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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April 2007 rule amendment didn’t comply with the state statutes on public notice and comment, and therefore was rescinded.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. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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