Brown v. Indiana Department of Environmental Management

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Justia Opinion Summary

The Supreme Court vacated a portion of the court of appeals opinion affirming the judgment of the trial court denying Appellant's petition for judicial review of the summary judgment granted by the State Employees' Appeals Commission (SEAC) against Appellant on his claim that his alleged protected activity was related to his termination, holding that the court of appeals reached too broad a conclusion to resolve the issue in this case.

Appellant appealed his termination, claiming he was a protected whistleblower. SEAC dismissed the complaint, but the superior court reversed. On remand, SEAC granted summary judgment in favor of Appellant's employer. Appellant sought judicial review, claiming that most of his employer's arguments were barred by the law-of-the-case doctrine. The trial court denied the petition, concluding that the law-of-the-case doctrine did not apply. The court of appeals affirmed, agreeing that the law-of-the-case doctrine did not apply but going further to find that the law-of-the-case doctrine "is applicable only when an appellate court determines a legal issue, not a trial court." The Supreme Court vacated that portion of the court of appeals' opinion and otherwise affirmed, holding that the court of appeals need not have reached so broad a conclusion to resolve the issue.

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IN THE Indiana Supreme Court FILED Supreme Court Case No. 20S-MI-609 Oct 21 2020, 1:39 pm Timothy J. Brown, Indiana Supreme Court Court of Appeals and Tax Court CLERK Appellant-Petitioner, –v– Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Appellee-Respondent. Decided: October 21, 2020 Appeal from the Marion Superior Court No. 49D02-1810-MI-41395 The Honorable Timothy W. Oakes, Judge On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals No. 19A-MI-2051 Per Curiam Opinion Chief Justice Rush and Justices David, Massa, Slaughter, and Goff concur. Per Curiam. Timothy Brown appealed his termination from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) to the State Employees’ Appeals Commission (SEAC), claiming that he was a protected whistleblower under Indiana Code section 4-15-10-4. Initially, SEAC dismissed Brown’s complaint. It found that the emails Brown sent to his supervisor were not reports and that he failed to show that his alleged protected activity was related to his termination. The Marion Superior Court granted judicial review and reversed the dismissal, concluding that Brown’s emails constituted reports and that SEAC erred by dismissing the case without considering the emails’ content. On remand, SEAC granted summary judgment in favor of IDEM. SEAC determined that the allegations in Brown’s emails did not amount to a violation of law. Additionally, it found Brown was terminated for failing to properly verify equipment calibration and reporting invalid data as valid. Brown again sought judicial review. IDEM opposed Brown’s petition, and in his reply, Brown claimed that most of IDEM’s arguments were barred by the law-of-the-case doctrine. The trial court denied Brown’s petition for judicial review and, among other conclusions, decided, “Because SEAC’s summary judgment order addresses a different legal issue and different evidence, the law-of-the-case doctrine does not apply here.” Appellant’s App. Vol. II, p. 12. On Brown’s appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court. It agreed that the law-of-the-case doctrine does not apply here because “the standards of review for judgment on the pleadings and summary judgment are different” and “additional evidence was considered by the SEAC, including Brown’s emails, on remand.” Brown v. Indiana Dep’t of Envtl. Mgmt., 149 N.E.3d 658, 668–69 (Ind. Ct. App. 2020). But the Court of Appeals went further and found that the law-of-the-case doctrine “is applicable only when an appellate court determines a legal issue, not a trial court.” Id. at 668 (emphasis in original). The Court of Appeals need not have reached so broad a conclusion to resolve the issue. Accordingly, we grant transfer, vacate that portion of the Court of Indiana Supreme Court | Case No. 20S-MI-609 | October 21, 2020 Page 2 of 3 Appeals opinion, and affirm the trial court’s conclusion that the law-ofthe-case doctrine does not apply in this case’s specific circumstances. In all other respects, we summarily affirm the Court of Appeals opinion. Rush, C.J., and David, Massa, Slaughter, and Goff, JJ., concur. ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT Adam Lenkowsky Roberts Litigation Group Indianapolis, Indiana ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Curtis T. Hill, Jr. Attorney General of Indiana Aaron T. Craft Section Chief, Civil Appeals Monika Prekopa Talbot Frances Barrow Deputy Attorneys General Indianapolis, Indiana Indiana Supreme Court | Case No. 20S-MI-609 | October 21, 2020 Page 3 of 3
Primary Holding
The Supreme Court vacated a portion of the court of appeals opinion affirming the trial court's denial of Appellant's petition for judicial review of the summary judgment granted by the State Employees' Appeals Commission against Appellant on his claim challenging his termination, holding that the court of appeals reached too broad a conclusion to resolve the issue in this case.

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