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Collector of Revenue v. Wiley

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Third Division

September 26, 2017

COLLECTOR OF REVENUE, Respondent/Cross-Appellant,
GREG WILEY, Appellant/Cross-Respondent.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis 1022-CC03827 Honorable Jason M. Sengheiser

          Gary M. Gaertner, Jr., Presiding Judge


         This suit involves the payment of court costs in an action by the Collector of Revenue of the City of St. Louis (Collector) to recover delinquent personal property taxes owed by Greg Wiley (Wiley). Wiley filed a motion to tax or retax costs, requesting a full refund of the $177.00 he paid in court costs, arguing that he should not be liable for costs that the Collector as plaintiff was statutorily exempt from paying. The trial court granted Wiley a partial refund, and both Wiley and the Collector appeal. We affirm in part and reverse in part.


         The Collector filed a petition against Wiley on June 30, 2010, to collect delinquent personal property taxes in the amount of $269.87. The petition also requested court costs in the amount of $177.00. Wiley was served on August 31, 2010. Wiley paid his delinquent personal property taxes and the court costs, but he also sent a letter to the Collector and the Circuit Attorney of the City of St. Louis noting he was paying the court costs under protest. On June 16, 2011, the Collector dismissed its petition with prejudice, noting Wiley had "tendered Cost of [Collector]."

         Thereafter, Wiley filed a petition for declaratory judgment including several claims, contesting the $177.00 in court costs.[1] The trial court issued a judgment in favor of the Collector, which Wiley appealed to this Court. This Court determined that Wiley's exclusive remedy for contesting court costs was through a motion to retax costs under Section 514.270[2] and dismissed Wiley's appeal in that respect. Wiley v. Daly. 472 S.W.3d 257, 266 (Mo. App. E.D. 2015). On July 6, 2016, Wiley filed a motion to tax or retax court costs, pursuant to Section 514.260 (tax) or Section 514.270 (retax). After a hearing, the trial court found that the Circuit Clerk for the 22nd Judicial Circuit (Clerk) had taxed 12 various fees making up the $177.00 in court costs. The trial court determined six of them were improperly taxed to Wiley, resulting in a refund of $90.00. This appeal follows.


         Wiley contests the remaining court costs, totaling $87.00, arguing the trial court erred in allowing the Collector to tax these costs against him. The Collector cross-appeals, arguing that all costs taxed to Wiley were authorized by Missouri state statutes.[3] We review all costs taxed to Wiley.

         The amounts of each court cost taxed here are fixed by statute and therefore do not require judicial determination. See Fisher v. Spray Planes, Inc., 814 S.W.2d 628, 633 (Mo. App. E.D. 1991): see also Givens v. Warren. 905 S.W.2d 130, 133 (Mo. App. E.D. 1995) (distinguishing cost requiring judicial finding before cost may be taxed). On a motion to retax such court costs, the trial court exercises a ministerial duty, initially held by the circuit clerk, to assess court costs or to correct errors made by the clerk in taxing court costs. See Fisher, 814 S.W.2d at 633. The propriety of each cost depends on the applicability of the corresponding statute. Statutory interpretation is a question of law, which we review de novo. See Gash v. Lafayette County, 245 S.W.3d 229, 232 (Mo. banc 2008). "[S]tatutes allowing for costs are to be strictly construed." In Interest of J.P., 947 S.W.2d 442, 444 (Mo. App. W.D. 1997): see also In re Thomasson. 159 S.W.2d 626, 628 (Mo. 1942).

         Wiley's argument is essentially that he cannot be liable for court costs in this particular case because the Collector did not actually incur any costs. We disagree.

         Section 514.060 provides that "[i]n all civil actions, or proceedings of any kind, the party prevailing shall recover his costs against the other party, except in those cases in which a different provision is made by law, "[4] A party prevails not only by obtaining a favorable judgment, but also by obtaining a settlement, a voluntary dismissal of a groundless complaint, or a favorable decision on a single significant issue in the underlying case. Greenbriar Hills Country Club, 47 S.W.3d 346. 353 (Mo. banc 200R We also find that where, as here, a defendant pays a requested monetary claim before the trial court enters judgment on that claim, and the plaintiff subsequently dismisses the suit on that basis, the plaintiff has "prevailed" in that the plaintiff "obtained the substance of what he sought." Hewitt v. Helms. 482 U.S. 755, 761 (1987). Thus, the Collector is the prevailing party here.

         Wiley objects, however, because Section 514.060 provides that the prevailing party collects "his costs, " and here, the Collector did not incur costs due to a statutory exemption. Section 140.730 provides the procedure for collecting delinquent personal property taxes, and it states in relevant part that "in no case shall the state, county, city or collector be liable for any costs nor shall any be taxed against them." Section 140.730.2. Accordingly, the Clerk did not require the Collector to pay any statutory fees that would ordinarily be due upon filing a civil action.

         However, we find it does not follow that no costs are chargeable in this case. The legislature has imposed various costs in order to maintain the functioning of this state's judicial system. At the same time, the legislature has relieved the State of the burden of paying costs upon filing suit, presumably in this situation to avoid burdening the general revenue with the cost of recovering delinquent tax revenue. If the Clerk had charged the Collector statutory filing fees, regardless of the outcome of the litigation, the Collector would receive a refund, either because the defendant would pay court costs as a non-prevailing party, or because even if the Collector did not prevail, Section 140.730.2 exempts the Collector from liability for court costs.[5] We do not believe the Clerk's choice, therefore, not to collect statutory court costs upon filing from the Collector, requires the conclusion that such court costs do not apply. Rather than eliminating costs altogether, Section 140.730.2 is intended as an exception for the State to the general rule that parties are liable for their own costs of litigation. See State ex rel. Gottlieb v. Wilson, 74 S.W. 636, 637 (Mo. 1903) (discussing prior version of similar statute exempting State from liability for costs). Additionally, the Missouri Supreme Court has recognized that in some situations, costs may be taxable even where the plaintiff had not initially ...

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