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Peoples v. The Medical Protective Co.

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Fourth Division

March 12, 2019

KAREN PEOPLES, Respondent,
v.
THE MEDICAL PROTECTIVE COMPANY, Appellant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Clay County, Missouri The Honorable Janet L. Sutton, Judge

          Before: Karen King Mitchell, Chief Judge Presiding, Thomas N. Chapman, Judge, and Cory L. Atkins, Visiting Judge

          THOMAS N. CHAPMAN, JUDGE

         The Medical Protective Company (MedPro) appeals from the judgment of the Circuit Court of Clay County in favor of Karen Peoples (Peoples) in the sum of $79, 922.50, enforcing a child support lien on the personal injury proceeds previously paid by MedPro to her ex-husband, Reynold Peoples (Ex-husband). In its sole point on appeal, MedPro asserts that the trial court erred because Peoples failed to meet the requirements under § 454.518 RSMo[1] necessary to attach a child support lien to the proceeds of the lawsuit that had been filed by Ex-husband and because her compliance with the requirements of § 454.519 (respecting liens on negligence or personal injury demands or rights of action) was not sufficient. Finding no error, we affirm.

         Facts and Procedure

         Upon dissolution of their marriage in 1998, Ex-husband was ordered to pay Peoples $350 per month for child support, beginning on August 1, 1998. Ex-husband has never made a child support payment. In 2010, while an inmate in the Jefferson City Correctional Facility, Ex-husband suffered an arterial embolism, which ultimately resulted in the amputation of his left leg. On February 22, 2013, Ex-husband filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against Dr. Miguel Paniagua, alleging negligence in the treatment of the arterial embolism.

         Thereafter, Peoples's attorney, Michael Shipley, mailed a letter to Dr. Paniagua's attorney, John Roark, notifying him that Peoples held a child support lien (then in the amount of $54, 967.50) upon any claim for negligence or personal injury that Ex-husband might have asserted against Dr. Paniagua (the Lien Letter). Shipley attached a copy of Peoples's "Judgment Order of Dissolution of Marriage" as well as an affidavit attesting to the amount of Ex-husband's child support arrearage. The Lien Letter directed Roark to forward the correspondence to Dr. Paniagua's professional liability insurer, MedPro. Shipley sent the Lien Letter pursuant to § 454.519, which provides a means to assert a child support lien on negligence or personal injury "demands or rights of action" by certified letter sent to the tortfeasor or his attorney.

         In September of 2015, Ex-husband's medical malpractice lawsuit was settled for $100, 000. As part of the release agreement, Ex-husband "covenant[ed] to pay and satisfy any valid lien or right of reimbursement in full...". MedPro paid the entirety of the settlement proceeds to Ex-husband and his attorney. MedPro was aware of the Lien Letter, but paid no portion of the settlement proceeds to Peoples.

         Peoples petitioned the circuit court to order MedPro to reimburse her for the full amount of her child support lien against Ex-husband. In its Answer, MedPro argued (as it does on appeal) that Peoples's lien notice was ineffective because she had not filed the notice of lien in the court where Ex-husband had filed his personal injury claim, and had thus failed to comply with the requirements set forth under § 454.518 (which allows a child support obligee to attach a lien to the proceeds of a lawsuit by filing notice of the lien in the court where the suit is pending).

         The case was submitted on a joint stipulation of facts, depositions of the parties' counsel, and trial briefs. The circuit court entered judgment in favor of Peoples, finding that she was permitted to provide notice of her lien to MedPro under either § 454.518 or § 454.519. The Court determined that Peoples's lien was valid and enforceable because she had complied with the requirements of § 454.519; and entered judgment in her favor and against MedPro in the sum of $72, 922.50, together with statutory interest at 9% per annum. MedPro timely appeals.

         Standard of Review

         In its sole point on appeal, MedPro argues that the circuit court erred in entering judgment in favor of Peoples because it misapplied the law in finding that she could assert her child support lien, after suit had been filed, by complying with the requirements of § 454.519 (by certified letter to the tortfeasor or counsel) instead of the requirements of § 454.518 (by filing notice of her lien in the court where the suit had been filed).[2]

         "In an appeal from a court-tried civil case, 'the trial court's judgment will be affirmed unless there is no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law.'" Hill v. Missouri Dep't of Conservation, 550 S.W.3d 463, 466-67 (Mo. banc 2018) (quoting White v. Dir. of Revenue, 321 S.W.3d 298, 307-08 (Mo. banc 2010)). "When a case is tried on stipulation of facts, the only issue on appeal is whether the trial court drew the proper legal conclusions from the stipulated facts." Hess v. Proffer, 87 S.W.3d 432, 433 (Mo. App. E.D. 2002).

         "The circuit court's determinations of questions of law are subject to de novo review." Hill, 550 S.W.3d at 467. Statutory interpretation is a question of law that a reviewing Court therefore reviews de novo. Spradling v. SSM Health Care St. Louis, 313 S.W.3d 683, 686 (Mo. banc 2010). "The statutory provisions for enforcement of child support orders must be liberally construed to comply with the spirit or reason behind them, resolving all reasonable doubts in favor of ...


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