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Small-claims change of judge time limit further divides appellate courts

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How long a small-claims court litigant has to request a change of judge is a question that divided a Court of Appeals panel Monday, where a majority found that an earlier appellate panel majority got it wrong. The dissenting judge authored the prior opinion, and said it shouldn’t be disturbed even if it may have been wrongly decided.

A panel of the Court of Appeals reversed a Lake County case arising from a property damage accident in which damages awarded after a bench trial were less than $3,000. But the judge in the case erroneously ruled a plaintiff’s motion for change of judge untimely. The panel remanded Amy Palmer v. Margaret Sales and Unique Insurance Company, 45A03-1302-SC-31, ordered a change of judge and implementation of procedures for choosing a new judge, and ordered the case moved to the plenary docket.

Judge Terry Crone wrote the majority opinion joined by Judge Patricia Riley that found the law improperly applied and perhaps improperly formulated.

“We agree that the small claims court erred by finding that (Palmer’s) request for a change of judge was untimely. The small claims court had relied on McClure v. Cooper, 893 N.E.2d 337 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008). We disagree with the majority opinion in McClure, which gives the defendant only three days after receiving the notice of claim to request a change of judge. In any event, McClure is distinguishable because the notice of claim sent to Palmer did not properly notify her of the trial date.”

The majority sided with Judge James Kirsch’s dissent in McClure, in which he found that Trial Rule 76(C)(5) should govern the amount of time a litigant has to ask for a change in judge.

Judge Mark Bailey concurred in part and dissented in part, finding that Palmer properly moved for a jury trial but was denied, so the matter should be moved to the plenary docket as the majority did. But Bailey wrote that the panel shouldn’t have reached the change of judge question, and he noted that since Palmer acknowledged liability, the only question for the court should be damages.

“In recognition of our judicial role and as a matter of policy, it seems wise to me not to reach matters beyond those necessary for resolution of a case. Because we can resolve this appeal without disturbing existing precedent, based upon the trial court’s erroneous denial of a jury trial, we ought not to address McClure,” Bailey wrote, noting the rule of stare decisis stands for the proposition of not disturbing findings of the same court absent urgent reasons or clear error.

“(U)pon reflection, I agree that McClure may have been wrongly decided, though I reach that conclusion on a different basis from the majority. Simply put, even though the opinion I authored in McClure narrowly construed the time limits in Trial Rules 76(B) and (C) (providing for change of judge as a matter of right and without cause), on reflection I do not think the provisions of those rules properly apply in the small claims dockets of our state. Therefore, I think McClure likely reached the wrong conclusion,” Bailey wrote.

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  1. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  2. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  3. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  4. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

  5. "No one is safe when the Legislature is in session."

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