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Former auditor wins appeal on attorney fee issue

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The Indiana Supreme Court decided a case seven years ago but left for another day the answer to a question about governmental attorney fees, and now that specific issue has found its way to an appeal before the state’s second-highest appellate court.

A decision on that issue comes today in Clinton County, et al. v. Jacqueline R. Clements, et al., No. 54A01-1008-PL-407, which involves the former Clinton County auditor who served in that role between August 2004 and November 2008 and explored software changes for the county property tax management systems.

Several companies offered proposals for the system software, and at one point a dispute arose over the estimated costs for the legislative changes, resulting in the county terminating a contract with one of the companies. The county in June 2009 filed an amended complaint against Clements and the company Nikish involving breach of contract, fraud, negligence, actual fraud, and intentional interference with contractual relations. The complaint also included a civil action by a crime victim against both Nikish and Clements, and claims involved Clements knowingly misrepresenting to the county what the system changes would cost.

Clements filed a motion for summary judgment claiming that she had governmental immunity, and the trial court agreed on the basis that county officials didn’t prove that any intentional misrepresentation existed to override that immunity. The court also found she was immune from liability because she’d been acting within the scope of her employment.

But the trial court denied her motion for reimbursement of attorney fees and costs, based on Indiana Code 34-13-3-5e(e), which states that “the governmental entity shall provide counsel for and pay all costs and fees incurred by or on behalf of an employee in defense of a claim or suit for a loss occurring because of acts or omissions within the scope of the employee’s employment, regardless of whether the employee can or cannot be held personally liability for the loss.”

In denying that motion, the trial court relied on State v. Evans,  810 N.E. 2d 335 (Ind. 204) and found that state statute ambiguous and intended to apply only where a third party claimant filed a claim against a governmental employee personally, and concluded that “an absurd result would occur if it accepted Clements’s interpretation of the statute.”

The Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling on the governmental immunity aspect, but disagreed on the attorney fee issue. It said Evans didn’t go far enough to address this specific issue raised by Clements on whether the statute would afford reimbursement to a defendant who prevails.

“Although our supreme court concluded in Evans that it would be absurd to require the Attorney General to finance both sides of the litigation against the prosecutor accused of misappropriating funds during the litigation, it specifically left open the possibility of reimbursing an employee who prevails in such an action,” Judge Michael Barnes wrote.

Statute enacted following that Evans holding in 2004 shows the Legislature’s intent to reimburse an officer or employee wrongly accused by the governmental entity in certain civil suits, the appellate panel found.

“Where, as here, a county has filed an unsuccessful and highly questionable action against its former auditor, it would be unjust to deny her request for reimbursement of her attorney fees. We conclude that Clements is entitled to reimbursement of her attorney fees under a plain reading of Indiana Code Section 34-13-2-5(e),” the appellate panel wrote, finding the trial court abused its discretion on that issue.

With that holding, the appellate panel has remanded for a calculation of attorney fees owed to Clements.

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  2. Mr. Levin says that the BMV engaged in misconduct--that the BMV (or, rather, someone in the BMV) knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged fees but did nothing to correct the situation. Such misconduct, whether engaged in by one individual or by a group, is called theft (defined as knowingly or intentionally exerting unauthorized control over the property of another person with the intent to deprive the other person of the property's value or use). Theft is a crime in Indiana (as it still is in most of the civilized world). One wonders, then, why there have been no criminal prosecutions of BMV officials for this theft? Government misconduct doesn't occur in a vacuum. An individual who works for or oversees a government agency is responsible for the misconduct. In this instance, somebody (or somebodies) with the BMV, at some time, knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged. What's more, this person (or these people), even after having the error of their ways pointed out to them, did nothing to fix the problem. Instead, the overcharges continued. Thus, the taxpayers of Indiana are also on the hook for the millions of dollars in attorneys fees (for both sides; the BMV didn't see fit to avail itself of the services of a lawyer employed by the state government) that had to be spent in order to finally convince the BMV that stealing money from Indiana motorists was a bad thing. Given that the BMV official(s) responsible for this crime continued their misconduct, covered it up, and never did anything until the agency reached an agreeable settlement, it seems the statute of limitations for prosecuting these folks has not yet run. I hope our Attorney General is paying attention to this fiasco and is seriously considering prosecution. Indiana, the state that works . . . for thieves.

  3. I'm glad that attorney Carl Hayes, who represented the BMV in this case, is able to say that his client "is pleased to have resolved the issue". Everyone makes mistakes, even bureaucratic behemoths like Indiana's BMV. So to some extent we need to be forgiving of such mistakes. But when those mistakes are going to cost Indiana taxpayers millions of dollars to rectify (because neither plaintiff's counsel nor Mr. Hayes gave freely of their services, and the BMV, being a state-funded agency, relies on taxpayer dollars to pay these attorneys their fees), the agency doesn't have a right to feel "pleased to have resolved the issue". One is left wondering why the BMV feels so pleased with this resolution? The magnitude of the agency's overcharges might suggest to some that, perhaps, these errors were more than mere oversight. Could this be why the agency is so "pleased" with this resolution? Will Indiana motorists ever be assured that the culture of incompetence (if not worse) that the BMV seems to have fostered is no longer the status quo? Or will even more "overcharges" and lawsuits result? It's fairly obvious who is really "pleased to have resolved the issue", and it's not Indiana's taxpayers who are on the hook for the legal fees generated in these cases.

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