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Category Archives: Missouri

Workers’ comp reform requires judges to decide whether an injury was caused by work, not just while at work


Near the end of a workday, Jason Pope’s supervisor asked him to move a motorcycle to a showroom on an upper level of the dealership where Jason worked.  He moved the bike to the upper showroom, then tripped walking down the stairs in the dealer’s building. In the fall, he fractured his ankle, which required surgery. He was off work for nine weeks and needed physical therapy over seven months.

Jason filed a workers’ compensation claim, which was denied because Jason failed to prove to the workers’ comp judge that his injury arose (1) out of his employment and (2) in the course of his employment. Under Missouri workers’ compensation law prior to 2005, an employee injured while on the job was not obligated to prove these two factors. Under the old law, workers’ compensation was administered under “no-fault”  system, in which the employer was usually liable unless the employer could show that the injury was not real or was not related to employment.

After the denial of Jason’s claim, he appealed to the Missouri Labor and Industrial Commission, which is a special court that hears appeals of decisions of administrative law judges in Missouri’s workers’ compensation system. The Labor and Industrial Commission reversed the administrative law judge’s decision, ruling the injury to be covered by workers’ comp. The employer then appealed to the Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals, which issued its affirming opinion in  Pope v. Gateway to the West.

The 2005 changes to Missouri’s workers’ comp statutes took away the presumption in favor of coverage of employee injury claims. Part of the target of the “reform” was to prevent employers from paying for injuries that may have happened at work but which were not caused by the job. For instance, when an employee was walking across a parking lot and a “pop” occurred in his knee, the injury might not be covered by workers’ compensation, since it occurred in a normal life activity–walking–not as the result of a hazard or risk associated with the job.

In another situation arising after 2005, an employee was injured in a fall as she made coffee in a breakroom at work. Her medical records indicated that the employee’s shoes caused her to fall; the court held that the employee failed to prove that her injury was caused by a risk related to her employment.

The Western District framed the issue this way:

we consider whether Pope was injured because he was at work as opposed to becoming injured merely while he was at work.

The court sifted the facts that Jason presented, noting that Jason was following instructions from his supervisor to move motorcycles into the upper showroom. When he fell, he was on his way to check with his supervisor to make sure that he was done for the day. He couldn’t reach the supervisor without walking down stairs. His boots didn’t cause him to fall. His own physiology did not cause his injury. The court concluded that these facts  (and some others)

reasonably support a finding that Pope’s injury was causally connected to his work activity, i. e., a risk related to his employment as opposed to a risk to which he was equally exposed in his normal, non-employment life.

 

Before the 2005 amendments to the workers’ compensation statutes, the cause of Jason Pope’s injury would not have been an issue. The employer’s insurance company would have paid the same claim that it would have ended up paying, sooner though and without two appeals.

Policy should not be made on the basis of an isolated anecdote, such as this true story about Jason Pope.  As the number of similar cases accumulates, the workers’ comp insurance industry will be in a position to determine whether the 2005 reforms save money for employers and are of a general benefit to the economy. For now, there can be no question that the burden of the reforms falls on injured employees, some of them unable to work, and health care providers which are awaiting payment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A deed can be ambiguous, even when its words are clear


“When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” said Yogi Berra, supposedly.

Judge Perigo did something similar in a boundary dispute case,  McLallen v. Tillman, arising on the Elk River in McDonald County, which occupies the southwest corner of Missouri. Like all streams in the Ozarks, the Elk River meanders through its floodplain, splitting and recombining, with seasonal floods shifting the arrangement of channels.

Several deeds said that the boundary of the property was a part of a quarter-section “lying North and West of Elk River.” The trial judge, taking the whole fork,  said that these deeds were not ambiguous, sustaining a motion for summary judgment.

The McLallens weren’t happy, because they thought that the eight acres lying between the north and south fork of the Elk River was theirs. Their neighbors claimed the same land. The McLallens appealed, claiming that the deed may be clear enough on its face, but that this language ignored the reality about the Elk River.

At that point, the Elk River splits into two channels, one carrying more water than the other. In 1984, at the time of one conveyance, the southern channel carried the most water. Sometime in the 1990s, the northern channel began to carry the most water. It’s safe to guess that one of the channels may even go dry during droughts.

The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment, sending the case back for a trial. The basis of the reversal is that the appeals court thought McLallen’s deed, while plain on its face, had a latent ambiguity, one that could be discerned from facts outside the words of the deed. The trial court should have heard evidence about which fork of the Elk River constituted its northern boundary, to determine which of two plausible interpretations of the deed would prevail.

 

 

Skills gap leaves Missouri manufacturing jobs unfilled


Manufacturing in the United States and the export of manufactured products from the United States is growing. If jobs could be filled, production and exports could rise. Nobody is opposed to products being manufactured in the US for domestic use and for export.

According to an article in St. Louis Today, citing a study by the Manufacturing Institute, with results confirmed by St. Louis area businesses, thousands of manufacturing jobs are going unfilled because of lack of qualified applicants. And technical colleges have additional capacity to provide the needed training.

After World War II, manufacturers of shoes, clothing, furniture and other products moved into the small towns and cities of the Ozarks, taking advantage of a surplus of mostly non-union, low-skilled workers. Manufacturers later arranged for their products to be made in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin American, then in Asia, seeking lower labor costs and less environmental and worker-safety regulation. Most towns in the Ozarks have vacant manufacturing facilities, even though transportation systems and location with respect to markets have never been better.

Universities and colleges are everywhere, offering all kinds of courses in residence programs and at satellite campuses, with opportunities for online education for students of all ages.

Where are the students who want to learn practical mathematics and how to operate computer-controlled design and manufacturing equipment? Some of them are in the military services. Others are working in unskilled jobs, never having become aware of their own potential to learn and earn. Others are in the gray-collar world of retail and services, where hours are long and wages and benefits skimpy.

While the St. Louis Today article blames the shortage of trainees for modern manufacturing jobs on the widespread acceptance of the value of a college education–as though the college credential had value even without skills to go with it–I’d place part of the lack of interest in manufacturing on the bad experience with manufacturing in the Ozarks. In the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, the manufacturing workers in the Ozarks experienced low wages and benefits, workplace injuries, frequent layoffs, and union-busting, ending with their abandonment (I am not forgetting that these low-wage jobs were better than no jobs and sometimes were the best jobs ever available in some communities for many people).

Manufacturers locating plants in the Ozarks asked poor communities for subsidies in the form of property tax abatement and general-obligation bond issues to for construction of facilities. Some plants polluted streams or left toxic wastes.

The manufacturing of today is much different. It’s cleaner and safer. Workers with training and skills can earn as much or more than many people who have college degrees and obtain as much or more job security. Here’s hoping that Missouri’s technical schools will be seen as the gateways to the good life, rather than an undesirable alternative to college.

Branson seeks advice on how to revitalize Highway 76; will designers study the market?


For a decade, the first mile or two of State Highway 76 west of US 65 in Branson has languished. In this section of the Strip, most of the construction of restaurants, motels and retail strip centers took place 30 t0 40 years ago, under the economic conditions and design sensibilities of the time. For most of a year, the City of Branson’s leadership has been working toward a vision for the revitalization of this portion of the Strip.

The City has followed the usual path of soliciting proposals from firms with expertise in land-use planning, incorporating the disciplines of engineering, architecture and design. The City is nearing the point of awarding a contract for producing a plan with design standards that will to some extent dictate the look of this part of the Strip, much of which was heavily damaged by the February 29, 2012 tornado.

Design standards have another effect, which is to set constraints on the returns on investment in land and building. Real estate appraiser Skip Preble takes a critical look at how land-use planners often neglect to evaluate real estate markets when they formulate design standards in “How Marketing Could Boost Land Development,” published on the New Geography web magazine.

Can land-use planners can be expected to examine real estate market data and translate what they learn into practical design standards? How would a governmental body, in adopting regulations incorporating the new design standards, know whether they will work well with the realities of future real estate markets?

 

Missouri governor signs HB1103, giving courts power to order maintenance of “private roads”


The Missouri General Assembly enacted HB 1103 in the past 2012 regular session, which explicitly grants circuit court judges the authority to impose financial responsibility for maintenance of certain “private roads” onto parcels of real estate that benefit from these roads. Governor Nixon signed the bill into law on July 12, 2012.

There are many problems with rural roads in Missouri. Simple questions–such as determining who owns the road, whether it is a subject to property taxes, who has the right to use it, and who is obligated to pay for its maintenance–are often impossible to answer.

HB 1103’s provisions regarding private road maintenance change section 228.368 RSMo and add three new sections to Chapter 228 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri. This legislation is an attempt to solve the problem of nobody stepping forward to pay for road maintenance in situations in which no provision was made when the road was created. But its definition of “private road” greatly limits its applicability.

According to the new section 228.341, a “private road” means “any private road established under this chapter or any easement of access, regardless of who created, which provides a means of ingress and egress by motor vehicle for any owner or owners of residences from such homes to a public road. A public road does not include any road owned by the United States or any agency or instrumentality thereof, or the state of Missouri, or any county, municipality, political subdivision, special district, instrumentality, or agency of the state of Missouri.” Got that?

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“Plus interest” is implied by court from contract for deed to defeat buyer’s claim


The contract for deed stated that the purchase price was $30,000, to be paid with $3,000 down and 144 monthly payments of $300. The buyers made 90 payments of $300, for a total of $27,000, and demanded a deed.

While the amount financed was stated to be $27,000, the product of 144 monthly payments of $300 would be $43,200.   On the seller’s motion for summary judgment, the trial judge held that the buyers were not entitled to the deed, because the contract required payment of 144 installments of $300, not 90 installments.

The Southern District Court of Appeals agreed  with the trial judge in Webbe v. Keel, stating:

It is not ambiguous for 144 monthly payments to exceed this contract’s sale price because the time value of money is a judicially-known concept.

Even though the contract did not specifically mention interest on the $27,000, the court apparently saw the buyer’s agreement to pay $16,200 in excess of the $27,000 balance over 12 years to be an agreement to pay interest.

Because the case involved contract interpretation, it could be ruled on by a judge without a trial on a motion for summary judgment, unless the trial judge found that the contract was ambiguous. If the trial judge found the contract to be ambiguous, a trial would be held to obtain evidence outside the text of the contract.

Many agreements to pay money over time that are prepared by amateurs fail to mention the interest rate, how interest is calculated (360-day year or 365-day year, compounding period), early payoff provisions and how payments are to be applied  (on day received or on first day of month if received by 5th, for example).

Webbe v. Keel shows how even a very simple contract can pull the parties into court.

 

Elected representatives trump democracy, as Missouri legislature overrides initiatives


When a million Missourians adopt an initiative petition, why should our elected representatives be allowed to override the voice of the people? According to Howard Wright’s blog post, it’s because they can.

Wright describes how our elected representatives have acted to undermine legislation adopted through the initiative petition process provided for in the Missouri Constitution. In particular, Missouri’s puppy mill initiative adopted in 2008 was overturned by the General Assembly in 2009. After Missouri voters approved a minimum wage law in 2006 with a 76% majority, the Missouri House of Representatives attempted to repeal this law, though the bill died in the Senate.

A citizen group called “Your Vote Counts” is attempting to amend the Missouri Constitution to impose a requirement of a 75% vote of the General Assembly to override the voters. Wright suggests that the initiative procedure is a check against the power of dominant political parties, which could otherwise block the will of the vast majority of the voters.

 

Non-compete can be enforceable without geographic limit


The basic rule is that a non-compete covenant with an employee will not be enforced unless it is reasonable in duration and with respect to the geographic area it applies to. Otherwise, employees would be trapped in jobs, because they wouldn’t be able to work if they left the employer.

But a St. Louis judge’s order was reversed by the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District in Whelan Security Co. v. Kennebrew, even though the non-compete covenant did not define the geographic area where the former employee was prohibited from competing with his former employer.

The trial judge had granted summary judgment in the employee’s favor, after having reviewed the employment contract that prohibited Kennebrew from soliciting business from Whelan’s customers or going to work for Whelan’s competitors for 12 months after leaving Whelan. Within four months after separating from Whelan, Kennebrew successfully went after one of Whelan’s customers. The trial court concluded that Kennebrew’s employment agreement was invalid, because it was “overbroad” and “not reasonable as to time and space.”

The appellate court applied a different rule of law, stating:

a restrictive covenant without geographic limitations is not per se unreasonable if the prohibition is against the solicitation of the employer’s clients and customers.

The geographic scope of Kennebrew’s contract was essentially defined by the location of Whelan’s customers.

Non-compete agreements are recognized and limited by statute in Missouri. The statute, section 431.202 RSMo,  creates a presumption that a one-year duration is reasonable, but allows an employer to prove that a longer period might be appropriate under the circumstances.

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

If the plat complies with the regulations, approval is mandatory


Real estate developers (remember them?) sometimes feel as though they’ve been pulled through a knothole backwards by the time they get a proposed subdivision plat to the stage at which it can be submitted to the local government for approval. According to several Missouri appellate opinions, if a proposed plat complies with the subdivision regulations, the local government has no choice but to approve it.

But reality is different, as shown by Alexander & Lindsey v. Platte County, an opinion issued last week by the Court of Appeals for the Western District of Missouri. The court reversed the trial court’s refusal to order that the Platte County Commission approve Alexander & Lindsey’s preliminary subdivision plat. But the appellate court noted that the county government would have additional opportunities to coerce Alexander & Lindsey into making more concessions if it attempted to go beyond the preliminary plat to the submittal of a final plat.

“Preliminary plats” are not mentioned in Missouri’s statutes that authorize counties to adopt and administer subdivision regulations. But the two-stage plat approval process is valuable for developers and planning and zoning boards. The preliminary plat approval process is often the means of obtaining approval for an entire project to be constructed in phases. Once the preliminary plat is approved, the developer can proceed with some confidence that final plats of each phase of the project will be approved when submitted. The preliminary plat approval process, sometimes done in conjunction with a rezoning application, introduces the proposed project to the public and the scrutiny of neighbors and a variety of government agencies.

During the preliminary plat approval process, the developer learns that the subdivision regulations, as written, do not represent the full scope of requirements. Often the government’s preferences for stormwater control, traffic signals, intersection improvements and other expensive issues are not expressed in the regulations. The preliminary plat application doesn’t seem to move forward, until the developer has agreed to install infrastructure that is beyond the requirements of the regulations.

When Alexander & Lindsey submitted a preliminary plat for a commercial subdivision with five lots ranging in size from 2 to 4.6 acres. Alexander & Lindsey completed a traffic study and a drainage study, which were approved by the county’s engineer and the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT).  The Platte County planning and zoning director found that it complied with the county regulations and recommended that the P&Z board approve it.

When the preliminary plat hearing took place before the P&Z board, several persons expressed concerns. Expressing “concerns” are a common manner of objecting to a project for reasons that are not based on regulations. A public water supply district represented that it could supply drinking water, but not in adequate volume or pressure for fire-suppression. An alderman from the nearby town of Weston was concerned that the project’s building setback line was only 75 feet, rather than 100 feet, as required by Weston’s ordinance; Weston had previously rejected the developer’s annexation petition. MODOT’s engineer stated that MODOT regulations did not require the elimination of a driveway, as suggested by a P&Z board member.

Even though the proposed preliminary plat fully complied with all regulations, the P&Z board voted it down. The developer appealed to the Platte County Commission, which was not bound to follow the P&Z board’s recommendation. The Commission upheld the P&Z board’s denial, citing four reasons:

  • lack of specification of proposed uses
  • lack of water for fire suppression and lack of sewer facilities
  • potential impact of possible sewer lagoons on neighboring properties and the public
  • potential for traffic hazards from the existence two driveways

The appellate court noted that these four objections were outside the scope of the county’s subdivision regulations. Therefore, the county’s refusal to deny the preliminary plat was arbitrary, and the trial court was instructed to order the Commission to approve the preliminary plat.

Appellate court reverses trial court to affirm ban of deer-dogging in Missouri


Last August, Judge Robert L. Smith of Ripley County, Missouri, declared some state regulations regarding deer hunting to be unconstitutional. Those regulations prohibited hunting deer with the aid of dogs and from vehicles. On July 15, 2011, in Turner and Jones v. Missouri Dept of Conservation, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Southern District reversed Judge Smith’s rulings, holding that Neil Turner and Bobby “Shannon” Jones lacked standing to challenge the constitutionality of these regulations, which are enforced by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Turner was among those identified in a federal investigation of a group in Southeast Missouri who in 2008 apparently traveled in ATVs and used dogs to drive deer to hunters in tree stands within the Mark Twain National Forest. The dogs were equipped with radio transmitters. Jones was never charged, but was questioned by a Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) investigator.

Turner and Jones persuaded Judge Smith that the regulations prohibiting hunting deer with “a motor-driven conveyance” or with dogs were unconstitutionally vague, so vague that they couldn’t tell what was prohibited. In addition, they claimed that the regulations were defective because they were too broad. The vagueness and overbreadth deprived Turner and Jones (and MDC) of notice of what was legal, depriving Turner and Jones of the due process protection afforded by the federal and state constitutions.

In a footnote, the court of appeals indicated that Judge Smith was striking a blow for hunting rights, rather than following the law, quoting his judgment before trashing it:

Upon consideration of all evidence and arguments of the parties, the trial court recognizes that hunting is an important right. In our area, hunting is not only for recreation, but it is a part of our way of life and any infringement of this right must be constitutional.

Turner and Jones had a couple of points. The language of the regulations in questions seems to encompass use of vehicles that is not intended to be prohibited (such as traveling to a hunting area) and only uses the plural term “dogs” not the singular form “dog.” At trial, the attorneys for Turner and Jones asked hypothetical questions of MDC agents about interpretation of the regulations and obtained inconsistent answers. The attorneys argued that not even MDC knew the meaning of its regulations.

But the Court of Appeals had no need to slice-and-dice the hunters’ legal arguments. The appellate court ruled that neither Turner nor Jones had the proper standing to bring the constitutional questions to court in the first place, because the vagueness in the regulations didn’t pertain to the acts that Turner was charged with, and Jones wasn’t charged with anything.  Courts do not have jurisdiction to consider hypothetical questions, so the trial court erred by ruling on the petition of Turner and Jones. In other words, Turner made no claim that the federal prosecution of him would end if the regulations were declared void. Turner’s group had more than one dog, so he couldn’t argue that the regulation was vague about whether use of one dog was prohibited.  Jones was not prosecuted and had nothing at stake.

The idea that the regulations were overbroad received even less respect from the Court of Appeals. MDC successfully argued that the concept of a regulation being overly broad only applies in the context of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. To be constitutional, a regulation that restricts speech or the freedom of people to associate with whomever they wish must be narrowly focused on achieving a legitimate legislative purpose.

Deer-hunting regulations were formulated when deer were much more scarce than now, though seasons and limits have been loosened up considerably. Hunting deer with dogs was considered sporting in the 19th Century and earlier, but ATVs and radio telemetry weren’t a part of the tradition.

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