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Judges must balance timeliness rules with discretion

November 16, 2016

A motion filed after its deadline often can bring a case to a halt, with statutes of limitations and other statutory requirements prohibiting judges from allowing the case to move forward.

In other instances, however, courts are given the discretion to move a case forward despite a belated filing. But in order for that to happen, judges say there have to be compelling reasons to continue a case, such as the well-being of a child or a matter that would have a substantial impact on the law and public life.

Recent decisions from the Indiana Court of Appeals have demonstrated this divide between statutory requirements and judicial discretion.

For example, in an Oct. 27 opinion in the case of In the Matter of the Commitment of J.M., J.M. v. Northeastern Center, Inc., 76A05-1509-MH-1477, a panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals chose to make a decision in J.M.’s appeal of her involuntary commitment in a mental health facility, despite the fact that the 90-day required window for her commitment had already passed, thus making her case moot.

Conversely, in its Oct. 11 opinion in Allen County Plan Commission, et al. v. Olde Canal Place Association, et al, 02A03-1412-PL-441, another panel reversed a lower court’s decision to set aside a motion to dismiss the association’s petition for judicial review, writing that its petition should have been dismissed because it had failed to file the record on time, thus preventing itself from establishing a meritorious claim.

Vaidik_Nancy_mug Vaidik

The deciding factor in determining whether an appellate case should move forward despite a late filing often depends on the levity of the case, said Indiana Court of Appeals Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik.

Child custody cases, for example, may be allowed to continue despite a belated filing for the sake of the child, Vaidik said. And in cases where liberty is at stake — such as when an inmate is unable to file an appeal on time because of their incarceration — exceptions can be made to ensure that justice is administered fairly.

Similarly, when deciding to hear J.M.’s appeal of her involuntary commitment despite the appeal being moot, Judge Edward Najam referenced the case of In re Mental Commitment of M.P., 510 N.E.2d 645, 646 (Ind. 1987), which found that the appeal of an involuntary commitment is “(an issue) of great public importance and (is) likely to recur,” thus making it eligible for appellate review. Ultimately, the panel affirmed the lower court’s decision to enforce J.M.’s involuntary commitment, but that affirmation was based on the merits of the case, not on its timeliness, he wrote.

Aside from weighty circumstances, Vaidik also said human error that leads to a late filing can be forgiven. For example, if a petition for post-conviction relief is filed late because of an attorney’s error, the petition can still be reviewed as long as the defendant is diligent in their request for permission to belatedly file the motion, she said.

In the case against Olde Canal Place Association, its argument was that its attorney had mistakenly believed he had more time to file the agency record, which led to the delay. But the appellate court panel unanimously found that, “Because OCPA is not permitted to belatedly file the Record, the Record is not, and will never be, properly before the trial court. Without the record, OCPA’s petition cannot be considered.” The Indiana Supreme Court has held the statutory language in the Administrative Orders and Procedures Act makes dismissal mandatory when the agency record is not filed timely.

But Vaidik said that before the Supreme Court’s ruling on belated filing of agency records, she wrote that if the record was not necessary to deciding a case, then the administrative rule mandating the timely filing of the record was not needed. Other Court of Appeals judges, however, wrote that if the rule exists, it must be followed for the sake of predictability, Vaidik said. While her position on that specific matter eventually lost out in the Supreme Court, Vaidik said the balancing act between strictly enforcing deadlines and allowing for discretionary interpretation of the law continues to be appropriate in other types of cases.

“You don’t want a judge to be a computer and always spit out the same answer,” the chief judge said.

Joel Schumm mug Schumm

Joel Schumm, clinical professor of law and director of experiential learning at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, pointed to the case of In the Matter of the Adoption of O.R; N.R. v. K.G. and C.G, 21S01-1409-AD-592, as evidence of the evolution of thought on the issue of judicial discretion.

After the Indiana Court of Appeals dismissed the adoption case on the grounds that it lacked jurisdiction because the notice of appeal was not filed on time, the Indiana Supreme Court wrote in September 2014 that “the untimely filing of a notice to appeal is not a jurisdictional bar precluding appellate review.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Robert Rucker pointed to the case of K.S. v. State, 849 N.E.2d 538 (Ind. 2006), in which the court had decided that, “Real jurisdictional problems would be, say, a juvenile delinquency adjudication entered in a small claims court, or a judgment rendered without any service of process.”

Thus, a belated filing leads to the forfeiture of an appeal, not a jurisdictional preclusion, Rucker wrote. Further, the justice wrote that there are mechanisms within Indiana trial rules that allow for a forfeited appeal to be resurrected in certain circumstances, such as in adoption cases when parent-child relationships are at stake.

freese-robert-mug Freese

At the trial court level, decisions regarding whether to continue a case in which a deadline has been missed are made based on individual judges’ preferences, said Bob Freese, Hendricks Superior Court judge and president of the Indiana Judges Association.

Every judge has his or her own unique set of rules for dealing with punctuality issues, Freese said. For example, when he is dealing with divorce cases, he requires couples to have fully vetted their lists and valuations of assets together before coming to court for a final hearing. If the legwork is not done in advance, Freese said he generally will not hold the hearing.

Allowing trial court judges to take such individualized approaches to the rules of their courtrooms provides a level of consistency for attorneys who know what to expect from each judge, he said. But in a similar vein, the discretion afforded to trial judges can also lead to forum-shopping, a side effect that is unavoidable in counties where random courtroom assignments are not mandated, he said.

At the trial and appellate levels, the recent advent of electronic filing has revolutionized judicial punctuality rules. Where attorneys previously prepared documents days in advance or risked missing a deadline, they now have the option of working late into the night in order to meet a deadline before the clock strikes 12, Schumm said.

In trial courts, Freese said mandatory e-filing means attorneys can no longer bring last-minute motions before the court and present them to the judge on the bench, but instead are required to file those motions electronically ahead of time if they want consideration from the court.

But even with the virtual time extension e-filing has provided, Vaidik said there are still instances — such as when a server crashes — when technology precludes attorneys from meeting their deadlines. In those situations, the chief judge said again she tries to strike a balance between forgiving human — or electronic — error and enforcing statutory rules, a balance she admits has been difficult to find.•

(Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik was not on the panel deciding the Olde Canal Place Association case.)

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