Justices: Caseload limit statute doesn’t warrant mandate for compliance

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Olivia Covington for www.theindianalawyer.com

The Indiana Supreme Court has declined to issue a judicial mandate that would require the Department of Child Services to comply with statutory caseload limits, finding the statute in question does not provide specific compliance guidelines that would warrant issuing a mandate.

That decision, reached Monday in the case of Mary Price v. Indiana Department of Child Services; Director of Indiana Department of Child Services, 49S05-1705-PL-285, comes after DCS family case manager Mary Price sued her employer for failing to comply with Indiana Code 31-25-2-5, which limits her caseload to 17 children. According to her 2015 complaint against DCS and its director, Price’s caseload rose as high as 43 children, prompting her to seek an order mandating compliance with the caseload limits in the statute.

The department moved to dismiss on the grounds of a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and the Marion Superior Court dismissed Price’s complaint under Rule 12(B)(6). But a divided panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed as to the mandate, finding a “clear, absolute and imperative duty on DCS to comply with maximum caseload standards as determined by the legislature.”

After hearing arguments in the case in June, the Indiana Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that dismissal of Price’s case is the appropriate action, finding the issuance of a mandate would be inappropriate in this case.

Noting a judicial mandate is an “extraordinary remedy,” Justice Geoffrey Slaughter wrote Monday for the unanimous court that such a remedy is only available when needed to compel a specific, ministerial act and only if the plaintiff is clearly entitled. While I.C. 31-25-2-5 does impose strict caseload limits, it does not specifically explain how DCS is expected to comply with those limits, Slaughter said. Without that specific guidance, the statute “affords the Department wide latitude in complying” and, thus, is not amenable to a mandate, he wrote.

“Although she seeks a mandate to force the Department’s compliance with caseload ratios, her brief recognizes the department’s discretion in accomplishing that goal: ‘How DCS does this is, of course, ultimately up to DCS,’” Slaughter wrote. “Price’s acknowledgment underscores our conclusion that the statutory cap is an outcome not susceptible to a judicial mandate.”

“…We think the best yardstick for resolving this question is the extent and nature of judicial oversight required to ensure compliance with the underlying obligation,” Slaughter continued. “Weighing in favor of mandate are those matters requiring little or no judicial time or expertise. Militating against mandate are those matters requiring more oversight, expertise, and that are not readily susceptible to a simple directive to obtain compliance.”

Price also supported her claim by pointing to the 1934 Indiana Supreme Court case of Gushwa v. State ex rel. Oster, 206 Ind. 237, 189 N.E. 129, in which the high court affirmed a judicial mandate to require a township trustee to comply with a statute that said the trustee “shall establish and maintain…a high school,” in certain conditions which had been met. But Slaughter rejected that argument, noting no cases since Gushwa have followed its precedent and that no other case authorizes the “issuance of a mandate to compel such an open-ended set of tasks.” However, the justices did not expressly overrule the 1934 case.

Though Price cannot proceed with the mandate action, the high court noted she can still seek relief through the state’s civil-service complaint procedure. However, it did not specify what relief she might be entitled to.

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