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Indiana Code §8-1-8.5-3.1(b) in 2019 ordered the Indiana Utility Regulatory Utility Commission (IURC) to conduct a study of statewide impacts of:

  • Transitions in the fuel sources and other resources used to generate electricity by electric utilities; and
  • New and emerging technologies on local grids or distribution infrastructure; on electric generation capacity, system reliability, system resilience, and cost of electric service for consumers. The IURC shall consider timelines for transitions in fuel sources and other resources and for implementation of new and emerging technologies.

On August 5, 2020, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) approved $1,110,000 in civil penalties for pipeline safety violations in 2018 for Northern Indiana Public Service Company, LLC (NIPSCO).  NIPSCO failed to locate or mark its pipelines in the two days required by safety procedures.  Mr. Boyd, the Division’s Director, claimed NIPSCO committed 230 violations in 2018.

In 2017, the IURC approved a settlement agreement that outlined the cost of each violation NIPSCO commits in 2017, 2018 and 2019 with respect to locating underground gas pipelines and facilities subject to approval.  Each side recommended the Commission approved $1,110,000 in damages.  The Division’s deadline to file the petition for approval of 2019 penalties is December 31, 2020.

To access the order, visit this website: https://www.in.gov/iurc/files/44970%20S2%20PSD%20NIPSCO%20Order.pdf.

On July 30, 2020, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded that a county’s refusal to issue a document indicating that no rezoning or variance would be necessary for an applicant’s operation of a proposed waste transfer station was “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.” Monster Trash, Inc. v. Owen County Council, Owen County Commissioners, and Owen County Board of Zoning Appeals. In the case, Monster Trash, Inc. applied to Indiana Department of Environmental Management for a license to operate a solid waste transfer station in Owen County. As a condition of approval, applicants are required to provide a “document from a county official confirming zoning requirements are not needed for the location of the proposed facility.” Owen County’s Board of Zoning Appeals refused to provide this document to Monster Trash, Inc., thus resulting in litigation.

Owen County had an ordinance in place that prohibited waste transfer stations, which did not allow appeals for a use variance to the Owen County Board of Zoning Appeals, however, the ordinance specifically stated that waste transfer stations are not prohibited if licensed and approved by the State of Indiana. Thus, the Court of Appeals then addressed Owen County’s refusal to provide the requested document to Monster Trash. The Court concluded “zoning requirements” were not a requirement to operate this solid waste transfer station, which resulted in its conclusion that the County’s refusal to provide the document went against its own ordinance and qualified as “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion,” pursuant to Indiana statute. Therefore, the Court determined that there was no legally justifiable reason for the County to refuse the document and its refusal prejudiced Monster Trash from obtaining a State-issued license.

James A.L. Buddenbaum is a partner of the law firm of Parr Richey Frandsen Patterson Kruse LLP with offices in Indianapolis and Lebanon, Indiana. He advises business, utility and municipal and hospital clients in the areas of corporate compliance, corporate governance, employment, real estate, commercial transactions and regulatory law as well as representing policyholders in insurance disputes. He has 30 years of experience representing rural electric and telephone cooperatives.

On April 6, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States answered the question as to whether 29 U.S.C. § 633a(a) of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 imposes liability only when age is a “but-for cause” of the personnel action at issue. Babb v. Wilkie, 106 L. Ed. 2d 432, 438 (2020). 29 U.S.C. § 633a(a), in essence, provides that individuals aged 40 and older “shall not be subjected to personnel actions based on age discrimination,” with a few exceptions. In Babb, the plaintiff, who was born in 1960, is a clinical pharmacist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bay Pines, Florida. Id. at 439. The plaintiff brought a suit in 2014 against the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (“VA”), alleging she had been subjected to age discrimination. Id. There were three personnel actions made by the VA that the plaintiff centers around her claim. The VA took away her “advanced scope” designation, which had made her eligible for promotion, was denied training opportunities and passed over for positions in the hospital’s anticoagulation clinic, and lastly, was placed in a new position but her holiday pay was decreased. Id. The plaintiff alleged that throughout this time period supervisors made several “age-related comments” to her as well. Id.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in this case due to the Circuit split over the interpretation of § 633a(a). The Court’s analysis starts off with looking at the plain meaning of the provision, which leads to the conclusion that “age need not be a but-for cause of an employment decision in order for there to be a violation.” Id. at 440. To support the Court’s conclusion, the language of “free from” found within the provision is examined closely, and the Court concludes that the language coupled with “any” means there cannot be any discrimination whatsoever based on age. Id. at 440-441. Reading the rest of the provision together, the Court determines that “age must be a but-for cause of discrimination, but it does not necessarily have to be a but-for cause of a personnel action itself.” Id. at 441. As a result, the Court concludes that the statute “does not require proof that an employment decision would have turned out differently if age had not been taken into account.” Id.

The Government attempts to make an argument that compares the text of 29 U.S.C. § 633a(a) with other statutes interpreted in prior cases, one of which is the private-sector provision of the ADEA. 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). This provision makes “it unlawful for an employer . . . to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s age.” Id. The Court discusses the critical difference between § 623(a)(1) and § 633a(a), which is § 633a(a) “prohibits any age discrimination in the ‘making’ of a personnel decision, not just with the respect to end results.” Babb at 444. After noting this difference between the two provisions, the Court recognizes that federal employers are held to a stricter standard. However, the Court then addresses how Congress could have added the federal government to the definition of “employer” in the ADEA’s private sector provision but chose not to. Id. at 445.

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently upheld the finding of a de facto merger in successor companies when allowing the enforcement of a judgment against the predecessor company. New Nello Operating Co., LLC v. CompressAir. The Court noted four exceptions to the general rule that when one corporation purchased the assets of another the buyer does not assume the debts and liabilities of the seller.

According to the Court, those four exceptions which allow for successor liability are:

(1) an implied or express agreement to assume liability;

On February 5, 2020, the Indiana Court of Appeals handed down an opinion that will have landowners thinking twice before interfering with easement owners’ rights. In Duke Energy Indiana v. J & J Development Company, J & J bought a piece of land with the intent of developing a residential subdivision. Duke Energy Indiana v. J & J Development Company, 19A-PL-735, 1 (Ind. Ct. App. 2020). Moving forward with their intent, J & J Development Company (“J & J”) constructed improvements within an electric-transmission line easement owned by Duke Energy (“Duke”). Id. at 1-2.

Duke and its predecessors have owned the electric-transmission line easement in question since 1956 through an instrument that granted Duke, among other rights, the right to “erect, construct, and maintain the necessary substructures for said towers and poles.” Id. at 3. Without contacting Duke, J & J went ahead and had a surveyor prepare a plat for the subdivision, received plat approval, and then purchased the land. Id. at 5. J & J then began to construct the “improvements” to the easement, or in other words, they started to build the subdivision which fell within the easement. Id. at 5. The improvements J & J constructed within the easement included: an entrance, a road running through much of the easement, detention basins, a fire hydrant, and buried utility lines. Id. at 5.

Duke was not contacted by J & J until they wanted to discuss the sewer work they wanted done. Id. at 8. This led to Duke inspecting the improvements made by J & J and concluding that J & J impermissibly encroached upon the easement. Id. at 8. As a result, J & J filed suit against Duke, seeking a declaration that the improvements did not unreasonably interfere with Duke’s use of the easement. Id. at 8. Duke counterclaimed, requesting a declaration that J & J’s improvements were impermissible and asked for an injunction to have J & J remove the improvements. Id. at 8. The trial court ruled that the improvements were permissible, which resulted in an appeal by Duke. Id. at 8.

The Indiana Supreme Court recently provided important guidance for employers looking to hold employees accountable for breaching non-solicitation clauses in employment agreements by providing for liquidated damages. In its December 18, 2019, majority opinion in American Consulting, Inc. d/b/a American Structurepoint, Inc. v. Hannum Wagle & Cline Engineering, Inc. d/b/a HWC Engineering, Inc. et al. (“ASI”),[1] the Court found that the liquidated damages provisions in employees’ employment agreements were facially unreasonable and unenforceable and were not correlated to the employer’s actual loss.[2]

In ASI, the relevant contract provisions for one former employee provided as follows:

• For two years after employment, the employee will not sell, provide, try to sell or provide or assist any person or entity in the sale or provision of any competing products or services to the employer’s customers with whom the employee had any business contact on behalf of the employer during the two years prior to his separation from employment. A breach of this provision that results in the termination, withdrawal or reduction of a client’s business with the employer will result in liquidated damages equal to 45% of all fees and other amounts that the employer billed to the customer during the 12 months prior to the breach.

Employers often express concern about obese employees in physically demanding jobs or jobs that involve driving a motor vehicle. Obesity causes increased risk of numerous conditions that can cause sudden incapacitation, such as heart attack or stroke.[1]  It is also linked with sleep apnea, which can cause exhaustion.[2]  As a result, employers often fear that an employee’s obesity creates a safety risk for the employee, fellow employees, and, in some cases, the public. However, employers are skittish about benching these employees for fear of potential liability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

Employers in Indiana can take some comfort in that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued several opinions in 2019 that have narrowed the scope of employees who are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) due to obesity. While this is encouraging for employers, the current state of the law challenges common sense and makes an employer’s evaluation more—not less—complex.

First, the Seventh Circuit held that obesity alone is not a physical impairment under the ADA unless there is evidence that obesity is caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition.[3]  While Richardson is positive for employers because it forecloses carte blanch ADA protection for every obese person, it adds complexity for employers who must now consider whether an employee’s obesity is caused by an underlying physiological disorder or condition before making employment decisions. Furthermore, what specific policy goal does the Richardson rule promote? If obesity is not an “impairment” that qualifies under the ADA, why should obesity be protected when it is the manifestation of an underlying physiological disorder? Surely the employer is not making its decision to remove an obese employee from a safety sensitive job on the basis of the employee’s thyroid disorder that caused or contributed to the obesity. Unfortunately, that policy question is one for congress—not the Seventh Circuit—and congress isn’t solving many problems these days.

A California court of appeals recently held that utility companies operating in rural areas of the state do not collect a higher cost of capital, also referred to as a rate of return, than other utility companies.

In Ponderosa Telephone Co. v. California Public Utilities Commission, several small, rural, privately-owned telephone companies asked the California court of appeals to review a decision of the California Public Utilities Commission (“PUC”).[1]  The PUC’s ruling related to the companies’ cost of capital, “a measurement of the cost of obtaining debt and equity financing, and it reflects the amount investors would demand to compensate them for the risks of investing capital in the company.”[2]  This is also referred to as the rate of return, as it provides the target return on the utility’s capital.[3]  The number is a factor in determining a company’s rate base and is calculated by examining (1) the cost of debt, (2) the cost of equity, and (3) the capital structure.[4]

The companies filed a petition to the PUC proposing that their rates of return be reviewed and altered to approximately 14.6%. The proposed amount represented a significant increase from the previous figure of 10% and reflected special risk factors the companies faced, including their small size, industry risks, and regulatory risks.[5]  However, following its review, the PUC denied the companies’ requests and lowered their rates of return to approximately 9%. The companies sought a review of the ruling, arguing that the PUC’s conclusion was arbitrary and capricious, and was unsupported by substantial evidence.[6]

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently allowed a “patronage capital” lawsuit to continue in federal court after deciding federal loan conditions and requirements may preempt state laws.[1]

One of the agencies within the United States Department of Agriculture is the Rural Utilities Service (RUS). Among its other responsibilities, a primary role of the RUS is to provide loans to electric power cooperatives needing financial assistance.[2]  Like all loans, RUS’s loans contain significant restrictions and approval requirements that bind the actions of electric cooperatives. One such restriction controls the disbursement of “patronage capital,” or excess revenue not used by the electric cooperatives that is distributed to its members.[3]  The loans require electric cooperatives to obtain written approval from the agency before distributing patronage capital; however, the loans grant automatic approval of distribution if “[a]fter giving effect to the Distribution, the Equity of the Borrower shall be greater than or equal to 30% of its Total Assets.”[4]

The present case arose when members of three rural power cooperatives in Mississippi alleged the cooperatives violated state law in refusing to refund excess patronage capital to their members. The members cited to relevant Mississippi law, which requires cooperatives to return excess revenues to its members, beyond what is needed for “operating and maintenance expenses and to the payment of such principal and interest and . . . to such reserves for improvement, new construction, depreciation and contingencies as the board may . . . prescribe.”[5]  Once filed, the cooperatives removed the cases to federal court, asserting federal officer removal jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1442. After the district court remanded the cases back to state court, the cooperatives appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, who consolidated the three cases.

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