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Kim v. State

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Southern District, First Division

November 12, 2019

HYEWON ("HELEN") KIM, M.D., Plaintiff-Respondent,
STATE OF MISSOURI, Intervenor-Appellant. and MERCY CLINIC SPRINGFIELD COMMUNITIES, Defendant-Respondent,


          GARY W. LYNCH, P.J.


         The State of Missouri appeals the trial court's judgment denying its petition to enforce a section 537.675[1] lien, for deposit into the Tort Victims' Compensation Fund ("TVCF"), that the State purports to have on punitive damages that were awarded during the course of the underlying litigation between Dr. Hyewon Kim ("Dr. Kim") and Mercy Clinic Springfield Communities ("Clinic") (Dr. Kim and Clinic are collectively referred to as "Respondents"). Because this case was resolved by compromise settlement prior to a "punitive damage final judgment," as that phrase is expressly, clearly, and plainly defined in section 537.675.1(4), section 537.675.3 expressly exempts this case from the provisions of section 537.675. We, therefore, affirm the trial court's judgment.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         The genesis of the underlying litigation was an employment-termination dispute between Dr. Kim, a radiation oncologist, and Clinic, Dr. Kim's former employer. Dr. Kim filed a petition alleging, inter alia, that Clinic retaliated against her and constructively discharged her after she reported instances of substandard medical treatment and Medicare fraud. Clinic denied Dr. Kim's allegation in its answer and filed counterclaims alleging Dr. Kim breached her employment contract and unjustly enriched herself during her employment.

         Respondents proceeded to trial. On Dr. Kim's constructive discharge claim, a jury found in favor of Dr. Kim, awarding her $720, 821.00 in compensatory damages and $800, 000.00 in punitive damages ("the punitive damage award"). On Clinic's claim for unjust enrichment, the trial court, in a separate proceeding, found in favor of Clinic, awarding it $63, 094.00. Judgments were entered in conformity with these findings (collectively referred to as "the underlying claims judgment").

         Respondents thereafter timely cross-appealed the underlying claims judgment. This court consolidated the appeals and affirmed that judgment in all respects by published opinion in Kim v. Mercy Clinic Springfield Communities, 556 S.W.3d 613 (Mo.App. 2018). A subsequent motion for rehearing and an application for transfer to the Supreme Court of Missouri, filed by Clinic, were denied.[2]

         Clinic then timely filed an application for transfer directly with the Supreme Court of Missouri, which was assigned case number SC96999. On May 1, 2018, the Supreme Court of Missouri denied transfer. This court subsequently entered, on the following day, its mandate affirming the underlying claims judgment.

         A few weeks later, the State filed a "NOTICE OF LIEN" ("the lien notice") in the trial court in this case, stating, "Pursuant to § 537.675.3, RSMo, the State of Missouri files and gives notice of its lien for fifty (50) percent of the punitive damage final judgment entered in this cause for deposit into the Tort Victims' Compensation Fund."

         On June 26, 2018, Respondents entered into a "SETTLMENT AGREEMENT AND MUTUAL RELEASE OF CLAIMS" ("the settlement agreement"), which purported to resolve all underlying claims between Respondents at issue in the case.

         Thereafter, the State filed a motion to intervene in the trial court case and, on the following day, filed a petition seeking to enforce the lien notice. Respondents filed "Suggestions in Opposition" to the State's petition.[3] Following a hearing, the settlement agreement was submitted to the trial court for in-camera review.

         The trial court issued a judgment denying the State's petition ("the lien petition denial judgment"). In that judgment, the trial court concluded that there was no "punitive damage final judgment" because June 26, 2018, the date the settlement agreement was executed, was within the ninety-day period for filing a petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of the United States ("SCOTUS").

         The State timely appeals the trial court's lien petition denial judgment, raising two points of asserted trial court error: (1) under the plain and ordinary language of section 537.675, "a 'punitive damage final judgment,' as defined by statute, existed when the State asserted its lien, in that the [underlying claims judgment] was no longer 'subject to review' by any state or federal court at the time the parties entered into their post-judgment settlement[;]" and (2) if "the phrase 'no longer subject to review' in that statute is vague or ambiguous, which [the ...

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