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Justices split over how to determine a lawsuit is equitable

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The Indiana Supreme Court has expanded on a previous decision to create a multi-pronged inquiry to determine whether a suit is essentially equitable, a move that causes two justices to worry the new test may often foreclose a defendant’s right to a jury on distinct and severable legal claims.

U.S. Bank initiated a foreclosure action against Mary Beth and Perry Lucas. The couple asserted numerous legal defenses and claims against the bank and the loan servicer, and asked for a jury trial on these defenses and claims. The trial court denied the request, holding the Lucases’ counterclaims and related legal claims were drawn into equity.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed and ordered the trial court to grant the Lucases’ request for a jury trial. It relied on Songer v. Civitas Bank, 771 N.E.2d 61 (Ind. 2002), unable to conclude that the essential features of this case were equitable.

The justices took another look at their Songer decision, which noted that the inclusion of an equitable claim, without anything more, couldn’t justify drawing the whole case into equity, and that a court should look at the “essential features of a suit.” The majority concluded that an examination of the substance and character of the complaint, the rights and interests involved, and the relief requested is not the endpoint of the inquiry, but a multi-pronged inquiry should be used to figure out whether a suit is essentially equitable.

Justice Steven David wrote for the majority in Mary Beth Lucas and Perry Lucas v. U.S. Bank, N.A., as Trustee for the C-Bass Mortgage Loan Asset-Backed Certificates, Series 2006-MH-1, No. 28S01-1102-CV-78, “If equitable and legal causes of action or defenses are present in the same lawsuit, the court must examine several factors of each joined claim — its substance and character, the rights and interests involved, and the relief requested. After that examination, the trial court must decide whether core questions presented in any of the joined legal claims significantly overlap with the subject matter that invokes the equitable jurisdiction of the court. If so, equity subsumes those particular legal claims to obtain more final and effectual relief for the parties despite the presence of peripheral questions of a legal nature. Conversely, the unrelated legal claims are entitled to a trial by jury.”

The majority concluded that the core issues presented by the Lucases’ legal defenses and claims as compared to the core issues presented by the foreclosure action show that they are closely intertwined with each other.

“We wholeheartedly recognize that the Indiana Constitution protects the right to a trial by jury for legal claims when the essential features of a civil suit are not equitable, and we do not narrow that right. But the essential features of this suit are equitable,” wrote the justice.

Justices Brent Dickson and Robert Rucker dissented because of concerns that Thursday’s decision dilutes the teachings of Songer.

“Instead of focusing simply on whether multiple causes of action are ‘distinct and severable,’ the standard prescribed in Songer, the majority superimposes a further test — whether the legal claims "significantly overlap" with the subject matter of the original equitable claim. In my view, this new test may often foreclose a defendant's right to a jury trial on distinct and severable legal claims. I prefer that the analysis prescribed by Songer be followed without modification with the result that the defendants should not be deprived of their right to jury trial as to their purely legal claims that are sufficiently distinct and severable from the equitable foreclosure action,” wrote Justice Dickson.
 

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  1. Well, maybe it's because they are unelected, and, they have a tendency to strike down laws by elected officials from all over the country. When you have been taught that "Democracy" is something almost sacred, then, you will have a tendency to frown on such imperious conduct. Lawyers get acculturated in law school into thinking that this is the very essence of high minded government, but to people who are more heavily than King George ever did, they may not like it. Thanks for the information.

  2. I pd for a bankruptcy years ago with Mr Stiles and just this week received a garnishment from my pay! He never filed it even though he told me he would! Don't let this guy practice law ever again!!!

  3. Excellent initiative on the part of the AG. Thankfully someone takes action against predators taking advantage of people who have already been through the wringer. Well done!

  4. Conour will never turn these funds over to his defrauded clients. He tearfully told the court, and his daughters dutifully pledged in interviews, that his first priority is to repay every dime of the money he stole from his clients. Judge Young bought it, much to the chagrin of Conour’s victims. Why would Conour need the $2,262 anyway? Taxpayers are now supporting him, paying for his housing, utilities, food, healthcare, and clothing. If Conour puts the money anywhere but in the restitution fund, he’s proved, once again, what a con artist he continues to be and that he has never had any intention of repaying his clients. Judge Young will be proven wrong... again; Conour has no remorse and the Judge is one of the many conned.

  5. Pass Legislation to require guilty defendants to pay for the costs of lab work, etc as part of court costs...

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