Indiana Utility Law: Wagler v. West Boggs Sewer Dist., Inc., 980 N.E.2d 363 (Ind. Ct. App. 2012)

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s refusal to set aside an agreement that was entered into by a non-for-profit utility-West Boggs Sewer District (“West Boggs”) and a group of Amish neighbors. The Court also affirmed the trial court’s decision in refusing to award attorney’s fees to West Boggs against most of the Amish parties.

In Wagler v. West Boggs Sewer Dist., Inc., 980 N.E.2d 363 (Ind. Ct. App. 2012), West Boggs installed a sanitary sewer structure adjacent to parcels of property owned by a group of individual members of the Old Amish Order community (“Wagler” or “the members”). A state statute allows a utility like West Boggs to compel connection to the sewer system if it is within three hundred feet of an individual’s property line. Because the sewer system came within the statutory requirements, West Boggs sent letters to the members notifying them of the operational availability of the system and that “connection should be made by [these properties] to West Boggs’ system” on or before a certain date.

West Boggs filed complaints against each member after they refused to comply and requested an order requiring them to promptly connect to the system and pay all the associated costs. The members hired an attorney and vehemently opposed connection to the sewer system based on their previous rejection of using public utilities, the contention that they should be living separate and apart from the outside world and that connection to the system infringed on their sincerely held religious beliefs. After court-ordered mediation, the members agreed to a timeframe for connection to the system; the court then issued an order that stated the terms of that agreement.

The members again refused to comply with the terms of the agreement and West Boggs initiated further litigation. The members filed Ind. Trial Rule 60(B) motions to set aside the judgment based on the First Amendment and related state constitutional provisions. The members appealed after the trial court denied their motions. The Court of Appeals emphasized that Trial Rule 60(B) motions afford relief only in extraordinary circumstances that are not the result of any fault or negligence on the moving party. Those circumstances were not present here. Additionally, relying on a long line of case precedent, it noted that after entering an agreed judgment, the trial court has no authority to modify or change the judgment in any essential manner.

With respect to the attorney’s fees, West Boggs claimed that the trial court erred in not awarding those fees against all parties, and desired that the appellate court enter a judgment for appellate attorney’s fees as well. The Court of Appeals disagreed and found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its determination only to award attorney’s fees to West Boggs against certain parties of the entire group of Amish members.

Jeremy Fetty is a partner in the law firm of Parr Richey Obremskey Frandsen & Patterson with offices in Lebanon and Indianapolis. He often advises businesses and utilities (for profit, non-profit and cooperative) on organizational, human resources, and transactional matters and drafts and reviews commercial contracts.

The statements contained herein are matters of opinion and general information only and are not to be considered legal advice and should not be construed to form an attorney-client relationship. If you have any questions regarding this article, please contact an attorney.