August 4, 2019

Scope of Employment and the State of Indiana; Smith v. State of Indiana

Category: Indianapolis Law Club | Author: | Share:

Scope of employment issues can be important in many kinds of cases. But they can be critical in cases against the State of Indiana. At issue in this case is whether a DNR employee in his uniform is acting within the scope of his employment when he filed a false criminal complaint against a neighbor.

In December 2012, Kailee struck and killed Johnson’s dog with her vehicle. After driving to her fiancé’s nearby house, Kailee went back to Johnson’s house and explained what happened. Kailee called the police to report the accident. Law enforcement responded, investigated, and wrote a report on the incident.

In February 2013, Johnson, a Conservation Officer with the DNR, visited the local prosecutor’s office in his uniform. He told the Chief Deputy Prosecutor that Kailee had struck and killed his dog, and that this may be a Class B misdemeanor for failure to stop after an accident causing property damages other than to a vehicle. Johnson was referred to an investigator with the prosecutor’s office to prepare a probable cause affidavit.

Kailee was charged with the Class B misdemeanor in June 2013, and those charges were dismissed in May 2014 after Johnson admitted in a deposition that Kailee had informed him of the incident on the night of the accident.

Kailee filed a tort claim against Johnson under Indiana law in state court, which alleged that Johnson was acting within the scope of his employment when procuring Kailee’s prosecution. Kailee also filed a § 1983 action in federal court. In the federal action, Kailee did not allege that Johnson was acting within the course of his employment; rather, she alleged that he as acting under color of state law.

The State moved to dismiss Kailee’s state-court claim for failure to state a claim, arguing (1) that Johnson’s actions were outside the scope of his employment and (2) that while Johnson prompted the investigation, he did not participate in it, so the State was not liable. The trial court granted that motion.

The State refused to represent Johnson in the federal action because Johnson was acting as a private citizen when he initiated the investigation. The matter proceeded to trial, and a jury returned a verdict for Kailee.

After the verdict in federal court, Johnson assigned his indemnification rights against the State to Kailee and her counsel, who filed a complaint seeking that indemnification.

The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the State’s motion.

The first issue addressed on appeal was whether the Appellants were collaterally estopped from seeking indemnification. The statute indemnifying public employees for civil liability in civil rights cases only apply if that employee was acting within the scope of their employment at the time of the civil rights violation. The State argued that the previous dismissal of Kailee’s state-court claims acted as collateral estoppel on this issue. Kailee argued that it was unclear whether the issue was decided in that earlier litigation, because the dismissal order did not contain findings. The Court agreed with Kailee.

Kailee’s State Claim asserted multiple issues. The State requested dismissal under the Indiana Tort Claims Act and because Johnson had not been acting within the scope of his employment. The trial court dismissed the State Claim in an order that contained no findings or conclusions. Thus, the issue of whether Officer Johnson was acting within the scope of his employment was not expressly adjudicated in the State Claim. … Therefore, the trial court’s findings and conclusion regarding the issue of collateral estoppel were in error.

The Court then turned to the question of whether Johnson was acting within the scope of his employment when he prompted Kailee’s prosecution. The Court noted that this question focuses “on how the employment relates to the context in which the commission of the wrongful act arose.” And in this case, there was a genuine issue of material fact on this question. While the State insisted that Johnson was acting on his own behalf, he was on duty, conducting State business, and wearing his uniform when he spoke with prosecutors. Thus, the trial court erred when granting summary judgment.

The Court’s scope-of-employment analysis was based on the Indiana Supreme Court’s recent decision in Cox v. Evansville Police Department, 107 N.E.3d 453 (Ind. 2018). This is one of the first cases to apply that decision, and may be a sign of how these issues will be resolved in the future.

Lessons:

  1. Issue preclusion does not apply if the prior order contains no findings or conclusions and there were multiple reasons why the Court may have reached that decision.
  2. Whether someone is acting within the scope of their employment depends on the context in which the commission of a wrongful act occurs.