December 01, 2017

Supreme Court of Indiana Denies Judicial Mandate Requiring Agency to Comply with Caseload Maximums

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., 2017 WL 3699292 (Ind.).

Indiana statute imposes maximum caseload requirements for Department of Child Services family case managers. The state supreme court denied issuance of a judicial mandate enforcing compliance with caseload maximums because the statute did not require a specific ministerial act. Instead the court found the statute allowed broad discretion to meet a required, specific outcome. 

Indiana Code § 31-25-2-5 requires the Department of Child Services (DCS) to ensure 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. 

Plaintiff was employed at DCS as a permanency worker. By statute, plaintiff’s caseload should have been limited to no more than 17 children. Plaintiff’s complaint asked the court to mandate DCS to take steps to comply with the statutory maximum caseload requirements. The Indiana Supreme Court emphasized use of judicial mandates as an extraordinary remedy to compel a specific, ministerial act if the plaintiff is clearly entitled to that relief. 

Indiana case law establishes a strong presumption against judicial mandates that create two elements: 1) a legal duty to perform a ministerial act, and 2) plaintiff has a clear legal right to compel the performance of that specific duty. The court focused first on whether there was a legal duty for DCS to perform a specific act. The court found no specific duty for DCS to act, but rather a generalized duty. 

The court’s decision relied on the discretion DCS had to meet the statutory maximums. “A mandate commanding general compliance with a statute to achieve a certain outcome, without identifying the specific act required is no mandate at all – because it leaves [DCS] with the discretion to fulfill the required outcome. If [DCS] has discretion, there is no clear, absolute duty to perform a specific act —without which there can be no mandate.” The court found that ministerial acts are nondiscretionary—requiring someone to perform something in a prescribed manner without exercising their own judgment—and a statute’s use of the word “shall” does not automatically meet that requirement.  

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled a judicial mandate is not appropriate in this case because the statute requiring DCS to implement maximum caseloads does not compel the performance of a specific, ministerial act. The court identified the differences between compelling a specific act versus a specific outcome. In this case, setting maximum caseloads is a specific outcome required by statute not a specific act. The court listed examples of other places the legislature outlines mandatory specific acts for DCS including: submit reports with required information, establish citizen-review panels, establish a permanency roundtable, submit annual child-fatalities report, and provide a list of names and birth dates to the state department of health. 

Finally, the court acknowledged that although the plaintiff could not proceed with her request for a judicial mandate, she could still seek relief through Indiana’s civil-service complaint procedure.