Lake Cnty. Bd. of Commissioners v. State

Decision Date22 February 2022
Docket NumberSupreme Court Case No. 22S-MI-64
Citation181 N.E.3d 960
Parties LAKE COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS, et al., Appellants v. STATE of Indiana, et al., Appellees
CourtIndiana Supreme Court

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: Angela M. Jones, Law Offices of Angela M. Jones, Munster, Indiana, Gerald M. Bishop, Merrillville, Indiana

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES STATE OF INDIANA AND OFFICE OF THE INDIANA ATTORNEY GENERAL: Theodore E. Rokita, Attorney General of Indiana, Frances Barrow, Aaron T. Craft, Deputy Attorneys General, Indianapolis, Indiana

ATTORNEYS FOR AMICUS CURIAE PROBATION OFFICERS PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATION OF INDIANA, INC.: Stephanie L. Grass, F. Anthony Paganelli, Paganelli Law Group, Indianapolis, Indiana

ATTORNEYS FOR AMICUS CURIAE ASSOCIATION OF INDIANA COUNTIES, INC., INDIANA ASSOCIATION OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS, AND INDIANA COUNTY COUNCILS ASSOCIATION: Eric J. McKeown, Alexandria H. Pittman, Ice Miller LLP, Indianapolis, Indiana

On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 20A-MI-1527

Rush, Chief Justice.

"Probation officers shall serve at the pleasure of the appointing court and are directly responsible to and subject to the orders of the court." Ind. Code § 11-13-1-1(c). This legislative determination reflects trial courts’ inextricable link with probation officers. And because trial courts are units of the judicial branch of our state's constitutional system and thus state entities, that link is also with the State. See Ind. Const. art. 3, § 1 ; id. art. 7, § 1.

Recognizing the connection between trial courts and probation officers, our General Assembly granted the judiciary primary authority over probation officers’ employment. See I.C. §§ 11-13-1-1, -3, -8, -9. And our precedent has consistently recognized that these officials are court employees. But counties are responsible for paying probation officers’ salaries and certain expenses. Id. § -1(c). This dual system of responsibility raises a question of first impression: for determining which entity is responsible for defending and indemnifying probation officers in a lawsuit, are these officials state or county employees?

Based on a close reading of the relevant statutes and caselaw, we hold that probation officers are state employees for purposes of Indiana Code section 4-6-2-1.5 which requires the Attorney General to defend state employees. And because the legislature has not required a different entity to pay for their legal representation, we conclude that this statute applies to probation officers.

Facts and Procedure

In 2015, a Lake County probationer filed a complaint in federal court against the State of Indiana; Lake County, Indiana; the Lake County Board of Commissioners; several Lake County Superior Court judges; Director and Chief Probation Officer of Lake County's felony probation department Jan Parsons; and Lake County probation officer Miroslav Radiceski. The probationer alleged negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, and violations of her constitutional rights stemming from the misconduct of her probation officer, Radiceski.

The Lake County Board of Commissioners and the County Council (together "Lake County") subsequently asked the Office of the Indiana Attorney General to appear for and defend the two probation officers in the federal litigation, which is currently stayed pending the result of this action. The Attorney General refused, asserting that Lake County is responsible for defending the probation officers and for paying any judgment entered against them.

Four years later, after "multiple" requests for the Attorney General to defend the probation officers, Lake County filed a complaint in state court for declaratory relief and damages against the State and the Attorney General (together "State Appellees") as well as the Lake County judges, the Lake County Probation Department, and Parsons and Radiceski in their official capacities. Lake County sought a declaration that the trial court find, as a matter of law, that the probation officers are state employees, and thus, the State is required to defend them in the federal litigation, pay any resulting settlement or judgment, and reimburse Lake County for any costs and attorney fees incurred. The County then moved for partial summary judgment. The State Appelleescross-motion asserted that the officers are county employees, so Lake County is responsible for both their representation and payment of any judgment against them. The trial court ultimately agreed with the State Appellees and granted them summary judgment.

Lake County appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Lake Cnty. Bd. of Comm'rs v. State , 170 N.E.3d 1104, 1111 (Ind. Ct. App. 2021). Lake County then sought transfer, which we now grant, vacating the Court of Appeals opinion. Ind. Appellate Rule 58(A).

Standard of Review

We review summary-judgment decisions de novo. Perkins v. Mem'l Hosp. of South Bend , 141 N.E.3d 1231, 1234 (Ind. 2020). "[S]ummary judgment is appropriate only when the designated evidence shows no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Rogers v. Martin , 63 N.E.3d 316, 320 (Ind. 2016) ; Ind. Trial Rule 56(C). The material facts here are not disputed.

Discussion and Decision

The question before us today is whether, as a matter of law, the State or counties are responsible for a probation officer's legal representation. The answer to this question first turns on whether probation officers are state or county employees.

Lake County argues that probation officers are state employees and are therefore entitled to representation by the Attorney General under Indiana Code section 4-6-2-1.5 :

Whenever any state governmental official or employee, whether elected or appointed, is made a party to a suit, and the attorney general determines that said suit has arisen out of an act which such official or employee in good faith believed to be within the scope of the official's or employee's duties as prescribed by statute or duly adopted regulation, the attorney general shall defend such person throughout such action.

The State Appellees contend that probation officers are not covered by the statute because they are county employees, pointing to Indiana Code subsection 11-13-1-1(c), which requires counties to pay a probation officer's "salary" and "actual expenses necessarily incurred in the performance of their duties." And the State Appellees maintain that these expenses include legal expenses.

We agree with Lake County. Based on a review of relevant statutes and caselaw, we first hold that probation officers are state employees for purposes of Indiana Code section 4-6-2-1.5. We then hold, based on a plain reading of subsection 11-13-1-1(c), that "legal expenses" are not "actual expenses necessarily incurred in the performance" of a probation officer's duties. Accordingly, the general statute requiring the Attorney General to defend state employees applies to probation officers. We therefore reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment to the State Appellees.

I. Probation officers are state employees under Indiana Code section 4-6-2-1.5.

Indiana's judiciary is a branch of our state's constitutional system. See Ind. Const. art. 3, § 1 ; id. art. 7, § 1. As units of the judicial branch, trial courts discharge their constitutional obligation to keep courts open for the administration of justice in part with the assistance of more than 1,500 probation officers statewide. See In re Madison Cnty. Prob. Officers’ Salaries , 682 N.E.2d 498, 501 (Ind. 1997) (citing Ind. Const. art. 1, § 12 ). Indeed, probation officers serve a vital role in our trial courts and are on the frontlines of ensuring public safety. They are the officials appointed to supervise, investigate, and report on the conduct of those assigned to probation. They also conduct prehearing and presentence investigations and help courts make pretrial-release decisions. In short, probation officers have an inseparable relationship with the judiciary—a state entity—which leads to our conclusion that probation officers are state employees. This conclusion is grounded in statutes and caselaw. We address each in turn.

A. A plain reading of the relevant statutes supports that probation officers are state employees.

Many years ago, our General Assembly created a complex system in which counties finance the operation of our state courts. J.A.W. v. State , 650 N.E.2d 1142, 1150 (Ind. Ct. App. 1995), aff'd in relevant part , 687 N.E.2d 1202, 1203 n.3 (Ind. 1997). As part of this system, the legislature determined that the salaries and some expenses of probation officers—as an arm of the courts—should be paid by counties. I.C. § 11-13-1-1(c). It also ordered counties to provide these officials with benefits and holidays. Ind. Code § 36-2-16.5-5. But despite this system of county funding, the legislature prescribed probation officers’ official duties and powers by statute, I.C. §§ 11-13-1-3, -5, and mandated that they "serve at the pleasure of the appointing court," id. § -1(c). It also made the Judicial Conference of Indiana1 —a statewide judicial entity—responsible for setting standards for the hiring, training, and supervision of probation officers, including setting their minimum compensation. See id. §§ -1, -8, -9.

A plain reading of these statutes establishes that probation officers are inextricably linked to the judiciary. We begin with an overview of four statutes, located in the chapter detailing "Probation Administration," that demonstrate this intricate connection.

First, Indiana Code subsection 11-13-1-1(c) unequivocally declares that probation officers serve at the pleasure of and are responsible to trial courts. The full statute elaborates on this relationship:

(a) A court or division of a court authorized to impose probation shall appoint one (1) or more probation officers, depending on the needs of the court, except that two (2) or more divisions within a court,
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