COA reverses for state against ex-Crawford County payroll clerk

A panel of appellate judges has reversed and remanded the grant of a former Crawford County employee’s untimely motion for extension in a lawsuit alleging that she failed to withhold employee insurance contributions from her own paycheck.

Tonia Jones-Elliott, a payroll clerk for Crawford County, was alleged by the State of Indiana to have failed to withhold more than $1,000 in employee insurance contributions from her paychecks. In a lawsuit against her, the state also alleged that Jones-Elliott’s actions entitled it to treble damages, costs and fees.

After filing her answer and being served with requests by the state, Jones-Elliott did not respond within 30 days, leaving the state to file its notice with the trial court that the requests were deemed admitted. The state subsequently moved for summary judgment on the complaint against Jones-Elliott, designating her failure to respond to the requests for admissions as evidence that there were no genuine issues of material fact. Additionally, it substantially relied on Jones-Elliott’s failure to respond to the requests for admissions in asserting that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Jones-Elliott, who had already been granted a 60-day extension to hire new counsel and respond to the state’s motion, requested another extension, which also was granted. Three days after the extension deadline, Jones-Elliott filed two new motions for an extension of time and to withdraw her admissions. Crawford Circuit Judge Sabrina Bell granted those motions over the state’s objections, prompting the state to appeal.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed in State of Indiana v. Tonia Jones-Elliott, 19A-PL-00588, finding that Jones-Elliott did not file her response by the extended deadline of Dec. 31, 2018, nor request a continuance by that date. It therefore concluded that the trial court erred in granting her untimely motion for an extension. The appellate court also found the same analysis holds for the trial court’s consideration of Jones-Elliott’s motion to withdraw admission.

“To allow Jones-Elliott to make an untimely motion to withdraw her admissions would enable litigants to circumvent our ‘firmly entrenched’ Rule 56 timeframes. An objection to the designated evidence is a response to the designated evidence. Thus, we hold that an objection to designated evidence must be included in a timely response and is subject to the same time limitations as any other response to designated evidence under Trial Rule 56,” Judge Edward Najam wrote for the appellate court.

“Our Supreme Court has made clear that the Indiana Trial Rules impose a ‘bright-line rule’ in summary judgment proceedings such that, even where the summary judgment nonmovant is ‘merely one day late’ in serving a response to the summary judgment motion, ‘the trial court ha[s] no discretion to allow [the nonmovant] to file [her] response and designated evidence. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for further proceedings on the State’s motion for summary judgment,” the appellate panel concluded.

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