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Court tackles 2 first-impression issues

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The Indiana Supreme Court ruled on a case today in which there were two issues of first impression, finding consolidation of a trial with a preliminary injunction hearing without notice isn't a reversible error unless a showing of prejudice can be made.

In John C. Roberts, M.D. v. Community Hospitals of Indiana, Inc., No. 49S02-0804-CV-189, the high court was faced with two issues Indiana courts hadn't directly ruled on - the standard of review of a trial court's decision to advance and consolidate a trial on the merits with a preliminary injunction, and whether a party which solicits the equivalent of a final judgment waives any challenges to consolidation as improper.

Dr. John C. Roberts was a resident in Community Hospitals' Family Medicine Residence Program under a one-year contract. Despite tardiness and absenteeism from work, Roberts' contract was renewed for a second year. After several warnings about his missing exams and not showing up for shifts, Community terminated his contract. Roberts sued for breach of contract and the trial court held a preliminary injunction hearing. The court then consolidated without notice the hearing with a trial on the merits pursuant to Ind. Trial Rule 65(A)(2), denying Roberts' application for a preliminary injunction, and entering final judgment in favor of Community. The trial court also denied Roberts' motion to correct error, in which he argued if he had received notice, he would have called other witnesses and presented more evidence, but he didn't specify names or facts.

The high court hasn't addressed T.R. 65(A)(2) since it was enacted in 1970, and turned to federal courts to see how they have interpreted the similar Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65(a)(2). The prevailing federal rule is that allegations of prejudice by the consolidation must be specific, which means more than simply identifying the steps that might be possible to produce evidence not shown at the preliminary injunction stage, wrote Justice Theodore Boehm.

The justices also recognized that a stricter requirement of showing prejudice may produce unfair results and may need to be relaxed in situations, such as when a party had little time for discovery of matters largely known to its opponent. The Supreme Court then outlined items a court must consider to determine prejudice following a surprise consolidation.

The Supreme Court also examined another issue of first impression: Community's argument that Roberts can't claim surprise from consolidation because he submitted a proposed order to the court requesting relief on the merits. The 3rd and 7th Circuit appeals courts have addressed this issue and ruled a plaintiff had waived any objection to the timeliness of a notice because he had submitted a brief and a proposed order which "contemplated solely a final adjudication on the merits," wrote the justice.

"We prefer to resolve cases on the merits if in doubt, and we therefore find no waiver in this case but observe that Community's argument finds support in the foregoing federal authority," wrote Justice Boehm. "In the future, of course, parties should be mindful that a request for relief available only in a final judgment after a preliminary injunction hearing may invite consolidation under Trial Rule 65(A)(2) and waive any objection to lack of notice."

The Supreme Court affirmed the consolidation and entry of final judgment.

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