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Mo. Supreme Court Gives Tenants Right to Jury Trial
Posted: January 19, 2018
Missouri landlords can evict defaulting tenants through a streamlined, judge-tried process in associate circuit court. Before 2014, a party aggrieved by the associate circuit court's ruling could request a full trial de novo (with a jury if they choose) in the circuit court before moving on to appellate courts. In this way the law provided efficiency and protected the parties’ constitutional right to a jury trial. But in 2014, the legislature sought to further quicken the process by axing the de novo trial step. The question in Brainchild Holdings, LLC v. Cameron, No. SC96376 (Dec. 5, 2017) https://www.courts.mo.gov/file.jsp?id=120436 was whether doing so unconstitutionally stripped the parties of the right to a jury trial.
Mindful of the precept that legislation should be read as constitutional whenever possible, the Supreme Court held that nothing in the new law expressly denied parties the right of a jury trial. Thus, that right must be present at the only trial level left in the process – the associate circuit court proceedings. The Court reversed the trial court’s denial of the tenant’s request for a jury trial and the subsequent judgment in favor of the landlord.
As the amicus brief supporting the landlord argued, Brainchild Holdings may well lead to a proliferation of jury trials in landlord tenant disputes and frustrate the legislature’s goals to eliminate jury trials in eviction cases. But the Court did not fully consider this policy argument because Brainchild never made it at trial. In any case, the Court suggested, that result would be at odds with the constitution. If there truly is a glut of jury trials in rent and possession cases, and if the legislature's intent in 2014 was to avoid as much, I'd expect to see some tweaking done to the law.
Practice Tip: Forgoing all participation in an appeal can be risky for respondents. Brainchild did not file a brief in this case, ceding the field to the appellants. It was thus not able to counter appellants' points or to present the policy arguments at play in this case. Its amicus curiae tried to make some of these arguments, but the Court refused to consider them, noting that Brainchild hadn’t made them below. Since it wasn’t active in the appeal, Brainchild wasn’t around to defend itself. The lesson is, all things being equal, if at all possible, don’t let the appellant’s voice be the only one the appellate court hears.