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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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