Indiana Court Decisions: Nov. 2-14, 2023

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7th Circuit Court of Appeals

Nov. 8

United States of America v. Von Eric Sweatt

23-1752

7th Circuit orders district court to review injured inmate’s restitution modification request

A district court must consider on the merits an inmate’s request to modify the terms of his restitution obligation, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.

In 2010, Von Eric Sweatt pleaded guilty to five counts of armed bank robbery and was sentenced to 32 years.

As part of his sentence, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ordered him to pay his victims a total of $20,038.52 under the Mandatory Victims Restitution

On the section of the judgment form titled “Payment Schedule,” the court selected “immediately.” The judgment didn’t set a pre-release payment plan but instead imposed one for the balance remaining when Sweatt begins serving supervised release.

Then in January 2023, on the government’s motion, the district court authorized the Bureau of Prisons to turn over $600 from Sweatt’s prison trust account, which held about $1,100, to be applied toward his restitution debt. The government relied on 18 U.S.C.§ 3664(n), which provides that any financial resources prisoners receive during incarceration must be applied toward restitution.

Around the same time, Sweatt was transferred to a medical center within the bureau for hip replacement surgery, which prevented him from working for a little more than a year.

Because he couldn’t work, and because more than half of his funds had gone toward restitution, Sweatt declined to participate in the bureau’s Inmate Financial Responsibility Program. Participation in the program isn’t mandatory, but prisoners who opt out lose various privileges.

Sweatt then filed a motion to modify his judgment to halt his restitution payments until he recovered from surgery and resumed working again. He relied on 18 U.S.C. § 3664(k).

The government responded that the district court lacked authority to review bureau decisions regarding program payments. The district court agreed and denied the motion.

But the 7th Circuit reversed, remanding for the district court to consider Sweatt’s motion on the merits.

On appeal, Sweatt argued that the government took inconsistent positions on the scope of the district court’s authority. He claimed that the government was judicially estopped from disputing the court authority to modify his payment schedule under Section 3664(k) when it had previously argued under Section 3664(n) that the district court could modify his payments based on his finances.

While the 7th Circuit determined judicial estoppel “has no role here,” it also determined the district court did have authority under Section 3664(k) to modify the restitution schedule.

“To be clear, we take no position on whether the district court should grant Sweatt the relief he seeks. The defendant’s ability to pay cannot be a factor in setting the amount of restitution,” the per curiam opinion states. “… But the defendant’s economic outlook factors into the repayment schedule and any changes to it. … Therefore, the district court must determine whether Sweatt satisfies the criteria of §3664(k) and, if so, whether any relief is warranted.”

The case is United States of America v. Von Eric Sweatt, 23-1752.

Court of Appeals of Indiana

Nov. 9

Laurie Gardner v. Anonymous Physician

23A-CT-345

COA allows nurse’s med-mal complaint against doctor to continue

A nurse who contracted a skin infection through her work at a Hobart hospital can pursue a medical malpractice complaint against a physician, the Court of Appeals of Indiana ruled in a reversal.

According to court records, Laurie Gardner, a nurse at St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart, contracted scabies from contact with a patient and then unknowingly exposed her family, resulting in family members contracting the skin infection.

Gardner filed a workers’ compensation claim against the hospital in March 2018, which was settled by a compromise agreement in October 2019.

In May 2018, she filed a proposed complaint against the physician with the Indiana Department of Insurance. She alleged that the physician — who was medical director of the hospital’s Infection Control and Wound Care Department — failed to protect her from exposure to and failed to diagnose the scabies, which led to a delay in appropriate treatment.

That failure to diagnose, she argued, caused her to unknowingly expose her family to scabies, which resulted in her family members also contracting scabies.

The physician sought dismissal under Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(1), arguing that Gardner had “exhausted her sole remedy, a worker’s compensation claim, upon a workplace accident and subsequent medical care which occurred when she and [Anonymous Physician] were employed by subsidiaries of the same corporate parent(s).”

The Lake Superior Court granted the motion to dismiss, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

On appeal, Gardner argued that physicians are third parties under the Worker’s Compensation Act and thus are not shielded from claims of medical negligence brought by an employee of the same company.

She relied on Ross v. Schubert, 388 N.E.2d 623 (Ind. Ct. App. 1979), for her argument that the physician cannot be considered to have been in the same employ as her because “as a matter of law physicians are independent contractors and not ‘fellow employees.’”

The physician recognized the holding in Ross but argued that it had been eroded over time and should no longer be followed.

“We do not believe that Anonymous Physician has made a good case for abandoning the holding of Ross, which, though battered, has remained standing since 1979 and has not been altered by any of the multiple amendments to I.C. § 22-3-2-13 since that time,” Chief Judge Robert Altice wrote. “Its holding, however, does not extend so far as Gardner attempts to employ it.

Ross does not hold that a physician can never benefit from the WCA’s fellow employee immunity provision,” Altice wrote. “It holds only that immunity does not apply to claims of medical negligence arising out of a doctor-patient relationship between the claimant and the physician.

“… Gardner’s exclusive remedy for this workplace injury was through the WCA, and she cannot sue Anonymous Physician for negligence based on him allegedly failing to timely diagnose the patient and protect Gardner from exposure to scabies or for his general handling of the scabies outbreak in his role as medical director,” he continued. “That said, to the extent the physician directly engaged in a doctor-patient relationship with Gardner after her exposure and exercised independent medical judgment to treat her, his status then changed to that of a third party, making him subject to liability for any aggravation of her workplace injury resulting from his negligent treatment of her.”

Thus, “While Gardner’s proposed complaint does not contain a positive assertion that an actual doctor-patient relationship existed between her and Anonymous Physician, the allegations suggest — sufficiently to withstand dismissal — that such a relationship existed (namely, Gardner alleged that Anonymous Physician negligently directed her care, failed to provide appropriate and timely treatment, and failed to refer her to appropriate specialists for treatment),” the COA concluded. “This matter may be fleshed out more on remand, but at this early stage and on this limited record, Anonymous Physician has failed to establish that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to hear this medical malpractice action.”

Judges Melissa May and Peter Foley concurred in Laurie Gardner v. Anonymous Physician, 23A-CT-345, which was remanded for further proceedings.

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Larry Jo Taylor, Jr. v. State of Indiana

22A-CR-2615

Man convicted of murder of pregnant Indy pastor’s wife loses appeal

The man convicted of the 2015 murder of a pregnant Indianapolis pastor’s wife has lost his argument on appeal that inadmissible statements to law enforcement undercut his convictions of murder and other charges.

Appellant-defendant Larry Jo Taylor Jr. raised the admissibility argument in Larry Jo Taylor, Jr. v. State of Indiana, 22A-CR-2615.

Taylor was convicted of felony murder, three counts of Level 4 felony burglary, three counts of Level 6 felony theft, one count of Level 3 felony criminal confinement, one count of Level 6 felony auto theft and one count of Class A misdemeanor carrying a handgun without a license following the November 2015 fatal shooting of Amanda Blackburn. Blackburn was 12 weeks pregnant with her second child when she was killed.

Blackburn’s killing was part of a string of armed robberies throughout the north side of Indianapolis that Taylor, Diano Gordon and Jalen Watson committed on Nov. 10, 2015. Her husband, David, a local pastor, had been at the gym at the time of the shooting but found her when he returned home around 8 a.m.

The three men had used Blackburn’s debit card to withdraw $400, and a banking alert on her phone eventually led police to them. Detective Thomas Lehn interviewed Taylor, and before he was read his Miranda rights, Taylor confirmed that a cellphone believed to be tied to the murder belonged to him.

Taylor was subsequently charged, and he moved to suppress his statements regarding the cellphone. The Marion Superior Court denied the motion to suppress.

He was convicted in September 2022 at his third trial after the previous two ended in mistrials. The trial court sentenced him to 86 years.

Rejecting Taylor’s admissibility argument on appeal, the Court of Appeals wrote, “The State did not admit evidence that Taylor identified the phone as his when he was located … . Rather, the State only admitted evidence that the … Phone was tracked to the residence and that it was seized by law enforcement.

“Further, at trial, Detective Lehn testified that, before advising Taylor of his Miranda rights, Detective Lehn asked Taylor for preliminary identifying information, including his cell phone number,” the court continued. “The State, however, did not seek to admit Taylor’s response to the question into evidence. The trial court could not have abused its discretion because Taylor’s statements were never admitted into evidence.”

Additionally, the appellate court determined that had the admission been error, it would have been harmless given the “overwhelming evidence” connecting the phone to Taylor and the three burglaries. Also, law enforcement was aware of Taylor’s connection to the phone before his statements.

Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote the opinion, with Judges Rudolph Pyle and Peter Foley concurring.

Both Gordon and Watson accepted plea deals in the case on the condition that they would cooperate in Taylor’s prosecution, according to The Associated Press.

Watson pleaded guilty to robbery and burglary and was sentenced to an aggregate of 29 years. Gordon pleaded guilty to robbery resulting in serious bodily injury and burglary and was sentenced to 30 years, with five years suspended.

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Nov. 13

Herman O. Fritz v. State of Indiana

22A-CR-2340

COA rejects 4th Amendment arguments but finds insufficient evidence to support marijuana conviction

A man convicted of drug charges could not convince the Court of Appeals of Indiana that meth-related evidence was improperly admitted at his trial, but he did prevail on his argument that there was insufficient evidence to support a marijuana conviction.

In January 2021, Elkhart Police Sgt. Seth Watkins was dispatched to a local grocery store regarding a medical emergency. At the store, Watkins found a disheveled man, later identified as Herman Fritz, laying on his back in the store’s parking lot.

Fritz told Watkins he must have fallen, and Watkins asked if he had consumed any drugs. Fritz denied that he had.

Paramedics arrived and began assisting Fritz. Watkins decided to perform a pat-down search of Fritz for officer safety and asked if Fritz if had anything that was going to stick or poke. Fritz said no.

But when Watkins patted down the interior pocket of Fritz’s coat, he found two cylindrical objects with bulbous ends that he believed to be pipes used to ingest methamphetamine. He took the pipes out of Fritz’s pocket, and Fritz said he used them to smoke tobacco and synthetic drugs.

Watkins determined that Fritz was under arrest for possession of paraphernalia based on the suspected meth pipes. But because Watkins was concerned that Fritz might have sustained a head injury, Fritz needed to be medically cleared before going to jail.

Fritz was thus transported to Elkhart General Hospital for evaluation. At the hospital, Watkins performed a search of Fritz’s person incident to his arrest that revealed a black mask containing a plastic baggy with a white crystal-like substance inside, later identified as 3.04 grams of meth.

Fritz became upset when Watkins found the meth, yelling obscenities and trying to get out of the hospital bed. He also threatened to kill Watkins and attempted to kick the attending hospital personnel.

Watkins physically restrained Fritz and handcuffed him to the hospital bed. He then continued his search and found two hand-rolled cigarettes that contained a green leafy substance that smelled of marijuana.

Fritz was sedated, and when he awoke he was read his Miranda rights. Watkins then began questioning Fritz, who admitted to having marijuana and meth.

Once Fritz was medically cleared to leave the hospital, Watkins transported him to jail.

In February 2021, Fritz was charged with Level 6 felony possession of meth, Class A misdemeanor resisting law enforcement, Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana and Class C misdemeanor possession of paraphernalia.

Fritz filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained during the pat-down search, but the Elkhart Superior Court denied the motion.

A jury trial was held in August 2022, where Fritz objected to the admission of evidence obtained during the pat-down search of his person. The trial court overruled the objection, and the jury found Fritz guilty on all counts.

He later pleaded guilty to the enhanced offense of Class A misdemeanor possession of marijuana with a prior conviction for a drug offense.

Fritz appealed, arguing first that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting evidence seized during the pat-down and search incident to arrest.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding no violation of Fritz’s Fourth Amendment right.

“The protective patdown search that Sergeant Watkins performed before Fritz was transported to the hospital in the ambulance was limited to a search for weapons and/or items that might harm Sergeant Watkins or the paramedics as they administered treatment to Fritz,” Judge Rudolph Pyle. “Under such circumstances, Sergeant Watkins had an objectively reasonable basis to believe that Fritz might need medical assistance, and it was not unreasonable for the sergeant to be concerned about his safety and the safety of the attending paramedics when they rendered assistance to Fritz.

“… Therefore, we conclude that the State has carried its burden of showing an exception to the warrant requirement to justify the patdown search,” Pyle wrote. “We also conclude that the search was permissible under the emergency aid exception to the Fourth Amendment because it was reasonable for Sergeant Watkins to believe that Fritz needed medical attention.”

The appellate court also upheld the removal of the meth pipe from Fritz’s pocket, finding the first pipes was “immediately apparent to Sergeant Watkins.”

Likewise as to the search incident to arrest, Pyle wrote, “Once Sergeant Watkins discovered the pipes that he believed were used to consume methamphetamine, he had probable cause to arrest Fritz for possession of paraphernalia. … Sergeant Watkins testified that, at that point, he had determined that Watkins was under arrest for possession of paraphernalia, but out of caution, had Fritz transported to the hospital for evaluation.

“The search Sergeant Watkins performed at the hospital incident to Fritz’s arrest resulted in Sergeant Watkins finding the methamphetamine in Fritz’s pants pocket and the marijuana cigarettes in Fritz’s jacket pocket,” Pyle continued. “Sergeant Watkins’ discovery of the methamphetamine and the marijuana cigarettes in Fritz’s pockets did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, the trial court properly admitted the evidence.”

Fritz also raised an argument under Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution, but the COA determined that argument was waived.

But the appellate court did rule for Fritz on his argument that there was insufficient evidence to support his marijuana conviction.

According to Pyle, the state did not present any evidence of delta-9-THC concentration in the cigarettes.

“Our General Assembly has established a clear distinction between legal hemp and illegal marijuana based on the THC concentration present in the plant material, the effect being to now require the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a substance is marijuana by proving that the substance’s delta-9-THC concentration exceeds 0.3% on a dry weight basis,” Pyle wrote. “… Thus, the evidence presented at Fritz’s trial was insufficient for the jury to conclude that the cigarettes found on Fritz’s person contained marijuana and not a legal substance.”

The case was thus remanded for the trial court to vacate Fritz’s marijuana possession conviction and related sentence.

Judges Nancy Vaidik and Paul Mathias concurred in Herman O. Fritz v. State of Indiana, 22A-CR-2340.

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Mark Stoner v. Julia M. Stoner and Elizabeth G. Stoner

23A-DC-1185

Grandfather can proceed with visitation petition, COA rules in reversal

A grandfather may proceed with his petition for visitation with his grandchild, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has ruled in reversing the dismissal of that petition.

Grandfather Mark Stoner is seeking visitation with S.S., the child of Julia and Zachary — now known as Elizabeth — Stoner. The couple divorced in September 2021 and were ordered to share joint legal and physical custody of S.S.

The couple’s divorce decree also provided that the parents would “develop and maintain meaningful relationships with other significant adults (grandparents, stepparents and other relatives) as long as these relationships do not interfere with or replace the child’s primary relationships with the parents.”

About a year after the divorce, Mark Stoner filed a motion to intervene and a petition for grandparent visitation under the Grandparent Visitation Act, Indiana Code § 31-17-5.

The Marion Superior Court granted the motion to intervene but dismissed Stoner’s petition for grandparent visitation, relying on Matter of E.H., 121 N.E.3d 594 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019).

But the Court of Appeals turned to state statute to reverse.

“Here, S.S. is a child under Ind. Code § 31-9-2-13, and Grandparent is the parent of S.S.’s parent, Elizabeth, under Ind. Code § 31-9-2-77,” Judge Elaine Brown wrote in Mark Stoner v. Julia M. Stoner and Elizabeth G. Stoner, 23A-DC-1185. “Moreover, the marriage of Parents has been dissolved in Indiana. Accordingly, Grandfather ‘may seek visitation rights’ as referenced in Ind. Code § 31-17-5-1(a)(2).”

The appellate court also determined E.H. does not require dismissal of Stoner’s petition. That case involved the question of whether a child who was adopted by an unmarried person had been born “out of wedlock” — a question not at issue in Stoner’s case.

Further, the COA distinguished Lockhart v. Lockhart, 603 N.E.2d 864 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992), by noting that current statute “does not preclude a grandparent from seeking visitation with a child where the custodian of the child is the grandparent’s child.”

Finally, the appellate panel pointed to the provision of the divorce decree providing that the parents would “develop and maintain meaningful relationships with other significant adults,” including grandparents.

“We conclude that Grandfather has established prima facie error and that he may seek visitation rights with S.S. under the GVA,” Brown wrote. “We reverse and remand for further proceedings on Grandfather’s petition.”

__________

Nov. 14

Marion Superior Court Probation Department v. Cheryl Trapuzzano and Jennifer Trapuzzano, as Co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Nathan Trapuzzano, Deceased

23A-CT-61

Probation department entitled to quasi-judicial immunity on estate’s negligence claim, COA rules

The Marion Superior Court Probation Department is entitled to immunity against the negligence claim brought by the estate of a man who was killed by a juvenile on probation, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has ruled.

The case involves S.A., a juvenile who, in February 2014, was given a suspended commitment to the Department of Correction for committing acts that would be auto theft and resisting law enforcement if committed by an adult. S.A. was placed on probation and home confinement, among other terms.

But in the first month of his probation, S.A. was in noncompliance at least 15 times. His probation officer was supposed to file a notice with the juvenile court after the third violation, but the officer failed to do so.

Instead, in March 2014, the Marion Superior Court Probation Department filed a modification petition requesting a hearing, although it didn’t explicitly request a change in S.A.’s placement.

The hearing was scheduled for April 7, 2014. On April 1, S.A. shot and killed Nathan Trapuzzano in an apparent robbery.

Trapuzzano’s estate sued multiple county parties, including the probation department, for negligence. All defendants were dismissed except for the probation department, which moved for summary judgment partially on the basis of immunity.

A special judge in Marion Superior Court denied the summary judgment motion, finding genuine issues of material fact existed that might negate immunity, including quasi-judicial immunity.

But in a reversal on interlocutory appeal, the Court of Appeals determined quasi-judicial immunity applies.

The appellate court looked to Thornton v. Pietrzak, 120 N.E.3d 1139 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019), which held that “in filing the notice of probation violation, [the probation officers] were ‘performing [a task] so integral or intertwined with the judicial process’ that they should be ‘considered an arm of the judicial officer who is immune.’”

“We find little to distinguish the actions at issue here from the actions at issue in Thornton,” Judge Elizabeth Tavitas wrote in Marion Superior Court Probation Department v. Cheryl Trapuzzano and Jennifer Trapuzzano, as Co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Nathan Trapuzzano, Deceased, 23A-CT-61.

The COA also cited Mendenhall v. City of Indianapolis, 717 N.E.2d 1218 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999), trans. denied, and H.B. v. Indiana-Elkhart Div. of Fam. & Child., 713 N.E.2d 300 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999), trans. denied, in reversing the denial of summary judgment.

“Finally, we note that the trial court focused on what it described as genuine issues of material fact as to whether the probation officer intentionally withheld vital information,” Tavitas wrote. “Quasi-judicial immunity, like judicial immunity, is ‘absolute.’

“… Regardless of whether the probation officer’s conduct was intentional or negligent, quasi-judicial immunity applies,” she wrote. “Because the Probation Department has immunity from the Estate’s claims, we need not address the parties’ other arguments.

“Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court erred by denying the Probation Department’s motion for summary judgment.”

The case was remanded.

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Daniel Shirley v. Daniel R. Shaver

23A-CT-204

Jury instructions, verdict not erroneous in car crash negligence case, COA affirms

A motorist whose vehicle was rear-ended proved negligence on the other driver’s part but was also partially at fault, the Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed, also upholding the jury instructions.

Daniel Shirley had been previously injured in a 2013 car accident. After a short time, however, Shirley’s back pain disappeared and his life went “back to normal.”

But Shirley was then involved in a second car accident on March 26, 2016.

As the vehicle in front of Shirley slowed down to turn left, Shirley stopped his vehicle.

Meanwhile, Daniel Shaver, driving behind Shirley, was “daydreaming and looking to the left” and rear-ended Shirley at approximately 50 miles per hour.

Shirley experienced soreness in his lower back after the accident, but he did not seek medical treatment until approximately two months later, when he went to the emergency room and complained of right lumbar back pain.

Shirley’s primary care physician ordered an MRI, which revealed a herniated disc in his lower back.

Shirley sued Shaver for negligence, and a jury trial was held in April 2019. That trial, however, resulted in a mistrial, so a second jury trial was held in Porter Superior Court in November 2022.

At trial, Shirley denied slamming his brakes. Shirley also explained that he did not immediately seek medical treatment because he assumed that his pain would go away, as it had after the 2013 accident.

According to Shirley, he experiences daily pain that fluctuates from “minimal” to “a lot worse tha[n] minimal.” He admitted, however, that he described his pain as “nominal” during the first jury trial.

Shirley’s employment has not changed, and he continues to engage in many of the same activities that he did before the 2016 accident, including camping and attending sporting events. But he experiences discomfort during those activities and must make adjustments, including using a standing desk and occasionally wearing a back brace.

During closing arguments, Shirley’s counsel asked the jury to award $5 million based on his pain and suffering and potential, future medical expenses, which included the possibility of surgery.

Defense counsel argued that Shaver was not wholly responsible for Shirley’s injuries and urged the jury to award no more than Shirley’s current medical expenses, which totaled $15,623.61 at the time.

The jury found in Shirley’s favor. However, it also found Shirley 20% at fault and Shaver 80% at fault.

The jury determined that Shirley’s damages totaled $8,300, which it reduced to $6,640 based on his share of the fault.

Shirley appealed, arguing that the trial court had abused its discretion by refusing one of his proposed instructions and instructing the jury on a motorist-
safety statute.

He also argued that the jury’s verdict was inadequate.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, with Judge Elizabeth Tavitas writing.

Tavitas noted that trial court’s jury instruction regarding what constituted “responsible cause” for an injury closely followed Indiana Model Civil Jury Instruction 301. The trial court also provided a comparative fault instruction, which instructed the jury to “apportion the fault” between the parties to “total 100 percent.” Additionally, the trial court instructed the jury that it could not hold Shaver liable to the extent that Shirley’s damages were caused solely by a preexisting condition or the 2013 accident.

Shirley argued that the trial court should have instructed the jury based on his proposed instruction, which contained the same language as the trial court’s instruction but also added additional language taken largely from Dunn v. Cadiente, 516 N.E.2d 52 (Ind. 1987).

The trial court refused the instruction, and the appellate court agreed with the refusal.

“We find Dunn distinguishable, and we conclude that the trial court properly refused the proposed instruction,” Tavitas wrote. “The proposed instruction does not correctly state the law because it contradicts Indiana’s Comparative Fault Act.”

The appellate court also found the trial court was within its discretion to give the jury instruction regarding Indiana Code § 9-21-8-24 and the required safe movement of a vehicle.

“The trial court was within its discretion to tailor the instruction to ‘conform to the facts of the case,’” Tavitas wrote, citing Burdick v. Romano, 148 N.E.3d 335 (Ind. Ct. App. 2020).

Finally, the appellate court did not agree with Shirley’s argument that the jury’s damages award was inadequate and that the case should be remanded for a new trial.

Shirley argued that the damages award was inadequate because it was less than Shirley’s medical bills. He further argued that the jury must have awarded a low verdict because “defense counsel invited the jury to consider the fact that Shirley was insured and that Shaver would have to pay the verdict personally.”

Tavitas wrote that recovering Shirley’s existing medical expenses was “hardly a focus” of Shirley’s theory of damages, and that he instead focused on recovering for pain and suffering and potential, future medical expenses.

“Similarly, neither Shirley’s insurance nor Shaver’s financial responsibility for the judgment were anything close to focal points at trial. Rather, the defense argued that Shirley’s injuries were due to a preexisting condition and earlier car accident, for which Shaver was not responsible, and that Shirley’s pain was not severe,” Tavitas wrote.

Judges Rudolph Pyle and Peter Foley concurred.

The case is Daniel Shirley v. Daniel R. Shaver, 23A-CT-204.

__________

Mackenzie Taft v. Marilea Piper

23A-EV-877

COA reverses, finding tenant denied due process in eviction proceeding

A small claims court violated a tenant’s due process rights when it did not give her adequate notice of a hearing on a nonemergency eviction claim and did not allow her to prepare and present her defenses, the Court of Appeals of Indiana ruled in a reversal.

According to court records, Marilea Piper owns a property on Webb Street in Indianapolis. Piper lives in Florida, and her son resides in the Indianapolis property.

Piper alleged that in October 2022, Mackenzie Taft rented a room from Piper’s son, but the two did not execute a lease agreement.

When she moved in, Taft brought several cats and a dog with her.

On March 20, Piper filed a notice of claim for emergency possession with the small claims court.

In her supporting affidavit, Piper alleged that Taft was “verbally abuse” (sic) to Piper’s grandchildren and that she possessed a “pit bull” that was not covered by her homeowner’s insurance.

Three days later, the small claims court held a hearing on Piper’s claim.

During the hearing, Piper, who appeared pro se, asserted that Taft was “antagonizing” the grandchildren. She also stated that the garage smelled “foul” because of Taft’s cats, and that Taft’s dog “growl[ed]” at her.

After Piper had finished her testimony, Taft’s attorney argued that the allegations were untrue, and even if they were true, they “would not constitute sufficient grounds for an emergency eviction[.]”

Taft then proceeded to testify that her dog is not a pitbull but an American bulldog that is “not aggressive” and stays in her room. She said she cleaned up after the cats daily and had never damaged anything or “physically or mentally harmed anybody.”

At the conclusion of Taft’s testimony, the Marion County Center Township Small Claims Court determined that Piper’s petition did not “warrant an emergency eviction.”

However, the court pointed out that Taft did not have a lease and, as such, did not have “any entitlements or rights to stay there[.]”

At that point, Taft’s attorney argued that, because Taft did not have a lease, she was “by default month-to-month” and entitled to 30 days’ notice prior to an eviction filing.

The court agreed.

Taft then requested that the court dismiss Piper’s claim, but the court denied Taft’s motion.

The court determined that Taft had been given notice of Piper’s intent to reclaim the property on March 20 when Piper had filed her notice of claim. The court then stated that it was giving Taft “thirty days and if she is not out by then, then possession will be awarded to” Piper.

Taft objected and requested a hearing to have an opportunity to present “traditional defenses.”

The court responded that Taft “has no lease,” then granted Piper possession as of April 24.

Taft appealed, arguing the court denied her due process rights when it granted relief on Piper’s claim.

The Court of Appeals agreed and reversed, finding that the court violated Taft’s due process rights when it did not give her adequate notice of the hearing and when it did not allow her to prepare and present her defenses.

Judge L. Mark Bailey wrote the opinion for the appellate court.

Bailey noted that in her notice of claim, Piper alleged that Taft was verbally abusive to children and that she had a dog not covered by insurance.

At a hearing three days after Piper had filed her notice, the court heard testimony from both parties and ultimately concluded that Piper’s petition “doesn’t warrant an emergency eviction.”

Taft contended that the small claims court violated her due process rights when it changed the hearing from a hearing on Piper’s notice for emergency possession to a standard eviction proceeding.

According to Bailey, the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law Health and Human Rights Clinic and the Indiana Justice Project, as amici, similarly contended that the practice followed by the small claims court, “where Ms. Taft was ordered to move from her home without the Court providing the tenant and her counsel an opportunity to defend the claims of a non-emergency possession, reflects the basis for longtime concerns about due process protections in eviction cases[.]”

The appellate court agreed.

“Here, when the court changed the hearing from one on Piper’s notice of emergency possession to a traditional eviction case — an action that was not requested by Piper — and then immediately ruled in favor of Piper without a hearing, it denied Taft any notice of a nonemergency eviction action, which resulted in Taft not having an opportunity to see any allegations that Piper may have alleged in a nonemergency eviction notice,” Bailey wrote. “Further, because Taft did not receive notice of the allegations, she was wholly unable to develop any defenses, let alone present them. In other words, the court denied Taft all of her due process rights.”

A crowded docket does not excuse a small claims court from depriving a litigant of her due process rights, Bailey added.

“And, here, we hold that the small claims court did not just deny Taft any one due process right, it essentially denied her any of her due process rights,” he concluded.

Judges Melissa May and Paul Felix concurred.

The case is Mackenzie Taft v. Marilea Piper, 23A-EV-877.•

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