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You Can Beat City Hall – Questioning Governmental Practices

Sometimes life heads in such unintended directions that the only explanation can be that there is a Higher Power calling the shots. We are involved in a class action suit against the City of St. Louis, the Collector of Revenue of the City of St. Louis, and the Clerk of the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis. I’ll get to that in a minute. We were brought into that case by my buddy, John Kress, of The Kress Law Firm, LLC. I have known John for about 8 years. We met each other when were both working as contract attorneys doing a mind-numbing exercise known as a document review. One of the big firms in town was representing Monsanto in a federal antitrust probe. Rather than waste the talent of one of their elite attorneys, the brought in guys like John and me to do the grunt work. We had to undergo the humiliation of taking orders from an associate who was still years away from the courtroom but saw this as her great stepping stone to partner. Keep in mind that the first document I signed after I was licensed was a brief to the Missouri Supreme Court and that the day after I took my oath I argued a case to the Missouri Court of Appeals. I tried my first case within a month of getting my ticket and four months after that, I was arguing a venue case to the Missouri Supreme Court. You can understand why I couldn’t take this job too seriously. Nevertheless, John and I both had families to support and the pay was better that working anywhere else so we endured for financial reasons. At the time we were doing that project, I think John and I both knew were were not what you would consider typical attorneys. Neither one of us took ourselves too seriously and we had no desire for a window office downtown. We both were attorneys because of some “issues” we had in our past. Neither of us had a spiritual calling to the law. After the project was over, John and I started working on cases together. I had a lot more litigation experience and John was able to get some decent cases. We’ve had a number of cases over the years which have been unique to say the least. One of those cases found me at the Family Dollar buying the only pair of jeans in my size in order to visit an inmate at the federal prison in Greenville, Illinois. It just so happened that those jeans were gangster jeans with more zippers and pockets that you can imagine. We represented a man who had been the target of a hit man hired by the inmate. The inmate (hereinafter referred to as “Bad Guy”) was involved in purchasing and rehabbing properties and he had several in coastal Alabama. Our client was a worker and would go down to Alabama to assist Bad Guy. Bad Guy would usually be accompanied by a stripper/prostitute which was without the knowledge or permission of his wife. Bad guy tried to screw our client out of a few bucks which resulted in our client making a call to Mrs. Bad Guy. I think you can guess the content of the conversation. Bad Guy was irate and called someone he believed to be a hit man. Hit Man, an informant for local police, went to his handler who went to the FBI. Bad Guy is nabbed and sentenced to 12 years in prison. We sued Bad Guy and Mrs. Bad Guy because we knew there was money from his real estate business. Long story short, Bad Guy and the Mrs. did a good job of hiding the money. Mrs. Bad Guy filed for divorce and we tried to get into that case without any luck. We then approached Bad Guy to see if he wanted to strike a deal. We were in the middle of negotiating that when I found out that you cannot wear khakis as a visitor to that particular prison. Bad Guy was represented by Jonathan Beck, another attorney who doesn’t fit the stereotype. Jonathan has a tattoo on the inside of his wrist. Enough said. It all ended up in a settlement where Bad Guy and Mrs. Bad Guy screwed each other and we got some money and some artwork in the settlement. I have a painting in my office from an unknown french painter which I call the “naked green lady” picture because there is an abstract naked lady pianted in green running across the bottom of the picture. However, you really have to look for it. Anyway, after that, we kept in touch with Jonathan because I think we all thought our ragtag team could do some good.

Fast forward to a few months ago. Jonathan Beck called John Kress and told him about an interesting case. Jonathan and John are residents of the City of St. Louis. Like a lot of attorneys, their incomes vary wildly from month to month and sometimes things like personal property taxes aren’t paid. The result is the filing of a lawsuit for the collection of that amount. If it is not paid, then you do not get a receipt and you cannot get the license plates on your car renewed. To settle the case, you are required to pay $177 extra to the collector as court costs. Jonathan looked at that and thought it wasn’t right. He did some discovery and obtained information showing that the $177 is collected and then sent to the court clerk. The problem is that the amount is too high for the actual court costs of a case in which a few hundred dollars is at stake. John called me and we started looking into the case. We filed the case as a violation of the Hancock Amendment of the Missouri Coinstitution because payment of the extra amount was really an additional tax since the Collector was not required to pay court costs in the first place. After the initial hearing with the judge, it was determined that the money was transferred to the court clerk but the money trail grew cold after that. This case may not seem very exciting, but to me it is the reason we need attorneys. My strong suspicion is that Jonathan stumbled upon a practice that had been in existence for over 50 years. The practice violates all sorts of statutes and is clearly not authorized. However, as far as I can tell, no one ever challenged it. It’s one of those things where it’s been the custom and practice for so long that there’s no one alive who can explain how it ever started. Those involved simply say that’s how it’s always been done. Technically, not a very good defense. I call it a skunk defense because it stinks.

This case came about for one simple reason. The City made the mistake of serving Jonathan with a summons at a time his child was sleeping. His child was awakened and Jonathan was annoyed. When you annoy an attorney, their revenge is not yelling or screaming at you. Their revenge is to figure out a way to make you answer through the court. Thereafter, Jonathan did some research and went to John which started this process. Many times, cases begin because someone has been annoyed. When that happens, rather than just going along with what the norm is, that person will question the rights of the offending party to do what it is they’re doing. That is how many lawsuits begin. We believe that the court, or should I say the Clerk, will have to refund millions in fees improperly collected on cases in which the costs actually owed were much less than the amount collected. It is only fair that these taxpayers receive the money to which they are entitled, even if they were unaware of the mistake.

As a lawyer I question everything. It drives my wife nuts because I can never agree on a definitive answer to anything. She’s an accountant and everything is black and white. However, attorneys live in a world of gray. There are gray areas all around us and our role is to try and make the gray either black or white depending on our client’s objectives. I have found that my thinking is different that non-lawyers. In my way of thinking, there is nothing that is immune from being challenged through the legal system. The rules of society are created by imperfect people. Because of that, no law, statute or rule will ever be totally perfect. Lawyers are there to hold the imperfect people accountable. It’s about justice and making society function better.

I hope that you question things in your life that somehow just don’t seem right. I talk to people all the time who call me about such things. I tell all my family and friends to be somewhat skeptical of things. You can question authority without being disrespectful. The great thing about our country is that we can question the government about practices we find offensive. Don’t be afraid to do that because you may find an age-old practice that is improper just like Jonathan.