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Appeals court rules that DCS employee can proceed with caseload claims

October 25, 2016

An employee of the Department of Child Services can continue in her complaint that alleges violations of the state-mandated caseload maximums despite a ruling that the employee has no private right of action under Indiana Code.

Appellant Mary Price is currently an employee of the Marion County Department of Child Services as a permanency worker, a position that, under Indiana statute, has a caseload limited to 17 children. However, Price’s caseload has consistently exceeded that limit for the past four years, rising as high as roughly 43 children and resulting in a work week that regularly exceeds 40 hours.

As a result, Price filed a class-action complaint in July 2015 seeking injunctive and declaratory relief and requesting that the court enter an order mandating or enjoining DCS to take steps to comply with the state-mandated caseload restrictions.

DCS subsequently filed a motion to dismiss and testified at a hearing on that motion that mandate was not appropriate because Price could remedy the situation through Indiana’s Civil Service Complaint procedure. The Marion Superior Court granted DCS’ motion to dismiss, concluding that no private right of action existed under Indiana Code because the protections included in the statute are for the benefit of the general public while also agreeing with DCS’ claim that the members of the class could seek remedy through a civil service complaint.

Price appealed, arguing that state statute did offer a private cause of action because enforcing more management caseloads for DCS employees would lower the risk of “burnout” among the employees, thus offering a “clear and identifiable private benefit on the (employees).”

However, the Indiana Court of Appeals disagreed Tuesday with that logic. The implementation of caseload requirements was intended to protect members of the public through consistent, efficient and effective DCS services, the court wrote. Thus, there is no private cause of action through that statute.

The appellate court also held Tuesday that as a member of the general public, Price could prevail on the statute through the public standing doctrine. Further, even though the Civil Service Complaint procedure exists, the court noted that Price’s complaint fell outside of the boundaries of that procedure.

Thus, the appellate court rejected DCS’ argument that mandate was inappropriate and instead decided that the statute imposes “a clear, absolute and imperative duty on DCS to comply with maximum caseload standards as determined by the legislature.” Thus, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court decision to dismiss Price’s complaint with respect to the mandate and instead remanded the case for further proceedings.

Judge James Kirsch concurred with the panel’s decision that Price does not have a private right of action, but dissented on the panel’s ruling in regard to the mandate, writing in a separate opinion that the Indiana Civil Service Complaint Procedure was an adequate remedy that Price failed to exhaust and, thus, the appellate court should not reach the issue of whether there is a public right of action under the statute.

Judge Margret Robb concurred in result with the mandate ruling, writing that the appellate court is not in a position to say whether the Indiana Civil Service Complaint procedure was an “adequate” remedy.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which brought the lawsuit against DCS on behalf of Price and other case managers, released a statement Tuesday, saying it is pleased with the ruling.

"The vital societal importance of the services provided by DCS case managers cannot be overstated," Ken Falk, legal director of ACLU of Indiana said. "I am happy that we will be givin the opportunity to demonstrate to the trial court that the caseload standards that are essential for the case managers to perform their jobs are not being met."

DCS spokesperson Jeannie Keating said the department would confer with the attorney general on its next steps in the case.

The case is Mary Price, on her own behalf and on behalf of a class of those similarly situated v. Indiana Department of Child Services; Director, Indiana Department of Child Services, 49A05-1602-PL-380.

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