Fowler v. Missouri Sheriffs’ Retirement System

Fowler v. Missouri Sheriffs’ Retirement System 623 S.W.3d 578 (2021)

Issue: Whether the statute allowing counties and municipal courts to assess and collect a $3 surcharge that goes towards the Missouri sheriffs’ retirement fund, violates article I, § 14 of the Missouri Constitution.

  • Holding: Because the surcharge is not “reasonably related to the administration of justice,” it violated the state’s constitution. 

Procedural History: Daven Fowler and Jerry Keller, as class representatives for all Kansas City municipal court litigants who had paid the surcharge, filed suit against the Missouri Sheriffs’ Retirement System (MSRS), alleging that the surcharge was unconstitutional because it violated article I, § 14 of the Missouri Constitution, which states that “the courts of justice shall be open to every person, and certain remedy afforded for every injury to person, property or character, and that right and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.” The circuit court had initially dismissed the case, on procedural grounds, while also concluding that the statute did not violate the Missouri Constitution. Fowler and Keller appealed the circuit court’s dismissal to the Missouri Supreme Court, and the MSRS cross-appealed. 

Facts:  The Missouri General Assembly enacted Mo. Rev. Stat. § 57.995 in 1983 which allowed courts in a county to assess and collect funds from every civil and criminal case, the revenues from which would be deposited in the sheriffs’ retirement fund. In May 2017, Fowler and Keller received speeding tickets in Kansas City. They hired the same attorney and resolved their respective cases by pleading guilty and paying $223.50 to the Kansas City municipal court. Three dollars of the total costs was the surcharge authorized by § 57.955, though neither knew they were paying this particular surcharge. Once aware of it, Fowler and Keller became class representatives for all Kansas City municipal court litigants who had paid the surcharge. 

Supreme Court’s Reasoning: 

  • The Court analogized the current case earlier state precedent set by Harrison v. Monroe Cnty., 716 S.W.2d 263. In that case, a $4 surcharge to fund the additional compensation of county officials for attending certain training programs, was imposed in all criminal and civil proceedings. In Harrison, the Supreme Court of Missouri made a bright line rule that “court costs used to enhance compensation paid to executive officials are not ‘reasonably related to the expense of the administration of justice’ and, therefore, violate article I, § 14.” Fowler, 623 S.W.3d at 585. 
  • The Court then compares the statute at issue in Harrison to the retirement surcharge, concluding that, like in Harrison, this surcharge “requires the collection of a court cost used to enhance the compensation of executive department officials—retired county sheriffs.” Id. Therefore, it is not “reasonably related to the expense of the administration of justice” and is unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court overturned the circuit court’s decision and remanded the case to the circuit court for further proceedings on the class action suit. You can read the full opinion here. 623 S.W.3d 578.

Class Action Settlement Agreement:

After being remanded, the case ultimately ended in a settlement on February 28, 2022. The settlement provided $4.50 for every $3 surcharge paid for those applying for reimbursements.