COA overturns summary judgment in contract dispute

December 11, 2017

In the second appeal stemming from a cancelled contract between Lake County and a delinquent tax collector, the Indiana Court of Appeals has reversed a grant of summary judgment in favor of the county based on its precedent from a previous 2015 decision.

From 2000 to 2006, U.S. Research Consultants, Inc. had a contract with Lake County in which the county would assign all of its real property tax collections cases to USRC, which would collect delinquent payments. Pursuant to the contract, USRC could receive a 20 percent commission for taxes collected from cases begun before June 4, 2003 and 15 percent after that date.

To start the collection process, the county would send discs to USRC with information about property taxes that were delinquent for less than or more than one year. The treasurer instructed USRC to collect only those taxes that were delinquent for more than one year.

The county terminated the contract in November 2006 and subsequently paid requested commissions to USRC. However, USRC filed a breach of contract claim in May 2008, alleging the county owed more than $200,000 in unpaid commissions.

After a series of motions, the Lake Superior Court granted summary judgment to USRC on the basis that it was required to collect all delinquent monies, not just those that were delinquent for more than one year. The Indiana Court of Appeals, however, overturned the grant of summary judgment on that issue and remanded for the entry of summary judgment in favor of the county on the issue of interpretation of the phrase “delinquent monies” in the contract. The appeals court determined that phrase referred to just those taxes that were delinquent for more than one year, pursuant to the treasurer’s instructions.

The trial court was also instructed in a 2015 appellate opinion to conduct further proceedings on whether USRC was owed any unpaid commissions of taxes that were delinquent by more than one year. After the parties filed subsequent cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court ruled in favor of the county on the basis of the appellate court’s 2015 ruling, prompting the instant appeal in U.S. Research Consultants, Inc. v. The County of Lake, Indiana, et al., 45A05-1704-CC-902.

The appellate court once again overturned the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in a Monday opinion in the case, with Judge Terry Crone writing first that the original appellate panel made no determination as to when USRC had to file its claims for commissions. Thus, the 2015 opinion did not require the company to prove that it filed its commission claims within a specified time frame, as the county asserted, Crone said.

Further, billing was not an essential element of USRC’s responsibilities to the contract, so it was not required to “expeditiously” bill for commission as it was to complete its contractual duties, Crone said. Thus, the county was not entitled to summary judgment on that basis, either.

The case was remanded for further proceedings to determine whether USRC is owed any unpaid commissions. Further, if USRC can prove it is entitled to certain commission, then an award of prejudgment interest would also be appropriate, Crone said.


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