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The Board of Commissioners of Union County, Indiana v. McGuinness

Supreme Court of Indiana

August 15, 2017

The Board of Commissioners of Union County, Indiana, Appellant (Plaintiff below),
Joe McGuinness, in his Official Capacity as Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation and the Indiana Department of Transportation, Appellees (Defendants below).

         Appeal from the Union Circuit Court, No. 81C01-1507-PL-118 The Honorable Brian D. Hill, Special Judge

         On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 81A01-1603-PL-696

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT James R. Williams Matthew L. Kelsey DeFur Voran LLP Muncie, Indiana.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES Curtis T. Hill, Jr. Attorney General of Indiana Andrea E. Rahman David L. Steiner Deputy Attorneys General Indianapolis, Indiana.

          MASSA, JUSTICE.

         The Board of Commissioners of Union County ("Union County") sought a declaratory judgment and an injunction against the Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation, and the Department itself (collectively "INDOT") alleging that INDOT was negligent in its highway repair efforts, causing damage to several neighboring septic systems of Union County residents. The trial court dismissed the suit, finding Union County did not have standing to sue INDOT for injury done to its residents. We agree, and affirm.

         Facts and Procedural History

         In 2010 or 2011, INDOT performed construction and repair work on U.S. Route 27 in Union County.[1] While undertaking this project, INDOT allegedly caused "septic system issues" on three landowners' private property. Appellant's App. at 25. After broaching the matter with INDOT with unsatisfactory results, Union County filed this action for a declaratory judgment and an injunction against INDOT, seeking repair of the septic systems and "[a]n Order declaring [U.S.] highway 27 and any associated storm drain the responsibility of INDOT and not Union County, Indiana[.]" Appellant's App. at 25. INDOT filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(6), asserting Union County lacked standing to sue and thus had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The trial court agreed, granted the motion to dismiss, and subsequently denied Union County's motion to correct error. Union County appealed, and our Court of Appeals reversed, finding that a declaratory judgment was an appropriate vehicle for resolving the question of "responsibility" for U.S. Route 27, and Union County could maintain an action for injunctive relief on behalf of its citizens under third-party standing doctrines, specifically public standing, associational standing, and parens patriae authority. Bd. of Comm'rs of Union Cty. v. Hendrickson, 67 N.E.3d 1061, 1067-71 (Ind.Ct.App. 2016). We hereby grant INDOT's petition to transfer, and vacate the Court of Appeals' decision below. Ind. Appellate Rule 58(A).

         Standard of Review

         "We review de novo the trial court's grant or denial of a motion based on Indiana Trial Rule 12(B)(6)." Caesars Riverboat Casino, LLC v. Kephart, 934 N.E.2d 1120, 1122 (Ind. 2010).[2]In so reviewing, "we look at the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, with every inference drawn in its favor, to determine if there is any set of allegations under which the plaintiff could be granted relief." King v. S.B., 837 N.E.2d 965, 966 (Ind. 2005). "A dismissal under Trial Rule 12(B)(6) is improper unless it appears to a certainty that the plaintiff would not be entitled to relief under any set of facts." Id.

         Union County Has Not Pled Adequate Facts to Maintain a Declaratory Judgment Action on Its Own Behalf.

         Indiana Trial Rule 8(A) places a lower limit on a plaintiff's pleading obligation, requiring only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Nevertheless, "[a]though the plaintiff need not set out in precise detail the facts upon which the claim is based, [they] must still plead the operative facts necessary to set forth an actionable claim." Trail v. Boys & Girls Clubs of Nw. Indiana, 845 N.E.2d 130, 135 (Ind. 2006). Among such "operative" facts in a declaratory judgment action are those necessary to support that the plaintiff has personal standing to bring suit. See State ex rel. Cittadine v. Indiana Dep't of Transp., 790 N.E.2d 978, 984 (Ind. 2003) (upholding the vitality of the public standing doctrine in Indiana, but noting that with respect to actions brought under the Declaratory Judgment Act, plaintiffs "must be persons 'whose rights, status, or other legal relations are affected by a statute, municipal ordinance, contract, or franchise . . . .'" (quoting Ind. Code § 34-14-1-2)); see also Redev. Comm'n of Town of Munster v. Indiana State Bd. of Accounts, 28 N.E.3d 272, 276 (Ind.Ct.App. 2015), trans. denied ("In order to obtain declaratory relief, the person bringing the action must have a substantial present interest in the relief sought." (internal quotations omitted)).

         The general rule of standing holds that "the proper person to invoke the court's power" is limited to those "who have a personal stake in the outcome of the litigation and who show that they have suffered or were in immediate danger of suffering a direct injury as a result of the complained-of conduct[.]" Cittadine, 790 N.E.2d at 979. Our Court of Appeals found that Union County could maintain its declaratory judgment action, finding the allegations "may be viewed as akin to a dispute regarding ownership of or title to real property, which is an appropriate matter for resolution by declaratory judgment." Hendrickson, 67 N.E.3d at 1066.

         But the inference necessary to adopt this viewpoint is that Union County has some underlying property interest at issue--and Union County has provided no facts or evidence in its pleadings to support that inference.[3] Indeed, Union County has identified only INDOT as having control over U.S. Route 27, and three local landowners who own adjacent property. The only connection with U.S. Route 27 that Union County has pled is its physical presence within the county, which does not in and of itself reasonably support the inference that Union County has any responsibility for it, particularly since it is a federal highway that the State must maintain. See supra note 1. Moreover, it is not a foregone conclusion that Union County has any direct property interest at stake (in the absence of pled facts or evidence to the contrary), since U.S. Route 27 may merely rest upon a public right-of-way, rather than government property acquired through condemnation or eminent domain proceedings. See, e.g., Contel of Indiana, Inc. v. Coulson, 659 N.E.2d 224, 227 (Ind.Ct.App. 1995) (examining whether the State could grant a telephone company the right to bury cable adjacent to State Road 63, and noting that typically with former county roads in Indiana "the property rights of abutting landowners extend to the center of the ...

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