The Missouri Court of Appeals has reversed a trial court’s refusal to award attorneys’ fees against a County for the County’s “bad faith” actions, including cutting the County Sheriff’s budget without reason and blocking his access to internal review procedures to address the budget issue. In State ex rel. Sheriff Paul Vescovo v. Clay County, (Mo. App. Dec. 5, 2019), the Sheriff of Clay County filed a lawsuit against the County after his department's budget was set more than $1.3 million less than requested and well below the previous year's budget. The reduced amount made it impossible for the Sheriff to fulfill his office's duties, including meeting existing contractual obligations to vendors. Prior to filing suit, the Sheriff tried to rectify the issue by following internal and statutory procedures. The Sheriff was blocked at every attempt without ever being provided any rationale for the cuts, mostly by the Chief Budget Officer (the "CBO"). Not coincidentally, the CBO had recently accepted a plea deal, that arose out of an investigation initiated by the Sheriff, for her improper acts which included altering official documents. In the lawsuit, the Sheriff sought an order compelling the County to fix the budget shortfall, and the Sheriff requested that the Court order the County to pay the Sheriff’s attorneys’ fees for the lawsuit. The trial court issued a writ of mandamus ordering the County to fix the budget short fall, but denied the Sheriff’s request for attorneys’ fees.
On appeal, the County argued the trial court erred by issuing a writ of mandamus as budgeting is discretionary under Missouri law. Further, the County argued the Sheriff failed to identify any statute giving him the "right" to any particular appropriation. The Sheriff argued that certain statutes within the County Budget Law (§§ 50.525 – 50.745, RSMo.) mandate the County appropriate funds for the Sheriff to carry out his duties. The Court of Appeals noted that previous Missouri cases have held that courts can compel county officials to budget for certain expenditures, even though budgeting may be discretionary. Further, when considering the County Budget Law together with statutes setting out the duties of Sheriffs, the Court determined there to be sufficient definitiveness for an order that the County can be required to budget to provide for duties required of the Sheriff (including jailing prisoners). Despite this finding, the Court would have likely been unable to issue a writ of mandamus with no particular amount being mandated by statute, but/for the fact that there were contractual amounts in arrears by the time of trial for particular things (inmate meals and health care) that could not be covered by the budgeted amount. The contractual deficient amounts and some administrative costs provided the basis for the amount ordered through mandamus, which the Court upheld.
The Sheriff also argued on appeal that the trial court erred by denying his request for attorneys' fees and requested attorneys' fees for the appeal. He argued that attorneys' fees could be awarded under a statute requiring the County to pay the Sheriff's necessary expenditures, or under the Court's equitable power based on the special and unusual circumstances of the case. The Court of Appeals held that the County cut the Sheriff's budget without reason and did so in bad faith. The Court rejected the Sheriff's argument that attorneys' fees were allowed by statute. However, while emphasizing that such a finding is exceedingly rare, the Court determined the bad faith and retributory nature of the County's actions fell within such "special circumstances" to warrant the award of attorneys' fees.
An award of attorneys' fees against a governmental body under the Court's equitable power pursuant to "special circumstances" may make this case a frequent citation in litigation against other governmental bodies.