Opposing counsel and the justices of the Indiana Supreme Court were agreed on one issue during oral arguments Thursday in a case involving the Department of Child Services – family case managers are the “backbone” of the work DCS does for Hoosier children.
But in a case hinging upon statutory interpretation of the limits of case managers’ workloads, the similarities ended there. While counsel for DCS family case manager Mary Price and members of a similarly-situated class urged the justices to issue a mandate requiring DCS to comply with the caseload limits laid out in Indiana Code section 31-25-2-5, Indiana Solicitor General Thomas M. Fisher said such a mandate would violate the state’s separation of powers.
Specifically, Fisher echoed a concerned raised during arguments by Justice Steve David. If the high court issues a mandate requiring strict compliance with IC 31-25-2-5, which says the department “shall ensure” caseloads are limited to 12 initial assessments and 17 ongoing cases, then trial courts would take on the role of “Judicial Director of DCS.” In other words, Fisher said the trial courts would be vested with the authority to “grade the homework” of DCS, exercising its discretion to determine if the department is taking the appropriate steps to comply with the 12 or 17-case limits.
But ACLU of Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk, who represented Price and the putative class, said the statute in question “could not be more clear” – the maximum workload for family case managers is 12 or 17 cases, depending on the type of work they are doing, and any work assignment beyond those levels goes against the statute.
In Price’s case, she claimed DCS has assigned her caseloads as high as roughly 43 children, forcing her to regularly work more than 40 hours per week. The Marion Superior Court dismissed her case, but the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, holding she could raise her claim as a member of the public under the public standing doctrine. http://www.theindianalawyer.com/appeals-court-rules-that-dcs-employee-can-proceed-with-caseload-claims/PARAMS/article/41826
Now, Falk said Price and the class of family case managers are seeking a mandate requiring their employer to assign workloads that do not regularly exceed the statutory limits. But like David, Chief Justice Loretta Rush also raised some concerns about the mandate request, noting DCS may not have the power – or specifically, the financial resources – to comply with the 12- and 17-case limits.
While Falk said it was possible the department could raise a defense of an inability to comply, it was too early in the litigation process to speculate about that issue. Despite being before the Supreme Court, the case is still in its early stages, and the class members have not yet had the opportunity to discover evidence that would indicate whether DCS could comply with IC 31-25-2-5, Falk said. Though the issue of an inability to comply could come up at trial, the case has not yet progressed to that point, he said.
In a similar vein, Fisher noted the Indiana General Assembly controls how much funding DCS receives, and the department must work within that budget. At times, the allocated budget might not allow for DCS to fully comply with the statutory caseload limits, which would make a judicial mandate an inappropriate step toward resolving the case, he said.
But Justice Mark Massa noted the language of the relevant statute says the department “shall” ensure and comply with the limit. With the repeated use of the word “shall,” the justice asked the solicitor general how the court could allow a legislative funding issue to win out over a judicial plain reading of the statute.
Fisher responded that it is the role of the General Assembly, not the judiciary, to hold debates and balance competing interests such as the one raised in this case. When David asked if the issuance of a judicial mandate would spur the legislature to allocate more money to DCS, Fisher gave a similar answer.
In his rebuttal, however, Falk said it was too early for the state to postulate as to a potential parade of horrors that could be caused by the issuance of a mandate. Such issues might be relevant if the case goes to trial, he said, but at this point he urged the justices to simply issue the mandate for the benefit of the class of family case managers.
Oral arguments in the case, Mary Price v. Indiana Department of Child Services, 49S05-1705-PL-00285, can be viewed here.