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COA: Judge could raise affirmative defense on behalf of pro se defendant

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A small-claims court may decide a case based upon the statute of limitations even if a defendant didn’t raise or mention it at trial but the issue was discussed during trial, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled in an issue of first impression.

In Wolverine Mutual Insurance Co. v. Jeremy Oliver, No. 20A03-1003-SC-162, Wolverine Mutual Insurance Co. claimed Elkhart Superior Judge Olga Stickel erred in deciding its action against Jeremy Oliver based upon the statute of limitations when Oliver didn’t raise or argue that affirmative defense.

Oliver caused an accident with an insured of Wolverine. The insurer sued him in small-claims court to recover the amount it paid out as a result of the accident. Oliver represented himself. Judge Stickel brought up the fact the case was filed outside of the statute of limitations and allowed Wolverine to submit a memorandum regarding statue of limitations. The judge denied Wolverine’s claim finding it was time-barred by the applicable statute of limitations. She also denied the motion to correct error.

Other jurisdictions have held that trial courts may not sua sponte inject the defense of the statute of limitations where the defendant hasn’t pleaded or argued it, but the Court of Appeals found the opposite based on Indiana’s relaxed rules in the small-claims setting and the provision in Small Claims Rule 4(A) that places the statute of limitations at issue without the need for the defendant to raise it.

The judges also found the instant case to be different from Lechner v. Reutepohler, 545 N.E.2d 1144 (Ind. Ct. App. 1989). Lechner held that a small-claims defendant must litigate the issue of the statute of limitations at trial in order to preserve it for appeal. But in Lechner, the defendants argued the statute of limitations for the first time in a motion to correct error; in the instant case, the issue was raised at trial by the court.

“It seems clear that the primary rationale implicitly underpinning the holding in Lechner is that the failure to inject the issue at trial fatally compromised the plaintiff’s ability to defend against it at a later time. Such would not be an issue in the instant case,” wrote Judge Ezra Friedlander.

The court saw the notice of claim against Oliver had been filed more than two years after the date of the accident, brought it to the attention of Wolverine’s attorney, and gave the company the full opportunity to address the merits of the defense.

Although the panel didn’t want to go so far as to say it was incumbent upon a small-claims court to develop the statute of limitations issue on behalf of pro se litigants, it didn’t see any reason to justify forbidding a small-claims court from sua sponte soliciting argument on an affirmative defense that is explicitly deemed at issue by S.C.R. 4(A). The judges affirmed the small-claims court denial of the claim.
 

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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