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Judges rule on breach of contract lawsuit

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The City of Jeffersonville breached its contract with a company hired to maintain its sewer system by not adequately providing written notice before ending the contract.

Environmental Management Corporation filed an action against the City of Jeffersonville and its Sanitary Sewer Board alleging Jeffersonville breached its contract with EMC, violated Indiana’s Open Door Law, and acted in contempt of an agreed entry and order.

Based on the parties’ contract, written notice had to be given to the other party 90 days before terminating the contract, to allow the party to cure its performance. There were issues after EMC began operating the city’s sewer system, and a letter was sent by the city attorney to EMC asking for specific information, but it never detailed that the city would terminate the contract if problems were not rectified within 90 days. That letter, and one sent in August that said the city was terminating the contract, were authorized during an executive session of the sewer board held before the open board meeting. The city took over operations of the plant in December 2008.

EMC filed its suit, in which the judge ruled in favor of EMC, awarded damages to EMC, and ordered the city to pay attorney fees and costs.

In City of Jeffersonville, Indiana and City of Jeffersonville Sanitary Sewer Board v. Environmental Management Corporation, No. 10A01-1005-PL-217, the Court of Appeals agreed that the city did not provide sufficient written notice to EMC 90 days before terminating the contract. The city’s verbal comments at a regular sewer board meeting held prior to the first letter being sent do not count because they were oral and never recorded in the board’s minutes. In addition, the letter didn’t allege inadequate performance as required by the terms of the contract.

The judges reversed summary judgment for EMC regarding its Open Door Law claims, finding EMC waived those claims. EMC had a 30-day time limit to file its complaints, which it did not do. The time period begins when the plaintiff “knew or should have known” about the act or failure to act that had occurred. EMC had representatives attending every sewer board meeting, so it should have known under the principles of common knowledge and experience, that the two letters weren’t authorized at a public meeting, wrote Judge Patricia Riley. The two complaints filed regarding these letters were filed more than 30 days after the point when EMC should have known about a violation.

The trial court based its award of attorney fees in part on the Open Door Law violations, so the judges remanded for the trial court to recalculate those fees as well as only order the city to pay EMC costs related to filing fees and statutory witness fees.

The judges affirmed the finding the city was in contempt of an agreed entry between the parties to not interfere with EMC’s access to the sewer facilities while a preliminary injunction hearing was pending. The appellate court also affirmed the trial court’s decision to reduce EMC’s corporate support expenses from its losses during calculation of EMC’s damages.

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