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City violated constitution in denying refunds

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The city of Indianapolis' refusal to grant some homeowners' requests for a partial refund of Barrett Law assessments violated the Equal Protection Clause, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled today.

In The City of Indianapolis, et al. v. Christine Armour, et al., No. 49A02-0901-CV-84, 45 homeowners in an Indianapolis subdivision sued the city seeking a refund of sewer assessments they had paid in full roughly equivalent to the amount the city's Board of Public Works voted to forgive for neighbors who were making installment payments.

The residents in the neighborhood were told their properties would be part of a sanitary sewer project funded under the Barrett Law, Indiana Code Chapter 36-9-39. The homeowners in the instant suit paid their nearly $10,000 in assessments in one lump sum. The rest of the neighborhood chose monthly installment payments. A year later, the city switched to funding sewer projects under the Septic Tank Elimination Program. As a result of this switch, the city declared any unpaid money under the Barrett Program as of Nov. 1, 2005, would be forgiven. The homeowners in the complaint had paid their assessments in full prior to this date, and the city denied refunding some of the money.

These homeowners sued for refunds, declaratory relief, or a writ of mandamus, alleging the city's decision to not refund the money violated the Equal Protection Clause. The trial court agreed and entered judgment against Indianapolis for $380,914.

The U.S. Supreme Court hasn't specifically addressed whether a municipality contravenes the Equal Protection Clause when it forgives an outstanding assessment owed by some property owners while, at the same time, it refuses to refund an equivalent amount to similarly situated property owners who have already paid the same assessment in full. But relying on Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co. v. County Commission of Webster Co., West Virginia, 488 U.S. 336 (1989), and Supreme Court rulings from several other states, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling.

The appellate judges rejected the city's arguments that the homeowners aren't similarly situated to those other owners who hadn't paid in full their assessments by Nov. 1, 2005, because the city's argument wasn't supported by legal authority, nor did it address the proper legal standard, wrote Judge Edward Najam. The city failed to show the property owners who chose to pay in installments are any different in income class than the homeowners who paid in a single lump sum.

The city's reasoning for rejecting the refunds failed to take into account the particular facts of the homeowners' cases, where they had paid from 10 to 30 times more that their similarly situated neighbors, the judge continued. The city failed to demonstrate a rational basis for the different treatment and instead offered attenuated justifications for its failure to treat the similarly situated homeowners with rough equality.

"The City cannot lawfully confer privileges upon those property owners who chose to pay their Barrett Law assessments in installments and, at the same time, impose liabilities upon those property owners within the same class who, at the City's invitation, paid their assessments in full," Judge Najam wrote.

The appellate court also rejected the city's attempt to satisfy its burden with an affidavit the chairperson of the board prepared for litigation two years later in response to the homeowners' showing of disparate treatment.

The city is required by the U.S. Constitution to refund the homeowners an amount that will place them on equal footing with their similarly situated neighbors who benefited from the city's disparate treatment, the appellate court concluded. The judges remanded with instructions to determine the appropriate amount of prejudgment interest for each homeowner.

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  1. 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.

  2. 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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