Bill raising small claims filing limit to $8K advances to full House

Plaintiffs litigating on the small claims docket in any Indiana county could soon file claims for up to $8,000 if a bill that advanced out of a House committee Wednesday makes it to the governor’s desk. The bill also would expand the authority of magistrate judges.

House Bill 1313 covers multiple court matters, but Rep. John Young, the Franklin Republican who authored the bill, said the small claims filing limit increase is the most significant change.

Young said the filing limit, and all of HB 1313, were brought to him by the Indiana Judges Association. Marion Superior Judge Heather Welch, speaking Wednesday to the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee as secretary-treasurer of the IJA, said Marion County has had an $8,000 limit for several years.

Raising the statutory limit from $6,000 to $8,000 statewide, Welch said, would increase uniformity and be beneficial to lawyers and nonlawyers who litigate frequently in small claims court.

Welch also spoke in favor of another provision of HB 1313 that clarifies the powers of magistrate judges.

She said there are two statutes governing magistrates: Indiana Code § 33-23-5-5, which explicitly enumerates powers, and I.C. 33-23-5-8, which gives magistrates all judicial powers except those of judicial mandate or entering a final appealable order unless sitting as a judge pro tempore or special judge.

Under HB1313, I.C. 33-23-5-5 would be repealed, and I.C. 33-23-5-8.5 would be added. The new statutory provision, as written in the bill, holds that, “Except as provided in Section 8 of this chapter, a magistrate has the same powers as a judge.”

That change, Welch said, would make it clear that magistrates have all the powers of a judge except for judicial mandate. Asked to explain the concept of judicial mandate, Welch gave the example of funding: If the Marion County courts believed they were underfunded, the judges could file a mandate action for more funding.

“It’s very, very rare,” she said of judicial mandates.

The statutory change does not change the powers of magistrate judges, Welch added, but instead clarifies existing law.

A third provision of HB 1313 would sunset the Judicial Technology Oversight Committee, created in 2013 to spearhead technology initiatives such as the implementation of the Odyssey case management system.

Justice Steven David, who led the committee, spoke in support of sunsetting it, saying it would be “prudent” to do so.

Electronic filing is now operational in each of Indiana’s 92 counties, while Odyssey is operational in almost 80 counties, with the remaining 12 expected to switch to the case management system by the end of next year, Chief Justice Loretta Rush said in her 2020 State of the Judiciary address.

Finally, an amendment to HB 1313 would make a minor but important statutory change for Indianapolis courts. Current law requires that court hearings be held in the City-County Building in downtown Indianapolis, but the amendment would change that to the Community Justice Center currently under construction.

Welch said Marion County judges expect to move into the expansive new campus — which will include courtrooms, adult and juvenile centers, a jail and three professional buildings — in January of 2022.

HB 1313 passed the Courts and Criminal Code Committee with a 10-0 vote and now heads to the full House of Representatives for consideration.

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