Farmer v. Kinder

Decision Date26 November 2002
Docket NumberNo. SC 84328.,SC 84328.
PartiesNancy FARMER, Missouri State Treasurer, Appellant, v. Honorable Byron L. KINDER and Honorable Thomas J. Brown, III, et al., Respondents.
CourtMissouri Supreme Court

Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon, Atty. Gen., James R. McAdams, Asst. Atty. Gen., Jefferson City, for Appellant.

Robert G. Russell, Sedalia, Dale C. Doerhoff, G. Alex Bartlett, Jefferson City, for Respondents.

Richard A. Ahrens, St. Louis, (Utility Consumers Council of MO, Inc.), David J. Epstein, Boston, Robert P. Krenkowitz, Tucson, (National Ass. of Unclaimed Property Administrators), for Amicus Curiae.

PER CURIAM.

Nancy Farmer, state treasurer, appeals the trial court's holding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction of her suit (1) against respondents the Honorable Byron L. Kinder and the Honorable Thomas J. Brown, III both of whom are circuit judges of Cole County and (2) against respondent receivers Julie Smith, Jackie Blackwell, Sharon Morgan, and Elaine Healey, who administer four funds held in the Cole County Circuit Court's registry.1

The treasurer claims that the funds are "state funds" that qualify as "unclaimed property" that the judges and the receivers were required to pay over to the treasurer under sections 447.539 and 447.543, RSMo 2000, respectively, part of the Uniform Disposition of Unclaimed Property Act2 (hereinafter UDUPA). She further contends that upon their failure to do so, section 447.575 gave her the right to enforce delivery of — that is, to collect — the funds.3 She sought a mandatory injunction ordering respondents to deliver to her all the monies in the funds as of the date the funds were presumed abandoned pursuant to 447.532; interest, dividends, or other earnings from that date to the present, less any necessary costs and payments made to claimants; as well as penalties, pursuant to 447.577, for respondents' alleged failure to timely report and deliver the funds.

Respondents countered that the funds are not state funds and are not subject to UDUPA because they are the subject of pending litigation, that UDUPA's reporting and delivery provisions do not apply to funds held by a court, and further that if they did, then this aspect of UDUPA would be unconstitutional under article II, section 1 of Missouri's Constitution, as the judiciary is part of a separate branch of government that cannot constitutionally be made to report to and be supervised by an elected official of the executive branch, such as the treasurer.

The trial court held that the treasurer had no standing to bring suit to collect these funds and that the trial court, therefore, lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the suit. This Court agrees. Assuming for present purposes only that UDU-PA could apply to funds such as those at issue here, an issue not reached, article IV, section 15 of the Missouri Constitution does not permit the treasurer to collect or enforce delivery of these or other funds. Rather, it explicitly limits the treasurer's authority to "the receipt, investment, custody and disbursement of state funds and funds received from the United States government." Mo. CONST. art. IV, sec. 15. To the extent that section 447.575 purports to give the state treasurer authority to go beyond these powers allowed the treasurer in the constitution by authorizing her to collect unclaimed property, that section is void as an unconstitutional delegation of authority to the state treasurer in violation of the specific limitations placed on her authority by article IV, section 15 of the state constitution.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

This Court will affirm the trial court's judgment unless there is no substantial evidence to support it, unless the decision is contrary to the weight of the evidence, or unless the trial court erroneously declares or applies the law. Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo. banc 1976). Constitutional interpretation is an issue of law that this Court reviews de novo.

THE FOUR FUNDS

Fund I: SC84210. This fund was created after this Court held in State ex rel. Utility Consumers' Council of Missouri, Inc. v. Public Service Commission, 585 S.W.2d 41 (Mo. banc 1979), that the Public Service Commission (PSC) was without authority to permit certain utility companies to impose a specific type of fuel cost surcharge and remanded for "a determination by [the circuit court] of the amounts due as a result of the surcharge and to whom, and the proper method of restitution." Id. at 60.4 In compliance with the circuit court's order on remand, the utilities made refunds to most of the customers who had previously paid the surcharge. But, some of these customers could not be immediately identified or located. The utilities therefore, paid over the funds they believed due to the latter customers into the registry of the court. Because it might take some time to distribute the funds to all identifiable claimants and because the funds needed to be held and administered during that period, the court set up a receivership. It appointed Julie Smith as receiver pursuant to Rule 68.02, directed her to hold and administer the funds "so that refunds may be made therefrom to utility customers," and authorized her to apply the interest on the funds in the manner provided by section 483.310(2).5

Fund II: SC84211. This fund was created after Old Security Life Insurance Company was placed into receivership by order of the Circuit Court of Cole County. These proceedings were so successful that a substantial balance remained even after the payment of all claims against the company and the payment of the expenses of the receivership. Accordingly, a class action adversary proceeding was thereafter filed within the receivership case to determine the disposition of the excess funds.6 The parties eventually reached a settlement providing that a portion of the settlement proceeds were to be set aside as a reserve for additional claims and expenses of the insurance receivership. Class attornery and the receiver were largely successful in making disbursements from this reserve, but some checks to class members were either returned or not cashed, and some checks were never issued because the recipients could not be located. Accordingly, the circuit court created a receivership,7 appointed Elaine Healey as receiver under Rule 68.02, and directed her to hold the funds that remained undistributed "for the benefit of such class members" and apply the interest as permitted in section 483.310(2).

In 1991, with the agreement of class counsel, the circuit court entered an "Order Establishing Trust for Undistributed Class Actions Proceeds." This effectively transferred the fund to "Elaine Healey in trust" for the benefit of the class members, according to the same terms as in the receivership. The purpose of the transfer was so that the fund would remain available so that the intent of the settlement agreement would continue to be satisfied as claimants stepped forward.

Fund III: SC84212. This fund was created after Southwestern Bell and the Office of Public Counsel, in a consolidated case, petitioned for review and for stay of a decision of the PSC that required Southwestern Bell to implement lower rates.8 The circuit court entered a stay and ordered Southwestern Bell to pay into the registry of the court that portion of telephone charges collected that would be in excess of rates that would have been collected but for the stay. Because it might take some time to distribute the funds to all identifiable claimants and because the fund needed to be held and administered during that period, the court appointed Jackie Blackwell as receiver under Rule 68.02 to administer the fund, to make refunds therefrom to customers, and to apply the interest on the funds as provided in section 483.310(2).

Fund IV: SC84213. This fund also arose out of a telephone rate dispute. It was created after Southwestern Bell petitioned for review and for stay of a decision of the PSC that required Southwestern Bell to implement lower rates.9 The circuit court granted Southwestern Bell a temporary restraining order, prohibiting the implementation of rate reductions as ordered by the PSC but directing Southwestern Bell to pay into the registry of the court all monies collected from customers in excess of the rates set by the PSC. The circuit court eventually dismissed Southwestern Bell's petition with prejudice and entered an order approving distribution of the funds collected after the stay. Because some customers with claims to portions of the fund could not be located, those funds were paid into the registry of the court, and the court appointed a receiver, Sharon Morgan, pursuant to Rule 68.02. The receiver was similarly authorized to apply the interest on the funds in the manner permitted by section 483.310(2).

STANDING AND LACK OF SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION

The treasurer says that the receivers had no authority to continue to hold the funds or to apply the interest pursuant to the court's orders under Rule 68.02 and section 483.310(2), and, instead, should have paid the money over to her and should have issued reports about the funds to her. Before we can address the merits of these claims, however, we must determine whether the treasurer has standing to make them.

Standing is a jurisdictional matter antecedent to the right to relief. State ex rel. Williams v. Marsh, 626 S.W.2d 223, 227, n. 6 (Mo. banc 1982). It asks whether the persons seeking relief have a right to do so. State ex rel. Twenty-Second Judicial Circuit v. Jones, 823 S.W.2d 471, 475 (Mo. ban 1992). Where, as here, a question is raised about a party's standing, courts have a duty to determine the question of their jurisdiction before reaching substantive issues, for if a party lacks standing, the court must dismiss the case because it does not have jurisdiction of the substantive issues presented. State ex rel. Ryan v. Carnahan, 960 S.W.2d 549, 550 (Mo.App.19...

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