Court hears oral arguments in lawsuit challenging county’s trash districts

Redington says trash service clearly a municipal function.


Plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against St. Louis County and the waste haulers that service its trash district program are waiting to see if the state appellate court will send their case to trial.

Judges Gary Gaertner, Mary Hoff and Patricia Cohen of the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals took the case under submission last week after attorneys from all parties presented oral arguments.

A circuit judge in January dismissed the lawsuit, which was filed last September by three unincorporated county residents who allege the mandated trash service in those unincorporated areas is illegal.

The plaintiffs appealed the ruling shortly thereafter. Their suit targets the county and the three waste haulers it hired two years ago to serve its eight trash districts exclusively — Allied Waste, IESI and Veolia Environmental Services.

The County Council awarded contracts to Allied, IESI and Veolia in 2008 to serve its trash program, one hauler per trash district. Residents in those areas must establish service with their authorized trash hauler or face fines and, in some cases, prosecution.

But Cathy Armbruster of Lemay, Paul Marquis of Fenton and Mike Weber of Oakville contend the county violated a state statute by not providing a two-year notice of the impending trash district program to other waste haulers, and its own law by not putting the program to a public vote. They also argue the trash district law violates the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act.

Representing thousands of county property owners, the plaintiffs want Allied, IESI and Veolia to repay all the fees they’ve collected since they began servicing the eight trash districts. The plaintiffs also want the county ordinances establishing the districts, and prohibiting unauthorized haulers from providing trash removal within them, declared “illegal and void.”

But county officials have argued that the “two-year notice” state law is not applicable because it was enacted months after the county stated its intent to form trash districts. In addition, the trash-district program didn’t have to go on the ballot be-cause the County Charter gives them the authority to regulate trash service without a public vote, officials have said.

During last week’s appellate hearing, County Counselor Patricia Redington cited two sections of the County Charter — one which states the council can “(c)ollect and dispose of … garbage and refuse, or license and regulate such collection and disposal,” and one that authorizes the council to “(f)urnish or provide within the part of the county outside incorporated cities any service or function of any municipality” — as proof the program didn’t have to go on the ballot.

“It couldn’t be more clear that trash service is a municipal function,” she said.

An attorney for the three waste haulers named in the class-action suit also argued that the plaintiffs had no case against the trash companies because the “two-year notice” provision is meant for other haulers, not property owners, and because the three companies “did not create or ask for” the trash districts — they merely contracted with the county to serve them.

But plaintiffs’ attorney Rob Schultz told the judges his clients are taxpayers — and that alone gives them the right to file suit.

“It’s true. We’re not trash haulers. We’re the backbone of St. Louis County. We’re the citizens of St. Louis County,” Schultz told the judges. “If our tax money is going to this program, we have the right to challenge it.”

Redington countered that residents are billed by the haulers — not the county — for trash service.

Three other lawsuits against the county’s trash districts and waste management code are pending in the appellate and circuit courts. One suit, which claims the county failed to provide the two-year notice, was filed in 2008 by American Eagle Waste Industries, Meridian Waste Services and Waste Management of Missouri.

Circuit Judge Steven Goldman dismissed the haulers’ lawsuit in June 2008, but the plaintiffs appealed the decision, first to the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals and then to the state Supreme Court. Both courts refused to review the ruling. The case returned in July 2008 to the Court of Appeals, which reversed and remanded Goldman’s original decision in October 2008. In its opinion, the appellate court wrote that the two-year notice provision was a “general statute of statewide public policy” and that St. Louis County couldn’t override it.

Two additional claims — violation of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the taking of private property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment — were added to the haulers’ petition in April 2009 and led the county to move the case to U.S. District Court from St. Louis County Circuit Court.

The case was scheduled for a federal trial next January, but a judge in March dismissed the two claims that brought the suit to federal court and sent the case back to the circuit court.

Earlier this month, Circuit Judge Barbara Wallace denied the county’s motion to dismiss the case on two of the three remaining counts in the petition, citing the appellate court’s October 2008 decision.

“(P)rior to the expiration of the two-year notice period, the county must use existing haulers and pay them what they would have made had they provided the service directly,” Wallace wrote in her Aug. 5 order. “It is this legal obligation on the part of the county that gives rise to the implied in law contract. County contends plaintiffs’ claim fails as a matter of law because it received no benefit from plaintiffs; however, the court finds county was in fact benefited in that it fully implemented its trash collection program without having to pay the existing haulers.”

Wallace still was considering a motion for summary judgment by the haulers at press time.

In another case, American Eagle Waste and unincorporated residents Greg Porter and Brett Buchanan seek to have a vote on the trash district program.

In another suit, four unincorporated residents allege the recycling charges they pay their waste haulers are “taxes” and are not permitted under the Missouri Constitution’s Hancock Amendment. That amendment requires voter approval before political subdivisions can levy any tax.