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Judges: amendment not retroactive

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that an estate's interpretation of a 2003 amendment to Indiana Code would threaten the fiscal health of governmental entities and that the amendment isn't retroactive.

"Making the entities suddenly responsible for liability imposed during the first term of the Reagan Administration would neither preserve the treasury nor discourage excessive litigation," wrote Judge Robert M. Dow Jr., sitting in designation from the Northern District Court of Illinois.

The federal appellate court decided in Estate of Christopher A. Moreland v. Erich Dieter and Michael Sawdon, and St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners, et al., No. 08-1478, that an amendment to Indiana Code Section 34-13-4-1 didn't apply retroactively to a judgment imposed against St. Joseph County jail officers Erich Dieter and Michael Sawdon. The two were found civilly liable for the beating death of inmate Christopher A. Moreland in 1997. The jury returned a $56.5 million verdict, with $29 million in compensatory damages, against the two in 2002; a third officer was found not liable in September 2003.

The estate relied on the 2003 amendment to attempt to recover the $29 million from St. Joseph County and its board of commissioners. The amendment made changes to the state's statutory schemes covering indemnification by governmental entities for the conduct of their employees. It converted a discretionary indemnification provision into a mandatory one for non-punitive damages and when the entity defends or has the chance to defend the employee.

The District Court denied the estate's motion for writ of execution to collect against the county.

The 7th Circuit rejected the estate's three arguments on appeal: that the amendment applies to the judgment because the interpretation that it seeks isn't retroactive at all; the language of the amendment requires retroactive application; and the amendment was a remedial statute whose purpose requires retroactive application.

The estate relies on re-enacted language, which makes it difficult for the judges to "swallow" the argument that the legislature intended to give retroactive effect to the 2003 amendment by resorting to language that already existed in Indiana code, wrote Judge Dow.

"In sum, the language to which the Estate points falls far short of the unambiguous language that Indiana courts require for a statute to be applied retroactively. Tellingly, Indiana's legislature has revealed itself more than capable of making its statutes explicitly retroactive ...," he wrote.

The estate's argument the amendment is remedial also fails, because it's doubtful the amendment qualifies as remedial as the state's courts use the term in evaluating retroactivity and giving retroactive effect to the amendment would allow one purpose of it to trump other purposes that are evident from the structure and language of the statute, wrote the judge.

"The Estate's interpretation would threaten the fiscal health of governmental entities by opening them up to twenty years' liability, because that is how long a person has to enforce an Indiana judgment," wrote Judge Dow.

St. Joseph County may choose to compensate the estate for the conduct of its officers, but because I.C. Section 34-13-4-1 isn't retroactive, it's not a choice the Circuit Court has the authority to impose.

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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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