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Supreme Court upholds denial of continuance

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The majority of justices on the Indiana Supreme Court agreed that the trial court didn't abuse its discretion in denying a married couple's pro se motion to continue after their attorney withdrew six weeks before trial. The dissenting justice argued because of the complexities of the case, the trial court should have granted the couple's motion.

In Rudrappa and Jayashree Gunashekar v. Kay Grose d/b/a/ America's Affordable Housing, J&K Manufacturing, No. 02S03-0812-CV-762, the Supreme Court affirmed 4-1 the denial of the Gunashekars' motion to continue and the convictions of breach of contract, conversion, and deception. The Gunashekars hired Kay Grose's company to repair fire damage to property they leased and had insured. Grose claimed after she completed the work that Rudrappa refused to pay from his insurance proceeds, forged her name on the back of the insurance check, and wrote her a check that was returned unpaid.

The Gunashekars originally were represented by an attorney, but he withdrew six weeks prior to trial. The trial court made clear in its pretrial order that no removals or continuances of any settings or deadlines were permitted. The Gunashekars didn't obtain a new attorney and filed a pro se motion for a continuance, which the trial court denied. They appeared pro se at the trial, in which the trial court entered judgment for Grose finding the couple was jointly and severally liable for $147,000 and Rudrappa was liable for an additional $296,000 for treble damages and attorney fees.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the denial of motion to continue and didn't rule on any other issues.

But the Supreme Court found the trial court didn't abuse its discretion in denying the motion because the Gunashekars didn't indicate to the court they were diligent in trying to find a new attorney or whether they did anything after their original counsel withdrew, wrote Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard.

"If any inference can be drawn from the unexplained passage of six weeks from the time their attorney withdrew, it is that they were not forced to proceed without an attorney," he wrote.

Justice Robert Rucker dissented, writing that although it may be correct to say the trial court didn't abuse its discretion in denying the pro se motion, the denial is grounds for reversal. The case presented a level of complexity involving insurance proceeds, joint and several liability, contract compliance, and other issues that few, if any, pro se litigants would be able to successfully navigate, he wrote.

"With a potential exposure, and indeed an ultimate adverse judgment, of nearly a half million dollars the Gunashekars needed the assistance of trained legal counsel," Justice Rucker continued. "Fairness and equity required the trial court to afford the Gunashekars a reasonable delay to accomplish this end."

The majority also affirmed the judgment against both defendants, Rudrappa's forgery constituted conversion, Rudrappa committed conversion, and the award of attorney fees.

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