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Former auditor wins appeal on attorney fee issue

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The Indiana Supreme Court decided a case seven years ago but left for another day the answer to a question about governmental attorney fees, and now that specific issue has found its way to an appeal before the state’s second-highest appellate court.

A decision on that issue comes today in Clinton County, et al. v. Jacqueline R. Clements, et al., No. 54A01-1008-PL-407, which involves the former Clinton County auditor who served in that role between August 2004 and November 2008 and explored software changes for the county property tax management systems.

Several companies offered proposals for the system software, and at one point a dispute arose over the estimated costs for the legislative changes, resulting in the county terminating a contract with one of the companies. The county in June 2009 filed an amended complaint against Clements and the company Nikish involving breach of contract, fraud, negligence, actual fraud, and intentional interference with contractual relations. The complaint also included a civil action by a crime victim against both Nikish and Clements, and claims involved Clements knowingly misrepresenting to the county what the system changes would cost.

Clements filed a motion for summary judgment claiming that she had governmental immunity, and the trial court agreed on the basis that county officials didn’t prove that any intentional misrepresentation existed to override that immunity. The court also found she was immune from liability because she’d been acting within the scope of her employment.

But the trial court denied her motion for reimbursement of attorney fees and costs, based on Indiana Code 34-13-3-5e(e), which states that “the governmental entity shall provide counsel for and pay all costs and fees incurred by or on behalf of an employee in defense of a claim or suit for a loss occurring because of acts or omissions within the scope of the employee’s employment, regardless of whether the employee can or cannot be held personally liability for the loss.”

In denying that motion, the trial court relied on State v. Evans,  810 N.E. 2d 335 (Ind. 204) and found that state statute ambiguous and intended to apply only where a third party claimant filed a claim against a governmental employee personally, and concluded that “an absurd result would occur if it accepted Clements’s interpretation of the statute.”

The Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling on the governmental immunity aspect, but disagreed on the attorney fee issue. It said Evans didn’t go far enough to address this specific issue raised by Clements on whether the statute would afford reimbursement to a defendant who prevails.

“Although our supreme court concluded in Evans that it would be absurd to require the Attorney General to finance both sides of the litigation against the prosecutor accused of misappropriating funds during the litigation, it specifically left open the possibility of reimbursing an employee who prevails in such an action,” Judge Michael Barnes wrote.

Statute enacted following that Evans holding in 2004 shows the Legislature’s intent to reimburse an officer or employee wrongly accused by the governmental entity in certain civil suits, the appellate panel found.

“Where, as here, a county has filed an unsuccessful and highly questionable action against its former auditor, it would be unjust to deny her request for reimbursement of her attorney fees. We conclude that Clements is entitled to reimbursement of her attorney fees under a plain reading of Indiana Code Section 34-13-2-5(e),” the appellate panel wrote, finding the trial court abused its discretion on that issue.

With that holding, the appellate panel has remanded for a calculation of attorney fees owed to Clements.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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