The Indiana Court of Appeals ordered the White Circuit Court clerk to refund the thousands of dollars a sewer district overpaid in damages for easements on a couple’s property to construct sewers. The appellate court held that the trial court improperly admitted the court-appointed appraisal report.
Twin Lakes Regional Sewer District filed a complaint for appropriation of easement for two permanent sewer easements and two temporary construction ones on two plots of land owned by Robert and Paula Teumer. The couple appeared pro se. The trial court appointed three appraisers to assess the damages to which the Teumers were entitled; the appraisal said the couple was owed $5,434. Twin Lakes paid it to the clerk and challenged the appraisers’ report. The clerk sent the money to the Teumers three days later by error.
The court ultimately decided the Teumers were owed just $5,000 and ordered the clerk to refund $434. The sewer district appealed in Twin Lakes Regional Sewer District v. Robert W. Teumer and Paula K. Teumer, 91A04-1212-PL-638, claiming the judge was improperly influenced by the Teumers because they appeared pro se and that judicial notice was an improper means for admitting the court-appointed appraisers’ report.
The trial court may not admit evidence on its own motion where it would not otherwise be able to do so, in order to not “hold it against” a pro se party, as the judge said in this case, Chief Judge Margret Robb wrote. Pro se litigants are to be held to the same legal standards as licensed attorneys. In addition, judicial notice was not an appropriate avenue for admission of the appraisers’ report because the amount of damages was in dispute. Twin Lakes introduced an appraisal that valued the damages at just $950.
There is insufficient evidence to support the $5,000 award to the Teumers because the court-appointed appraisal report was improperly judicially noticed. The report also had several other problems, including that it makes several claims to be a fee-simple appraisal and not an easement take.
Because the only other evidence admitted regarding damages was the report by Twin Lakes’ appraiser valuing the damages at $950, and whose testimony was uncontroverted, the judges ordered the $950 judgment in favor of the Teumers. The clerk is responsible for refunding the overpayment to Twin Lakes. The clerk may then try to recover the overpayment from the Teumers, Robb pointed out, because the money should still be in the hands of the clerk.