KANSAS CITY – Missouri's Western District Court of Appeals Western District recently affirmed a Platte County Circuit Court decision awarding over $10 million to plaintiffs in a class-action suit against Kansas City after the city discontinued a rebate program for trash pickup in multiunit buildings and trailer parks.
The dispute can be traced to 1971, when Kansas City enacted an ordinance to collect solid waste from all residents, but not from residents in trailer parks or buildings containing seven or more dwelling units, court filings said.
In 1974 two groups of apartment building owners sued the city in the Platte County Circuit Court alleging their exclusion was unconstitutional and the following year owners of trailer parks filed a similar suit. The separate actions were consolidated into one case.
On Feb. 20, 1976, the court agreed the exclusion was discriminatory and unconstitutional. But the court the judgment was not intended as the end of the case, but expressed hope the parties could work out an agreement. When it became clear no such agreement would be reached, the court declared the city ordinance “unconstitutional and invalid.”
Both parties appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, and in August 1976, an agreement was reached where the city would furnish trash pickup to apartments and trailer parks or make cash payments to residents in lieu of such services.
An amount of $1.15 per month per occupied dwelling unit was to be paid by the city and allowed for future adjustments based on the city’s costs.
Under the terms of the modified judgment, the parties withdrew their appeals, and for 30 years, the city made the cash rebate payments.
Because of budgetary issues during a recession in 2008, the Kansas City City Council proposed elimination of the rebate program and in 2010 the city adopted an ordinance eliminating the program.
Rebates continued for a portion of apartment dwellers under a renegotiation in March 2010 between the city and the Heartland Apartment Association, which controlled 40,000 units.
In February 2015, a class action suit was filed against the city by the Sophian Plaza Association, Townsend Place Condominium Association and the Stadium View Apartments, who were not part of Heartland’s settlement with the city. The case went to trial in December 2016.
During the hearings, evidence was presented alleging that city officials knew they would be in violation of the “modified judgment” and made a deliberate decision to eliminate the rebate program from the budget, knowing there was a court order and contract mandating it.
The circuit court entered a judgment of $10.2 million against the city in compensatory damages and added the city would owe an additional $2,846 per day until it complied with trash collection obligations.
Plaintiff lawyers were awarded $4.1 million.
Kansas City appealed the judgment.
The appeals court opinion, filed Nov. 6, stated that the plaintiffs had standing to prosecute for contempt based on the city’s failure to comply. The court also rejected argument by city attorneys challenging the validity of the 1976 modified judgment because it usurped the city’s legislative powers.
“The city is barred from raising these objections to the modified judgment 40 years after that judgment was entered into at the city’s request,” the appeals court opinion said.
The appeals court also rejected arguments made by the defense alleging the circuit court was wrong to award relief to the class because the plaintiffs had failed to prove compliance with the conditions to receive rebates and that damage awards were not supported by evidence.
The appeals court affirmed the Platte County Circuit Court judgment.