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General Assembly, Supreme Court ponder big changes for small claims

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A national nonprofit organization has been tasked with a fresh study of Marion County’s troubled township small claims court system, while a bill that passed the General Assembly has implications for small claims courts around the state.

Lawmakers adopted House Enrolled Act 1347 that included numerous tweaks of clerk duties and court administration matters. It also calls for the legislative Commission on Courts to study small claims courts, looking at administration, venue and distribution of resources in the courts, as well as the jurisdictional limit of small claims actions. Small claims disputes currently are capped by statute at $6,000.

Gov. Mike Pence signed HEA 1347 March 24. The bill also includes language regarding income garnishments that could impact parties in small claims actions. Those provisions include:

• Reducing the maximum allowable garnishment from 25 percent to as little as 10 percent of income based on a showing of good cause.

• Requiring a judge, after holding a hearing once a judgment debtor fails to comply with an agreed order, to order any non-excluded property, income or profits applied to satisfy the judgment.
 

smallclaims01apb-15col.jpg The National Center for State Courts is studying township small claims courts in Marion County. Franklin Township Court, shown here, is one of the nine venues. (IL File Photo)

• Outlining how courts may cancel garnishment orders in favor of third parties in certain situations.

The bill also relieves clerks in all courts of the obligation to notify a garnishee when a judgment has been satisfied.

The small claims language in the bill was grafted from Senate Bill 366 that passed the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives. SB 366 also would have created an administrator for the Marion County Small Claims Courts chosen from among the nine township court judges, but that provision was stripped out of HB 1347, leaving no language in the bill specific to Marion County’s township courts.

That disappointed bill author Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, who said he’s hopeful the proposal for an administrator will return next year. “The intent was simply to allow the small claims courts to be self-managed and out of the governance of the Circuit Court,” Schneider said.

“I think it’s important to allow the courts themselves, just like Superior courts do and Circuit courts do, to elect from among themselves an administrative judge. I think they’ve got a better handle on how they manage their courts.”

Authority over the township courts currently is vested with Marion Circuit Judge Louis Rosenberg, who has presided over rule changes and reforms instituted in the wake of national media attention on the courts. Well-documented problems included large-volume filers accused of forum shopping to find venues that catered to them and numerous people sued who had never stepped foot in Marion County.

Rosenberg believes the small claims courts could use an administrator, but he also sees a need remaining for a countywide oversight function, whether through Marion Circuit or Superior Court.

“We should come up with a governing structure that reflects this is a township function, but there is a countywide role,” he said.

Township trustees and advisory boards want their courts to generate case-filing fees, a portion of which is revenue for the townships. That’s been at the root of some of the courts’ problems. “Some of that has been at the expense of a fair and open system,” Rosenberg said.

“Because of ‘township tunnel vision,’ so to speak, you get varying policies and practices throughout the county,” he said. “What we need is uniformity.”

A task force headed by Court of Appeals Judge John Baker and Court of Appeals Senior Judge Betty Barteau released a report in 2012 that recommended an overhaul of township courts’ practices and recommended options for restructuring the courts. One option was to place the township courts under the purview of Marion Superior Court administration.

If the Commission on Courts or another legislative study committee takes up small claims issues this summer, it could do so at about the time that findings may be released from a fresh study of Marion County’s township courts.

John Doerner, principal court management consultant with the National Center for State Courts, is examining changes that took effect in the township courts at the beginning of the year as part of a $30,000 study funded by the Indiana Supreme Court Division of Court Administration. The study was ordered in January, and Doerner recently visited several township courts. He hopes to speak with all nine township judges.

“One open question at this point is the impact of the venue rule change that went into effect in January,” Doerner said. That rule change stipulated that cases could be filed only in the township where a party lives or works, or in the township where the disputed transaction or occurrence took place. “We’re looking at data over the past several years as well,” he said.

Doerner hopes the NCSC study will be able to discern the impact of the rule change, and he hopes it also may be able to predict future filing volume. That could lead to recommendations for reorganizing the courts to best serve users.

“If the quality of the data is of a sort that it seems logical to make some suggestions as to where the courts should be located, maybe we can go down that route,” he said.

David Remondini, chief deputy executive director for the Division of State Court Administration, said the Supreme Court authorized the study in an effort to improve the small claims experience.

“It has amazed me how much detail (Doerner) has gone into,” Remondini said. “He asked for quite a bit of data from us, and he had many meetings while he was here in Indianapolis for five days.

“We really feel he got a pretty good picture of the landscape.”

Rosenberg hopes the study results in “very practical steps outlined for how we should fund and staff the township court system.”

Fixing the Marion County Township Courts was among one of the few requests Indiana Chief Justice Brent Dickson had for lawmakers in his State of the Judiciary address in January.

“Our present system has been the subject of ridicule,” he said. “Local leadership and changes in court rules, however, can only scratch the surface. Systemic change is imperative, and this requires legislative action.”

But Schneider sees little need for broader reforms of the Indianapolis courts. He’s open to perhaps raising the jurisdiction of small claims courts from the current $6,000 limit, one of the more sweeping proposals expected to be referred to the study committee.

“Anything we can take off and lighten up the workload of some of our higher courts would be better, and certainly give people an opportunity to seek justice without getting into serious legal debt,” Schneider said.

“The general public has pretty good access to the judicial system” through the township courts, he said. “A lot of people would rather work through an issue in a small claims court setting than go to the next level.

“I’m a big advocate of small claims courts as we have them in Marion County. I think it works, and I think people receive justice out of that,” he said.•

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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