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COA rules on fire department consolidation demotions

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Ruling on a case about fire department consolidation in Indianapolis, the state’s second highest appellate court has given police and fire merit commissions the same power as related safety and disciplinary boards as to how far they can go in restructuring police and fire positions.

The court issued a decision in Jeff Castetter, Tony Jones, David Strode and Matthew Hickey v. Lawrence Township, No. 49A05-1105-PL-249, arising out of a Marion Superior Court action involving the mid-2010 discussion in Lawrence Township of merging the township fire department with the Indianapolis Fire Department.

Before any merger could happen, the Lawrence department had to adjust its officer ranks because Indianapolis was only willing to accept a certain number of captains and lieutenants in the merger and no battalion chiefs. At the time, Lawrence Township had 10 of those battalion chiefs and the township fire department’s merit commission was tasked with modifying those ranks to conform with the proposed merger structure. At a public meeting in July 2010, the commission announced that a previous April 2007 rule amendment didn’t comply with the state statutes on public notice and comment, and therefore was rescinded. That meant the township had no merit battalion chiefs and anyone promoted under those “invalid provisions” adopted in 2007 would be reverted to their previous rank.

At the same July 2010 meeting, the commission turned to the merger and determined the township could no longer afford the local fire department and decided to restructure the officer ranks in order to move forward with a merger – which happened Jan. 1, 2011. None of the appellants in this case retained their positions, and they appealed the commission’s decision on grounds that the action was illegal, arbitrary, capricious and invalid.

Both sides filed summary judgment motions and the trial court granted the Lawrence Township motion, leading to this appeal about merger demotions.

In Indiana, the merit commission discipline statute of Indiana Code 36-8-3 dictates how those panels must handle notice and hearings before any suspensions, demotions or dismissals can happen. None of those statutorily required procedures took place here. Lawrence Township argued it wasn’t bound by those rules because the officers were demoted for economic reasons and fell under an “economic exception” to the disciplinary statute.

State courts going back to 1918 recognized an exception to the necessity of due process procedures required in police and firefighter discipline, and that exception has to do with whether the personnel action is considered “person-directed” or “position-directed.”

The court has determined those statutory requirements apply to the person-directed action before any termination or discipline can occur, but those protections do not apply to the more general position-specific changes as happened in this Lawrence Township Fire Department case.

“Although (past holdings) … concern the notice and hearing provisions of IC 36-8-3-4, which is the discipline statute applicable to safety boards, we hold that this exception extends to merit commissions as well,” Judge L. Mark Bailey wrote.

The appellate panel found the trial court didn’t err in granting Lawrence Township’s motion for summary judgment, and that the position-directed decisions were made in good faith and not for the purpose of demoting the appellants for cause, politics or any other reason.

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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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