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Court rules in favor of steel company in dispute

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The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed Tuesday the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission's grant of summary judgment in favor of a steel production facility in a contract dispute involving a public utility. Before ruling on the summary judgment, the high court first had to decide which standard of review to use.

In Northern Indiana Public Service Co. v. United States Steel Corp., No. 93S02-0809-EX-489, the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. and United States Steel Corp. disagreed on the application of a price adjustment provision based on a 1999 contract. NIPSCO believed it applied to both an energy charge and demand charge; U.S. Steel believed it only applied to the energy charge. The IURC approved the original contract based on a settlement agreement and contract for electric industrial power service submitted to the agency. U.S. Steel filed a complaint seeking to enforce its interpretation of the contract in 2006 and filed for summary judgment; the commission granted the motion. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed.

NIPSCO wanted the Supreme Court to apply a de novo standard because the case involves summary judgment and a question of law. It argued the appeal isn't the product of a regulatory settlement but a contract dispute between two private parties.

The commission approved the contract, effectively making it an order of the commission, so when ruling on the summary judgment motion, that means the IURC interpreted its own order, not a contract, wrote Chief Justice Randal T. Shephard. Approving such contracts and resolving disputes is intrinsic to the commission's regulation of utility rates, he wrote.

Agencies, such as the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, aren't judicial bodies, but are executive branch institutions which the General Assembly has empowered with delegated duties. Adjudication by an agency deserves a higher level of deference than a summary judgment order by a trial court falling squarely within the judicial branch, so the high court applied the established standard for judicial review of commission orders, he wrote.

Using that standard of review, the high court ruled 4-1 the IURC didn't err in interpreting the contract. The commission determined that other documents the parties executed at the same time as the contract, but didn't submit to the commission, couldn't be used to explain, expand, or vary the contract's terms because the contract wasn't ambiguous.

NIPSCO argued adjustment applies to both the energy charge and demand charge, but the commission rejected its argument, finding the utility misapplied the adjustment based on the agreed upon contract terms and rates approved by the commission. NIPSCO's argument on appeal doesn't persuade the justices that the IURC's interpretation of the contract was unreasonable. Justice Frank Sullivan dissented without an opinion, because he would have denied transfer believing the Court of Appeals' conclusion was correct.

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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