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State ex rel Mennemeyer v. Lincoln County

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Second Division

May 22, 2018

LINCOLN COUNTY, Respondents.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lincoln County Honorable David L. Dowd

          Philip M. Hess, Judge


         This case arises from a dispute between the Honorable Chris Kunza-Mennemeyer, the Presiding Judge of the 45th Judicial Circuit (the "Presiding Judge") and Lincoln County (the "County") over the salary of the Juvenile Officer's attorney. The Presiding Judge appeals the trial court's judgment dismissing her writ of mandamus against the County, refusing her request for attorney fees, and denying her motion to disqualify the trial judge. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

         Factual Background

         The County and the Presiding Judge have a dysfunctional relationship. As sometimes seen in family law cases, dysfunctional relationships can lead to complicated and expensive litigation, with costs far outweighing the original amount in dispute.

         The dysfunction between the parties, for the purposes of this appeal, began in December 2014, when the Presiding Judge proposed increasing the Juvenile Officer's attorney's salary from $25, 000 to $41, 000. Until that time, the County Prosecutor's Office had been representing the Juvenile Officer in most matters. The Presiding Judge believed the County Prosecutor's Office would not be able to sufficiently represent the Juvenile Officer due to an increased workload.[1] The Presiding Judge notified the County Prosecutor's Office that she would be budgeting the Juvenile Officer's attorney's salary under the Circuit Court's own budget, and she would be hiring counsel to represent the Juvenile Officer.

         The County disagreed with the Presiding Judge's proposal to raise the Juvenile Officer's attorney's salary to $41, 000, but it agreed to move the position within the "Juvenile Budget." On December 18, 2014, it proposed the County Prosecutor's Office continue to represent the Juvenile Officer for $25, 000. However, on December 24, 2014, the Presiding Judge appointed a private attorney, Jesse Granneman, to represent the Juvenile Officer effective January 1, 2015, at a rate of $150.00 per hour.

         On February 4, 2015, the County filed a petition for review of the Circuit Court's budget with the Judicial Finance Commission ("First JFC Case"), disputing, inter alia, the $16, 440.00 increase in the Juvenile Officer's attorney's salary.[2] A settlement conference was held on March 9, 2015, during which the parties signed a settlement agreement (the "Settlement Agreement") which stated "the Prosecuting Attorney's Office shall continue to provide representation of the Juvenile Offices in [the County] and [Pike County]." The Settlement Agreement further stated "all items not specifically addressed herein shall remain budgeted as previously approved by the County Commission on January 9, 2015."

         On March 16, 2015, the Presiding Judge filed a "motion for hearing" with the JFC, arguing that the Settlement Agreement was not the same document she agreed to during the settlement conference. She asserted the Settlement Agreement was a retyped version she never signed, and her signature on the Settlement Agreement was from an earlier version she had signed. She asserted the retyped version included provisions she had stricken and did not reflect other changes she made with a blue pen.

         On April 3, 2015, counsel for the JFC filed an affidavit attesting to the circumstances surrounding the typing and filing of the final version of the Settlement Agreement. The affidavit stated both parties' attorneys had indicated during negotiations that the final version of the Settlement Agreement was acceptable. That same day, the JFC denied the Presiding Judge's motion. No further action was taken in the First JFC Case. Also on that same day, the County Prosecutor began representing the Juvenile Officer instead of Mr. Granneman.[3]

         On April 21, 2015, the Presiding Judge entered an "Order of Payment" that declared Mr. Granneman was entitled to $12, 165.00 ($150 per hour for 81.1 hours) for services he performed for the Juvenile Officer from January 1, 2015 through April 3, 2015, and ordered the County to pay that amount. The Juvenile Officer personally delivered the Order of Payment to the County Clerk. The County ignored the Order.

         On September 15, 2015, the Presiding Judge sent correspondence to the County's Commissioner and Treasurer requesting payment for Mr. Granneman. The County refused the Presiding Judge's request, replying via a letter from the County Counselor that Mr. Granneman's services were not contracted for by the County and not authorized in the budget. The County Counselor instead offered to negotiate a settlement of Mr. Granneman's fees at a lower amount.

         On November 3, 2015, the Presiding Judge filed a writ of mandamus against the County requesting a preliminary writ be issued to sequester funds to pay Mr. Granneman $12, 165.00 plus interest at a rate of nine percent. The trial court issued a preliminary writ of mandamus. On January 3, 2016, the County filed its answer, a motion to dismiss, and a "counter motion" to declare the Presiding Judge's Order of Payment void.

         On January 29, 2016, the County filed a petition for review over the Circuit Court's 2016 budget ("Second JFC Case"), where it disputed a $35, 000 budget line item for legal fees in the Circuit Court's budget. The Presiding Judge filed an answer, asserting the $35, 000 was necessary to pay current and prospective attorney fees for representing the Presiding Judge in her ongoing litigation with the County.

         On May 10, 2016, the trial court heard oral argument on the Presiding Judge's writ of mandamus. The trial court continued the case for an evidentiary hearing, but then emailed the parties a week later and informed them it would not need further argument or an evidentiary hearing. The trial court requested the parties submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, and neither party objected.

         In June 2016, the JFC issued its ruling in the Second JFC Case, determining that $8, 475 in attorney fees already incurred for the Presiding Judge's representation were reasonably budgeted. It determined the remaining $26, 525 budget request for legal fees was unreasonable, because the amount was for prospective attorney fees which had not yet been incurred.

         On June 13, 2016, the trial court entered its judgment denying the writ of mandamus, finding the Presiding Judge had no authority to enter her Order of Payment because it was contrary to the Settlement Agreement. Despite denying the writ, the trial court determined that the County owed Mr. Granneman $6, 319.43 for the legal services he provided to the Juvenile Officer. It also denied the Presiding Judge's request for attorney fees. After the amended judgment was issued, the County paid Mr. Granneman $6, 319.43.

         On July 1, 2016, the Presiding Judge filed a petition for review of the Second JFC Case with the Missouri Supreme Court. The Court later affirmed the Second JFC Case decision in Lincoln County v. Forty-Fifth Judicial Circuit, 528 S.W.3d 357 (Mo. banc 2017), but noted the issues raised in the writ of mandamus case were not before it.

         On July 13, 2016, the Presiding Judge filed a motion for new trial and motion for change of judge in the writ of mandamus case. The writ court denied the motion for change of judge on July 21, 2016, but did not rule on her motion for new trial. Her motion for new trial was denied by operation of Rule 78.06.[4] In October 2016, the Presiding Judge filed her notice of appeal of the trial court's amended order and judgment denying her writ and request for attorney fees.

         Standard of Review

         When reviewing a trial court's dismissal of a writ of mandamus, our concern is whether the trial court reached the correct result. Wheat v. Missouri Bd. of Prob. and Parole, 932 S.W.2d 835, 838 (Mo. App. W.D. 1996). We will affirm the court's decision if the court exercised its discretion lawfully and no abuse is shown. Id. (citing Sampson Distrib. Co. v. Cherry, 143 S.W.2d 307, 309 (Mo. 1940)). Accordingly, we will affirm the judgment of the trial court in a mandamus action "unless no substantial evidence exists to support it, it is against the weight ...

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