I hate it when newspapers use the question marked headline; and here I’m doing it. But I’m doing that because I think the reasoning of a portion of the Court of Appeals decision in Waldrip v. Waldrip, City of Bloomington, and Monroe County is reasonable but its reach perhaps uncertain.
First of all, just a note of approval on the lawyers. I am not familiar with plaintiff’s counsel; but that’s some fine lawyering going on for the defense – Andy Wirick for the City of Bloomington; Jim Stephenson and Ian Stewart for Monroe County.
But I digress. In general, the case had to do with a domestic dispute – husband and wife were at odds. Wife said husband was battering her, husband denied it. Husband was arrested by City police, prosecuted in the county courts, and was acquitted. Adding a wrinkle, Wife was court reporter for the Monroe Circuit Court. I’m simplifying, but husband alleged that there were improprieties in his arrest and prosecution. As to the county, Husband alleged claims of false imprisonment, abuse of process, malicious prosecution, defamation, respondeat superior liability for wife’s actions, and negligent hiring and/or retention of wife.
What caught my eye, in particular, was the discussion of the county’s liability under theories of respondeat superior liability and negligent hiring of wife. Respondeat superior is the theory by which an employer is liable for wrongful acts of an employee acting within the scope of employee’s employment. She was a court reporter for the circuit court. Now, it’s long been clear that trial court judges in Indiana are employees of the state. So, even though the judge is the judge of the Monroe County Circuit court, the judge is a state official. Less clear has been the status of his or her staff. They are under the judge’s control and direction; but they are paid by county and, in most places, I think, treated as county employees — subject to the county’s personnel policies, etc.
The Court of Appeals discussion of the allegations against Monroe County starts at part 3 (p. 24 of the opinion.) The Court of Appeals noted that wife’s claims were properly dismissed because she had only sued the county – which, without more description in the case, necessarily meant the county’s board of commissioners as opposed to, say, the Sheriff.
First, with respect to Angela’s employment as a reporter for the Monroe County Circuit Court, she necessarily was appointed to that position by a judge and likewise was subject to removal by the judge. See I.C. §§ 33-41-1-1, 33-41-1-4 (stating that official circuit court reporters are appointed by judge and subject to removal by judge). Although the courts in any given county are thought of as county courts, and although funded by county government, such courts are actually state courts. Allen County Council v. Allen Circuit Court, 38th Judicial Dist., 549 N.E.2d 364, 365 (Ind. 1990). “County courts in Indiana are exclusively units of the judicial branch of the state’s constitutional system . . . .” Lake County Juvenile Court v. Swanson, 671 N.E.2d 429, 434 (Ind. Ct. App. 1996) (citing Ind. Const. art. 3, § 1), trans. denied. Therefore, the Monroe County Circuit Court is a state, not county, entity. See id. If certain criteria are met and if the Indiana Supreme Court gives it approval, a trial court may mandate county governments to pay court employees a salary demanded by the court. Allen County Council, 549 N.E.2d at 367. This is further indication that state trial court employees are not subject to control by the county executive. Given Angela’s employment by the Monroe County Circuit Court, a state entity, at the discretion of the Circuit Court judge, she was not subject to hiring, supervision, or firing by Monroe County and its Board of Commissioners. All claims against Monroe County related to alleged vicarious liability for Angela’s actions, or her hiring and retention, were properly dismissed.5 See Delk v. Board of Comm’rs of Delaware County, 503 N.E.2d 436, 440 (Ind. Ct. App. 1987) (holding county commissioners could not be held vicariously liable for actions of county sheriff, which was a separate constitutional office not subject to control by the commissioners).
(Emphasis added) So, it appears that if you want relief against a court’s employee, you have to sue the State as opposed to the county. Husband found himself having similar problems with his allegations against the Sheriff and the Prosecutor. The Prosecutor is also a state actor (this is not new law). But, even his allegations concerning his incarceration – false arrest and imprisonment – did not state a claim against the county. While it’s true that a county’s board of commissioners has a duty to maintain a jail, Husband’s claim concerned the operation of the jail – a duty of the Sheriff. Because the Sheriff is a constitutionally created office separate from the county executive, those claims were dismissed as well.
The stuff about the Prosecutor and Sheriff was not too surprising to me; but the holding as it pertained to the court reporter was a clearer statement than I had seen before on what I had regarded as a muddy area of the law. (See, for example, this prior post of mine on judicial mandates.)