July 29, 2003
JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri Baptist College has filed a motion for summary judgment in Cole County Circuit Court, an important procedural step which could allow the trial judge to decide some key legal issues in advance of the jury trial in the case involving the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) and five breakaway agencies.
Clyde Farris, an attorney representing the college, filed the motion on July 7. The MBC legal team must file its response within thirty days.
After the other parties reply and brief the matters, Judge Tom Brown could rule on the motion as early as September or October, legal observers say. A partial summary judgment ruling could have important ramifications upon the remainder of the MBC petition for declaratory judgment, which is expected to go to trial in early 2004.
The motion asks the court to decide the single issue of whether the Convention was a member of the college corporation. The convention has alleged that MBC is the sole "member" of each of the five corporations, based on the right to select college trustees. Even apart from member status, the convention claims that the corporate charters confer legally enforceable contract rights to select trustees and to approve charter amendments, which cannot be removed without convention approval.
Other parties may file additional motions for summary judgment so that the court could decide a larger number of issues before trial. The judge could set the motions for oral argument or he could rule summarily on the briefs, affidavits and documentary evidence.
The Convention contends that the former college charter guaranteed the convention the exclusive right to select trustees and to approve charter amendments. State statutes say that membership rights may exist regardless of what charter terms are used. Hence, even though the college charter says it has no members, it is legally bound to recognize the voting rights of the convention to select trustees. The convention alleges that its membership rights are one reason why the college board could not lawfully amend their charter to delete the convention’s right to select trustees.
Summary judgment is permitted by Missouri Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 74.04, when there is "no genuine issue of material fact" and a party is "entitled to judgment as a matter of law." If a fact is disputed, or if the rules of law are not clear, then the court cannot enter summary judgment, but must let the case proceed to trial before a jury.
Farris said in the motion "Wherefore, since there are no material facts in dispute and because Missouri Baptist College is entitled to a partial summary judgment as a matter of law, Missouri Baptist College prays for finding and judgment that Missouri Baptist College does not have members,".
The college’s charter states that the board of trustees "shall consist of 27 persons appointed by the Missouri Baptist Convention."
Whitehead, said the other four institutions (Windermere, Word & Way, The Missouri Baptist Foundation and The Baptist Home) may join or be joined in the motions for partial summary judgment.
"There may be some risk for the college to bring this motion before completing discovery, but we welcome it. We agree that some issues are ripe for a partial summary judgment. However, we will ask that summary judgment should be granted in favor of the convention and against all the defendants."
Farris said he sees nothing risky about the motion. It only seeks a ruling from the court on whether Missouri Baptist College has members.
"It’s not risky," Farris said. "If we lose, it just means we have to proceed and have all the evidence heard and decided at the end of the lawsuit. I expect to win on this issue. If I don’t, it just means that we will have to take evidence from depositions and present other evidence through the trial."
Whitehead said that, if Judge Brown were to grant partial summary judgment against the college or other agencies, there would be no need for additional evidence on the issues in the judgment.
"The summary judgment order could significantly simplify and shorten the remainder of the case at trial."
Farris is a partner in the St. Louis-based Copeland, Thompson & Farris, P.C. law firm, but this is his first public involvement with the case. He said he would serve as the trial attorney for the college as the case continues.
The summary judgment procedure allows the speedy disposition of a controversy without the need for trial. A partial summary judgment is limited to certain issues in a case and would only dispose of a portion of the whole case.