The four-year dispute between Pacific funeral director Jeff Palmore and the city of Pacific is scheduled to be determined on Valentine’s Day.
On Thursday, Feb. 14, at 9 a.m. the Eastern District Appeals Court in downtown St. Louis will hear arguments from the two sides on whether Bell Funeral Home should receive reimbursement for what its owner claims were overcharges by the city.
The complicated case, which has been discussed in many public meetings, has made its way through the courts in a series of hearings, depositions and rulings beginning in July 2008 when Palmore filed a claim in small claims court that the city had overcharged him $225 on one funeral and has continued to the present.
“But the merits of the case have never been argued,” Palmore said.
Named in the small claims court suit were the city of Pacific, Alan Bruns, city cemetery sexton, and R.H. Bruns Monument Company, which Bruns owns and operates.
The small claims court agreed that Bell Funeral Home should be reimbursed, but determined that R. H. Bruns Monument — not the city or the city sexton — should repay the money.
Bruns said he was not allowed to speak in the small claims court so rather than pay the amount, he appealed the ruling and asked for a trial de novo.
In the meantime, Palmore said he found other discrepancies in the city’s billings to his firm.
Palmore withdrew the first suit and filed a second suit increasing the amount he was seeking to $1,330, which included three $225 overcharges, $300 each for two graves that he claimed the city forced his clients to pay for gravesites they already owned and a $55 Saturday fee, that he said the city had never previously charged. All the claimed overcharges involved burials in Resurrection Hill Cemetery.
In that filing, Palmore also asked for unspecified punitive damages, claiming that some city actions had been harmful to his business.
The city requested that the case be moved to federal court, where a federal judge threw out the claim that city actions had harmed Palmore’s business.
To paraphrase Palmore’s explanation of the ruling, the judge said the actions of one or two city employees did not represent city policy. So it was not a federal case.
What remained in the case was the claim for $1,330 and unspecified punitive damages.
Palmore said he did not ask for a specific amount of punitive damages, preferring to leave that to the court. But under the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, Palmore said he understood that a court could award five times the original claim, which would amount to $6,650 or a maximum of $500,000 for each of the six claims.
The Missourian was not able to obtain copies of each of the court appearances that have occurred over the past four years, however many of the events were discussed in open committee meetings and board of aldermen meetings that were attended by a Missourian reporter.
At some point, Missouri Intergovernmental Risk Management (MIRMA), the city’s insurance carrier, took over the defense of the case, hiring two law firms. Evans & Dixon, St. Louis, was hired to defend the city and Brown & James, St. Louis, was hired to defend city cemetery sexton Bruns.
R. H. Bruns Monument and Bell Funeral Home each hired their own attorneys for the case.
The Missourian also has tried to learn the cost to prosecute and defend this case, which began as an overcharge claim.
Neither Palmore, the city officials, nor the insurance company, were able to provide the date that MIRMA and the outside attorneys assumed responsibility to defend the case. Prior to that date, City Attorney Dan Vogel and his firm represented the city.
From 2008 to date, the city has paid Cunningham, Vogel and Rost $24,898 on the case.
Mayor Herb Adams told The Missourian that he not only sought the advice from Vogel, but also consulted the law firm of city prosecutor Matt Schroeder on the Palmore issue. He said all of the discussions about Palmore were not about the lawsuit between the city and the funeral director.
Vogel and Schroeder did not always see the law the same way, Adams said, but he had been cautious in trying to make sure that he had a firm understanding of the law.
City Administrator Harold Selby asked MIRMA how much had been spent on the litigation, but the insurance company said it would not disclose the amount while the case is ongoing.
Palmore said he has spent a substantial sum on the litigation, which he would disclose at a later date, but he said it was justified because he was in the cemetery business and it was in his business interest to make certain all fees were correct.
“I have a fiduciary, moral and legal responsibility to the clients I serve,” he said. “I bill them for what the city bills me. My clients should not be overcharged.”
Adams said at one point the insurance company attempted to settle the case with Palmore for $1,500, but Palmore declined to settle.
“I made it clear that the city did not want to settle,” Adams said. “But they (MIRMA) told us that we did not have a say in that decision.”
The city has made efforts to show that the city cemetery records are in good order, the mayor said.
The city hired three separate consultants to verify and create an online archive of the records for the two cemeteries — Tim Rainey, the young IT provider who created the city webpage, Nettie Painter, a computer consultant, and Brian May, whose family owns cemeteries and crematoria.
None of the consultants were successful in answering challenges from Palmore that there are errors in the records.
His claims of errors now extend into the city cemetery, but Adams said he will not discuss any claims with Palmore until the lawsuit is behind the city.
Adams stressed that he has met with Palmore on at least three occasions in an attempt to settle their differences. He says he is now determined to leave it in the hands of the court.
“I’ve been consistent that the court was the right place to handle this,” Adams said. “What ever the court decides the city will abide by it.”