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Court rules on ADR sanctions, Open Door Law

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Trial courts can sanction government entities through the state's Alternative Dispute Resolution Rules, but officials aren't necessarily acting in bad faith if they don't immediately approve mediated agreements to comply with the Indiana Open Door Law, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled today.

Issuing a decision today in Lake County Trust Co., et al. v. Advisory Plan Commission of Lake County, No. 37S03-0904-CV-192, the Supreme Court granted transfer and ruled on an issue last addressed by the intermediate appellate court in 1995 but that justices hadn't addressed before: whether a trial court could impose ADR rule sanctions against a governmental entity.

"Like other parties to litigation who may be involved in a mediation proceeding, governmental entities are equally obligated to comply with the applicable rules and thus should be equally subject to the sanctions authorized to encourage compliance," Justice Brent Dickson wrote for the unanimous court, noting the justices disapprove a contrary view expressed previously in State v. Carter, 658 N.E.2d 618 (Ind. Ct. App. 1995).

The Lake County Advisory Plan Commission had denied a primary plat approval request for the Deer Ridge South Subdivision in an unincorporated part of the county, and the developers sought judicial review of that decision. The trial court ordered mediation and that led to a written settlement, but at a public meeting the plan commission voted to hold off on a decision for 30 days. Developers filed a motion to enforce the agreement, and the plan commission then voted to reject it. That resulted in the trial court specifically ordering the plan commission to approve the plan and issue any necessary permits; officials complied. But the trial court later conducted a hearing and determined that the plan commission had acted in bad faith in failing to approve a settlement reached by its attorneys with full settlement authority, and ordered that mediation costs be paid to the developers. The Court of Appeals ultimately held that the plan commission was immune from any sanctions under the ADR rules, and that the commission didn't act in bad faith in not approving the plat promptly.

In its decision today, justices examined the 1995 ruling in Carter and compared it to other caselaw looking at how government entities are held liable for damages and how Indiana's mediation rules are designed to be a part of the court-sanctioned process applying to civil and domestic situations. It also determined that no exemption exists for the government entities.

The court also determined that the Indiana Open Door Law must be applied to any mediation agreement and that pre-mediation public meetings don't satisfy that statutory requirement as the developers insisted in this case.

"While we generally favor the amicable settlement of disputes and encourage the use of mediation to facilitate such agreements, these processes cannot substitute for legislatively mandated official and public assent to the resulting settlement agreements," Justice Dickson wrote. " Resort to mediation can be extremely beneficial to all parties, but, as observed by the Court of Appeals, it is wise practice 'to include language in a settlement agreement that the agreement is contingent upon compliance with the Open Door Law and that it must be approved at an open meeting.'"

Justices vacated the ruling from Jasper Circuit Judge John D. Potter, which had ordered the plan commission to reimburse a developer $1,578 in mediation costs.

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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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