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Chastain v. Geary

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Fourth Division

November 21, 2017

CLAY CHASTAIN, Appellant,
v.
BILL GEARY, ET AL., Respondents.

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF JACKSON COUNTY, MISSOURI THE HONORABLE J. DALE YOUNGS, JUDGE

          Before: Mark D. Pfeiffer, Chief Judge, Gary D. Witt, Judge and Edward R. Ardini, Jr., Judge

          EDWARD R. ARDINI, JR., JUDGE

         Clay Chastain ("Chastain") filed an action against Bill Geary ("Geary") in his capacity as City Attorney for the City of Kansas City alleging malfeasance relating to the advancement of an initiative petition for a light rail ordinance in Kansas City. The Circuit Court of Jackson County entered an order dismissing Chastain's claims with prejudice, finding that Geary was performing a governmental function and thus entitled to sovereign immunity. Chastain appeals.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND[1]

         This appeal arises from the alleged conduct of Geary as it relates to the advancement of an initiative petition for a light rail ordinance in the City of Kansas City. We set forth a general overview of the initiative petition process in Kansas City to provide a better understanding of this appeal. Section 701 of the Charter of the City of Kansas City, Missouri ("City Charter") includes a procedure for citizens to propose a new ordinance through a petition process that requires signatures from at least five percent of city electors. The City Charter specifically mandates that "[e]ach petition paper shall include as a part thereof a statement giving the names and addresses of five electors of the city, who, as a committee of petitioners, shall be officially regarded as filing the petition…" § 731. The City Clerk examines whether the submitted petition is in proper form and contains the requisite signatures. § 702. The City Council may either voluntarily place the ordinance before the voters or the committee of petitioners may require that the ordinance be placed before the voters if they "so certify to the City Clerk[.]" Id. The proposed ordinance is then submitted "to the electors at the next available municipal or state election[.]" § 703.

         The initiative petition at issue in this appeal was brought forward by the Light Rail Initiative's Committee of Petitioners ("Light Rail Committee") of which Chastain was a member, leader, and chief spokesperson. In 2016, the Light Rail Committee hired an attorney to assist them in the drafting of a light rail initiative petition to be circulated among Kansas City voters. As allowed under section 407(a)(6) of the City Charter, Chastain and the Light Rail Committee's attorney submitted a draft of the petition that the Light Rail Committee proposed to circulate to the voters to City Attorney Geary for his review. City Attorney Geary reviewed the draft petition and suggested several revisions, which were incorporated into the final petition that the Light Rail Committee circulated for signatures.

         A few months later, the Light Rail Committee submitted the petition with the requisite signatures to the City. In accordance with section 702 of the City Charter, the City Clerk deemed the petition to be in proper form and sent it to the City Council for further review. The Council referred the petition to its Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

         At a hearing before the Council's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, City Attorney Geary appeared and stated that the light rail initiative was "illegal"[2] and thus could be repealed if approved by voters. City Attorney Geary did not mention that Chastain and the Light Rail Committee's attorney had voluntarily submitted the petition for his legal review prior to circulation or that the Light Rail Committee had incorporated his suggested revisions. Additionally, the Light Rail Committee's attorney allegedly did not attend the hearing at the request of City Attorney Geary. The initiative was nevertheless placed on the ballot, where it was rejected by the voters.

         Despite the fact that the light rail initiative was put before the voters and failed, Chastain filed this action in the Circuit Court of Jackson County against City Attorney Geary for malfeasance and against the Light Rail Committee's attorney for malpractice. The claims against the Light Rail Committee's attorney were dismissed based on Chastain's lack of standing in his individual capacity to bring suit against the Light Rail Committee's attorney.[3] City Attorney Geary also filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that he was protected by sovereign immunity and that Chastain failed to allege facts that, if proven, would constitute wrongful, actionable conduct. At the request of the trial court, the parties submitted further briefing and Geary added the additional ground that Chastain lacked standing, in his individual capacity, to bring the malfeasance claims against Geary. The trial court granted Geary's motion to dismiss on sovereign immunity grounds. Chastain appeals.

         DISCUSSION

         Final Judgment

         In his brief to this Court, Geary argues that this appeal should be dismissed for lack of a final judgment and, alternatively, because Chastain failed to properly identify in his notice of appeal the ruling from which this appeal is taken. Because we are without jurisdiction in the absence of a final, appealable judgment, we address these issues first. City of St. Louis v. Hughes, 950 S.W.2d 850, 852-53 (Mo. banc 1997).

         Section 512.020[4] provides, in relevant part, that "[a]ny party to a suit aggrieved by any judgment of any trial court in any civil cause from which an appeal is not prohibited . . . may take his or her appeal to a court having appellate jurisdiction from any . . . [f]inal judgment in the case[.]" (emphases added). The Missouri legislature has defined a "judgment" as "the final determination of the right of the parties in the action." § 511.020. A judgment has further been defined by our Missouri Court Rules of Civil Procedure, [5] which "have the force and effect of law." Mo. Const. art. V, § 5. Rule 74.01(a) provides, in relevant part, that "[a] judgment is entered when a writing signed by the judge and denominated 'judgment' or 'decree' is filed." This requirement has been interpreted strictly to "establish[] a 'bright line' test as to when a writing is a judgment" in order "to assist the litigants and the appellate courts by clearly distinguishing between when orders and rulings of the trial court are intended to be final and appealable and when the trial court seeks to retain jurisdiction over the issue." Hughes, 950 S.W.2d at 853. For example, an order dismissing a lawsuit with prejudice, even if signed by the judge, is not final and appealable unless it is denominated as a "judgment" or "decree." Manzer v. Sanchez, 967 S.W.2d 268, 269 (Mo. App. E.D. 1998). A docket entry ...


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