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COA rules in favor of town on breach of contract claim

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The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed partial summary judgment to a city that collected a lower monthly bill rate than what was required for wastewater treatment from a town for 15 years and then sued to recover more than $500,000 it believed was owed to it. The city never informed the town the sewage treatment rate increased or that it was embroiled in a lawsuit over the matter.

The City of Lake Station and the Town of New Chicago entered into an intermunicipal agreement for the construction of an interceptor sewer system. Their wastewater was sent for treatment at the Gary Sanitary District. Lake Station billed New Chicago at the monthly rate set by GSD. Several years after this agreement was entered, the GSD tripled its rate. Lake Station protested, didn’t pay the increase, and never told New Chicago about the increase. New Chicago continued to pay the original rate until Lake Station filed a lawsuit to collect more than $500,000 following a judgment entered against Lake Station. The GSD sued Lake Station and won a judgment of more than $5.3 million against the city. Again, Lake Station didn’t inform New Chicago of the lawsuit.

The trial court granted partial summary judgment for Lake Station as to New Chicago’s liability and denied New Chicago’s motion for summary judgment. The trial court cited the Clean Water Act, which the two parties were subject to, as a reason for ruling in favor of Lake Station.

There is no private right of action under the CWA, ruled the Court of Appeals on interlocutory appeal in Town of New Chicago v. City of Lake Station, et al., No. 45A03-1001-PL-22. Lake Station cannot enforce the CWA because only the Environmental Protection Agency administrator can do so. As such, the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Lake Station based solely on the CWA, wrote Judge Nancy Vaidik.  

In examining Lake Station’s claim for breach of contract, the judges held laches isn’t available to New Chicago as a defense for the breach of contract claim, and it examined New Chicago’s equitable estoppel defense. They found New Chicago met the three elements of equitable estoppel. The town lacked the knowledge or the means of knowledge regarding the rate increase and litigation because there’s no issue of material fact that Lake Station didn’t notify New Chicago of the rate increase, that it refused to pay the increased rate, and that it continued to pay the old rate for more than 15 years.

New Chicago showed its reliance upon the conduct of Lake Station, the second element of equitable estoppel. It also showed the third element - that Lake Station’s conduct caused New Chicago to prejudicially change its position. If New Chicago was aware of the rate increases earlier, it could have taken measures to protect itself and its sewage customers, wrote Judge Vaidik.

It’s also true that in general, government entities aren’t subject to estoppel, but in certain situations application is appropriate, as was the case in Equicor Dev., Inc. v. Westfield-Washington Twp. Plan Commission, 758 N.E.2d 34, 39 (Ind. 2001).  

“Lake Station had a duty to bill New Chicago at the GSD rate (and not at a rate which it thought it should pay). Because Lake Station remained silent from 1989 to 2005, New Chicago reasonably believed that it was paying its proportionate share of the treatment charges at the proper GSD rate and the interceptor costs,” she wrote. “Like the Plan Commission in Equicor, Lake Station had ample opportunity (fifteen years in fact) to notify New Chicago of the increased rate. Yet Lake Station remained silent. Application of estoppel against Lake Station, a government entity, is appropriate in this case. Lake Station is thus estopped from collecting New Chicago’s proportionate share of the treatment charges and interceptor costs from 1990 to 2004.”

The judges reversed and remanded for summary judgment to be entered in favor of New Chicago on its equitable estoppel defense.
 

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  1. KUDOS to the Indiana Supreme Court for realizing that some bureacracies need to go to the stake. Recall what RWR said: "No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth!" NOW ... what next to this rare and inspiring chopping block? Well, the Commission on Gender and Race (but not religion!?!) is way overdue. And some other Board's could be cut with a positive for State and the reputation of the Indiana judiciary.

  2. During a visit where an informant with police wears audio and video, does the video necessary have to show hand to hand transaction of money and narcotics?

  3. I will agree with that as soon as law schools stop lying to prospective students about salaries and employment opportunities in the legal profession. There is no defense to the fraudulent numbers first year salaries they post to mislead people into going to law school.

  4. The sad thing is that no fish were thrown overboard The "greenhorn" who had never fished before those 5 days was interrogated for over 4 hours by 5 officers until his statement was illicited, "I don't want to go to prison....." The truth is that these fish were measured frozen off shore and thawed on shore. The FWC (state) officer did not know fish shrink, so the only reason that these fish could be bigger was a swap. There is no difference between a 19 1/2 fish or 19 3/4 fish, short fish is short fish, the ticket was written. In addition the FWC officer testified at trial, he does not measure fish in accordance with federal law. There was a document prepared by the FWC expert that said yes, fish shrink and if these had been measured correctly they averaged over 20 inches (offshore frozen). This was a smoke and mirror prosecution.

  5. I love this, Dave! Many congrats to you! We've come a long way from studying for the bar together! :)

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