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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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