March 01, 2017

Court Allows Claim for Maximum Caseload Requirements to Continue

Emily Peeler

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Price v. Indiana Dep’t of Child Servs., 2016 WL 6235628 (Ind. Ct. App.).

Indiana statute imposes maximum caseload requirements for family case managers. The Court of Appeals of Indiana allowed an action for mandating the Department of Child Services (DCS) to comply with this statutory requirement through the public standing doctrine. The court found the statute imposed a clear duty on DCS and a mandate was appropriate because there were no other adequate remedies.

Indiana Code § 31-25-2-5 requires the Department of Child Services (DCS) to ensure that family case managers’ caseloads are no greater than 12 active cases with initial assessments or 17 children monitored and supervised in active cases. Section 31-25-2-10 also requires DCS to have sufficient qualified and trained staff to comply with the prescribed maximum caseload ratios. 

Price was employed at DCS as a permanency worker. By statute, Price’s caseload should have been limited to no more than 17 children. However, when she filed her complaint, Price had approximately 43 children on her caseload. Price’s complaint asked the court to mandate DCS to take steps to comply with the statutory maximum caseload requirements. DCS had previously identified in its 2014 Annual Report to the State Budget Committee and Legislative Council that it would need 216 more case managers to comply with the law. In response, DCS was appropriated more money specifically to hire more managers; however, these funds were insufficient to meet the maximum caseload requirements. The appeals court acknowledged the importance of these managers and that increased caseloads leads to higher turnover and burn out. 

The appeals court first decided if Price had a private cause of action under the statute. Generally, a private party may not enforce rights under a statute designed to protect the public and with a comprehensive enforcement mechanism. This statue was designed to protect the public through consistent, efficient, and effective administration of child welfare services. Additionally, DCS had no duty to a particular individual. The legislative intent was to protect the public, therefore no private cause of action was created. 

Price asked the court to mandate and compel DCS to comply with the unfulfilled duty of caseload maximums. To receive a mandate, Price must have a clear right to relief and DCS must have failed to perform a clear, absolute, and imperative duty imposed by law. The appeals court found Price had standing for this claim through the public standing doctrine, which applies to cases in which public rights are at issue and involve enforcing a public right. In this case, Price is a member of the general public whom this statute was designed to protect. 

Because a mandate is an extraordinary remedy, the appeals court will only require it if there is no other adequate remedy available. The exception is if the remedy is inadequate or would be futile. To be futile, the party requesting the mandate must show the administrative agency was powerless to effect a remedy or it would have been impossible and of no value. In this case, there is an administrative remedy and procedure allowing complaints about DCS’s application of law. However, most of the complaints heard through this procedure are issues pertaining to individual employment-related acts, such as employee termination. Price’s case concerned a systemic deficiency affecting hundreds of case workers, which the court felt would make the existing complaint process futile and therefore found no other adequate remedy available. 

Finally, the court found that by using language such as “shall ensure” and “shall comply,” the statute imposes a clear, absolute, and imperative duty on DCS to comply. Therefore, Price could proceed with a mandate action in the lower court.

One judge dissented, believing the complaint procedure was an adequate remedy Price failed to exhaust. Another judge concurred to elaborate on why the complaint procedure was not an adequate remedy.