demanded of the tenant, lessee or persons occupying the property, and that payment has not been made, and if the payment of such rent, with all costs, shall not be tendered before the judge, on the hearing of the cause, the judge shall render judgment that the landlord recover the possession of the premises so rented or leased, and also the debt for the amount of the rent then due, with all court costs and shall issue an execution upon such judgment, commanding the officer to put the landlord into immediate possession of the property leased or rented, and to make the debt and costs of the goods and chattels of the defendant…

§535.040.1. The Missouri Constitution provides that "the right of trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate…" Mo. Const. art. I, § 22(a). "Quite simply, the words of the provision is [sic] intended to guarantee a right, not to restrict a right." State ex rel. Diehl v. O'Malley, 95 S.W.3d 82, 84 (Mo. 2003). The question here is whether, in light of Article I, § 22(a), the language contained in §535.040 as interpreted by the trial court denies litigants their constitutional right to a jury trial.

         As an initial matter, nothing in the language of the statute specifically precludes a jury trial. Instead, it sets forth procedures for the court to hear rent and possession actions in an expeditious manner. "[I]f it is at all feasible to do so, statutes must be interpreted to be consistent with the constitutions." State v. Vaughn, 366 S.W.3d 513, 517 (Mo. 2012) (citing State v. Stokely, 842 S.W.2d 77, 79 (Mo. 1992). "If a statutory provision can be interpreted in two ways, one constitutional and the other not constitutional, the constitutional construction shall be adopted." Id. (citing Murrell v. State, 215 S.W.3d 96, 102 (Mo. 2007)). Therefore, we find the plain language of the statute does not, without more, deny a litigant the right to a jury trial.

         The history of the right to a jury trial in rent and possession actions assists our analysis. In State ex rel. Kansas City Auditorium Co. v. Allen, the Kansas City Court of Appeals grappled with the issue of whether the statute of landlord tenant, construed with the constitution, authorized a jury trial in possessory actions. 45 Mo.App. 551 (1891). The court concluded that it did not because, at that time, landlord-tenant actions were heard before justice of the peace courts, which were courts of special jurisdiction. Id. at 564-65. The court opined that "notwithstanding [that] the statute in question does not provide for a jury trial … it does provide, without unreasonable restriction, for an appeal to a court where a jury trial may be had." Id ...


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