State appellate court upholds most of ruling from lower court on county’s trash program

Trial court erred in dismissing vote issue, panel determines.

By EVAN YOUNG

A state appellate court panel last week upheld most of a circuit court’s earlier ruling in a class-action lawsuit over St. Louis County’s trash district program.

Three Missouri Court of Appeals judges affirmed most of county Circuit Judge Robert Cohen’s dismissal in January of a case against the county and three waste haulers. However, they sent back to trial court the issue of whether the county violated its charter by not letting voters consider the trash-district program.

Plaintiffs Cathy Armbruster of Lemay, Paul Marquis of Fenton and Mike Weber of Oakville in September 2009 sued the county and Allied Waste, IESI and Veolia Environmental Services. The county contracted with the three haulers in 2008 to serve eight trash districts in unincorporated areas exclusively.

Veolia last month pulled its operations out of the St. Louis area and transferred its trash-district contracts to Allied.

The plaintiffs contend the county violated a state statute by not providing two years’ written notice of its forthcoming trash district program to other waste haulers, and its own charter by not putting the program to a vote.

Representing residents and other county property owners, the plaintiffs want Allied, IESI and Veolia to repay all the fees they’ve collected the past two years. The plaintiffs also want the county ordinances establishing the districts, and prohibiting unauthorized haulers from providing trash removal within them, declared “illegal and void.”

County officials have contended the trash-district program didn’t have to go on the ballot because the charter gives them the authority to regulate trash service without a public vote.

In addition, the state law requiring two years’ notice to haulers is not applicable to the county because it was enacted several months after the council approved legislation stating the county’s intent to establish the program, officials have said.

Cohen granted the county’s motion to dismiss the case Jan. 5, and in a Nov. 16 opinion, the appellate panel agreed with most of his decision.

Appellate judges Patricia Cohen, Gary Gaertner Jr. and Mary Hoff wrote the plaintiffs “lack standing” as both taxpayers and individuals to argue that the county should have provided two years’ notice to waste haulers.

“… Plaintiffs did not allege any facts in their amended petition demonstrating that the failure to provide notice to the previous trash haulers resulted in an expenditure of tax dollars, increase in taxes, or pecuniary loss, as required to establish taxpayer standing …,” the judges stated. “Plaintiffs also lack standing as individuals to challenge the county’s alleged violation of (state law) because they failed to allege facts demonstrating that the county’s purported failure to provide the previous trash haulers written notice either adversely affected plaintiffs or violated their rights.

“As this court has previously observed, the ‘fundamental purpose of (the two-year notice provision) is to provide an entity engaged in waste collecting sufficient notice to make necessary business adjustments prior to having its services terminated in a given area’ … Plaintiffs are not ‘entities engaged in waste collecting,’ and therefore lack standing as individuals to challenge the county’s alleged violation of (the state law).”

The judges also disagreed with the plaintiffs’ claims that the haulers have been “unjustly enriched” by the trash districts and that the program violates the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act.

However, on the issue of putting the trash-district program to a vote, the panel wrote the circuit court erred in dismissing the count for failure to state a claim for declaratory judgment because the plaintiffs, in fact, provided enough facts to state such a claim.

“(W)hile we express no opinion as to whether plaintiffs are entitled to the declaratory relief they seek, we find that they have stated a claim for a declaratory judgment sufficient to survive defendants’ motion to dismiss,” the judges wrote.

Note: Updated Nov. 27 to show that Veolia last month transferred its trash district contracts to Allied.