COA: Trial court properly reinstated demoted police officer’s rank

July 13, 2016

In a case of first impression, the Indiana Court of Appeals agreed that a judge could order a police officer’s rank returned to sergeant instead of sending the matter back to the police merit board for further proceedings.

Bradford Bentley, an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police sergeant, was demoted to patrol officer two years ago and filed a petition for judicial review after the IMPD Civilian Police Merit Board upheld the demotion. He filed his petition on Sept. 10, 2014. The city of Indianapolis as defendant, did not file the transcript from the merit board hearing within 30 days of receiving the sergeant’s summons, as required by Indianapolis Code Section 279-237(o).

A special judge was appointed because Bentley’s wife worked for the Marion Superior Court, and it wasn’t until April 27, 2015, that the city filed the transcript. The trial court struck it from the record as untimely, and also struck the city’s response to Bentley’s motion for summary judgment as untimely. This left just Bentley’s designated evidence, so the trial court ruled in his favor. It ordered the merit board to restore his rank of sergeant with retroactive back pay.

The COA noted how unusual it is for the respondent, rather than the petitioner, to bear the cost and responsibility of preparation and filing of the transcript of the administrative proceeding, but that is how the city of Indianapolis chose to pass the ordinance.

“Having decided to structure its procedure in this fashion, the City is bound to comply with it. The plain language of the Ordinance requires that the City file the transcript of the Merit Board hearing within thirty days of receipt of the summons. In this case, the thirty-day deadline passed on October 16, 2014. The City did not file the transcript until April 27, 2015 — 193 days late,” Judge James Baker wrote for the majority in City of Indianapolis v. Bradford Bentley, 49A05-1510-MI-1765. “And never once, during the course of those six months, did the City request an extension of time or in any way indicate that it was experiencing difficulty with preparation of the transcript. This tardiness was not de minimis; it was extreme. And filing a required document over six months late is not substantial compliance, as the City argues.”

The city then argued that the remedy was improper and that the trial court was only permitted to remand the case for a new hearing. But under the circumstances of this case, the judges disagreed.

“When an agency errs in its analysis, it makes sense to provide an opportunity for the agency to reconsider its decision by applying the correct analysis. Here, however, the trial court did not find that the Merit Board erred in its analysis. Instead, it found that there was no evidence supporting the Merit Board’s decision. To remand to the Merit Board under these circumstances would, in essence, offer the City a chance of a second bite of the apple.”

Judge Melissa May concurred with separate opinion, writing that she believes the reasoning from James v. Harvey, 246 Neb. 329, 518 N.W.2d 150 (1994), from the Nebraska Supreme Court, supports the Indiana court’s departure from the general rule that the trial court is required to remand a matter to the administrative agency of finding that the agency’s decision wasn’t supported by sufficient evidence or was contrary to law.

“Instead, when the governmental agency acting as the defendant does not do what it is required by law to do when an individual appeals an administrative board decision, the trial court should have authority to levy appropriate sanctions, including ordering entry of a result opposite that reached by the administrative board,” she wrote.



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