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Supreme Court: Union County lacks standing to sue INDOT

August 15, 2017

The Indiana Supreme Court has affirmed dismissal of a case seeking declaratory judgment and an injunction against the Indiana Department of Transportation, finding the local government entity bringing the action against INDOT lacked standing to do so.

While performing construction and repair work on U.S. Route 27 in Union County, the Indiana Department of Transportation allegedly caused “septic system issues” on three private properties. After INDOT failed to heed a request to investigate and remedy the damage, the county board of commissioners filed a complaint for declaratory judgment and an injunction, seeking repairs and an “‘Order declaring (U.S.) highway 27 and any associated storm drain the responsibility of INDOT and Not Union County Indiana.’”

INDOT moved to dismiss, arguing the county lacked standing and, thus, had failed to state a claim for relief, and the Union Circuit Court agreed. The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, reversed that decision and allowed the case to continue, finding declaratory judgment was the appropriate way to resolve the “responsibility” question for Route 27. The appellate court also found the county could maintain an action for injunctive relief on behalf of its citizens under the public standing, associational standing and parens patriae authority. http://www.theindianalawyer.com/articles/42308-coa-case-for-relief-against-indot-may-continue

The Indiana Supreme Court then heard arguments on petition to transfer in May, the last oral arguments heard by now-retired Justice Robert Rucker. INDOT urged the high court to grant transfer, arguing that the Court of Appeals’ ruling would allow local governmental entities to usurp the state’s parens patriae authority to sue on behalf of its citizens. The county, however, said a municipal corporation is defined as a “person” under the Declaratory Judgment Act, giving it standing to bring its claims against INDOT. http://www.theindianalawyer.com/articles/43602-supreme-court-hears-indot-case-during-ruckers-final-oral-arguments

In a Tuesday opinion, the high court granted the petition for transfer and vacated the Court of Appeals’ opinion, agreeing with the trial court’s original determination that the county lacked standing to sue. Specifically, Justice Mark Massa wrote for the unanimous court that the county had failed to plead adequate facts – such as a property interest in Route 27 or any other impacted property – to maintain the declaratory judgment action on its own behalf.

The high court also found Union County cannot maintain its claim for injunctive relief under third-party standing, such as the public standing doctrine, which is only available to citizens. Similarly, the associational standing third-party exception is not available to the county because it is not considered an “association” for purposes of standing and because the three landowners whose properties were affected would be required to participate in the lawsuit, Massa said.

“In truth, it appears Union County has not asserted a standing argument at all, but rather has attempted to invoke parens patriae authority, which in Latin means ‘parent of his or her country,’ and refers to ‘the state in its capacity as provider of protection to those unable to care for themselves,’” Massa wrote. “But it has long been settled that ‘a state may act as a parens patriae on behalf of its citizens. However, a county has no sovereign powers and cannot act as parens patriae, asserting the claims of its residents.’”

The high court affirmed the trial court’s order to dismiss the case of The Board of Commissioners of Union County, Indiana v. Joe McGuinness, in his Official Capacity as Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation and the Indiana Department of Transportation, 81S01-1708-PL-529.

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