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Justices split over how to determine a lawsuit is equitable

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The Indiana Supreme Court has expanded on a previous decision to create a multi-pronged inquiry to determine whether a suit is essentially equitable, a move that causes two justices to worry the new test may often foreclose a defendant’s right to a jury on distinct and severable legal claims.

U.S. Bank initiated a foreclosure action against Mary Beth and Perry Lucas. The couple asserted numerous legal defenses and claims against the bank and the loan servicer, and asked for a jury trial on these defenses and claims. The trial court denied the request, holding the Lucases’ counterclaims and related legal claims were drawn into equity.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed and ordered the trial court to grant the Lucases’ request for a jury trial. It relied on Songer v. Civitas Bank, 771 N.E.2d 61 (Ind. 2002), unable to conclude that the essential features of this case were equitable.

The justices took another look at their Songer decision, which noted that the inclusion of an equitable claim, without anything more, couldn’t justify drawing the whole case into equity, and that a court should look at the “essential features of a suit.” The majority concluded that an examination of the substance and character of the complaint, the rights and interests involved, and the relief requested is not the endpoint of the inquiry, but a multi-pronged inquiry should be used to figure out whether a suit is essentially equitable.

Justice Steven David wrote for the majority in Mary Beth Lucas and Perry Lucas v. U.S. Bank, N.A., as Trustee for the C-Bass Mortgage Loan Asset-Backed Certificates, Series 2006-MH-1, No. 28S01-1102-CV-78, “If equitable and legal causes of action or defenses are present in the same lawsuit, the court must examine several factors of each joined claim — its substance and character, the rights and interests involved, and the relief requested. After that examination, the trial court must decide whether core questions presented in any of the joined legal claims significantly overlap with the subject matter that invokes the equitable jurisdiction of the court. If so, equity subsumes those particular legal claims to obtain more final and effectual relief for the parties despite the presence of peripheral questions of a legal nature. Conversely, the unrelated legal claims are entitled to a trial by jury.”

The majority concluded that the core issues presented by the Lucases’ legal defenses and claims as compared to the core issues presented by the foreclosure action show that they are closely intertwined with each other.

“We wholeheartedly recognize that the Indiana Constitution protects the right to a trial by jury for legal claims when the essential features of a civil suit are not equitable, and we do not narrow that right. But the essential features of this suit are equitable,” wrote the justice.

Justices Brent Dickson and Robert Rucker dissented because of concerns that Thursday’s decision dilutes the teachings of Songer.

“Instead of focusing simply on whether multiple causes of action are ‘distinct and severable,’ the standard prescribed in Songer, the majority superimposes a further test — whether the legal claims "significantly overlap" with the subject matter of the original equitable claim. In my view, this new test may often foreclose a defendant's right to a jury trial on distinct and severable legal claims. I prefer that the analysis prescribed by Songer be followed without modification with the result that the defendants should not be deprived of their right to jury trial as to their purely legal claims that are sufficiently distinct and severable from the equitable foreclosure action,” wrote Justice Dickson.
 

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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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