Duane Morris Takeaways – In Mellowitz v. Ball State University and Board of Trustees of Ball State University, et al, No. 22A-PL-337 (Ind. Ct. App. Oct 5, 2022), the Indiana Court of Appeals struck down a 2021 law that sought to protect in-state universities from class action liability related to the shutdown of university campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the law stated that individuals “may not” bring class actions against universities resulting from actions taken to defend against the spread of COVID-19, the Indiana Court of Appeals held that the statute was “procedural” and in conflict with Rule 23 of Indiana’s Rules of Trial Procedure, which states that individuals “may” proceed as a class under certain circumstances. The Court’s ruling is important, as it puts at risk other statutes passed in Indiana and other states restricting class actions against businesses for COVID-19-related claims.
Background Of The Case
In 2020, Plaintiff Keller J. Mellowitz, a student at Ball State University, filed a putative class action asserting claims for breach of contract and unjust enrichment against Ball State as a result of the university’s decision to cancel in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Id. at 3. After the complaint was filed, the Indiana General Assembly in 2021 enacted Public Law 166-2021, part of which was codified as Indiana Code Section 34-12-5-7 (“Section 7”) and barred class actions against post-secondary educational institutions for claims of breach of contract and unjust enrichment arising from COVID-19. Ball State subsequently sought relief from Plaintiff’s lawsuit under Section 7, which the trial court granted, and Plaintiff appealed. Id. at 5.
The Appellate Court’s Ruling Reversing And Remanding the Trial Court’s Decision
Plaintiff argued on appeal that, as a procedural statute, Section 7 impermissibly conflicts with Indiana Trial Rule 23, which governs class-action procedures and sets forth the requirements to proceed as a class action, thus rendering Section 7 a “nullity.” The Indiana Court of Appeals began its analysis recognizing longstanding precedent establishing that in a conflict between a procedural statute and the Indiana Rules of Trial Procedure, “the trial rules govern,” however trial rules “cannot abrogate or modify substantive law.” Id. at 6-7. Whether a law was “substantive,” the Court explained, depended on whether it established “rights and responsibilities” whereas procedural laws merely prescribed “the manner in which such rights and responsibilities may be exercised.” Id. at 7.
In analyzing the specific statutes at issue, the Court of Appeals examined Indiana’s analog to Federal Rule 23, which sets forth the criteria for bringing a class action. The Court of Appeals noted that Indiana Trial Rule 23 was indisputably a procedural rule that allows a plaintiff, when the appropriate criteria are met, to assert his or her claims on behalf of others. Turning to Section 7, the Court of Appeals explained that the statute did not affect any plaintiff’s substantive right to bring a suit for breach of contract or unjust enrichment, but simply “frustrates them by encouraging a multiplicity of lawsuits from similarly situated plaintiffs.” Id. at 14. While Ball State argued that the law protected Indiana universities from “widespread legal liability” from actions taken to combat and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the Court of Appeals found the argument “unpersuasive,” explaining that since Section 7 did not prevent any individual plaintiff from asserting the same claims against universities, it therefore “does not reduce the institutions’ potential legal liability in the slightest.” Id. at 14-15. Ball State also argued that adopting Plaintiff’s “extreme position” would endanger two similar laws passed by the Indiana Legislature, which sought to protect business owners from class-action tort liability. Id. at 15 n.6. The Court rejected Ball State’s argument. It determined that it had “no opinion” on those statutes since they were not before it in the appeal. Id.
With Indiana Trial Rule 23 stating that a plaintiff “may” bring a class action and Section 7 stating the plaintiff “may not,” the Court of Appeals held that both laws could not apply in a given situation and, as a result, Section 7 was a “nullity.” Id. at 15. The Court of Appeals therefore reversed the trial court’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings.
Implications for Employers
While Ball State will very likely appeal this decision to the Indiana Supreme Court, the rationale adopted by the Indiana Court of Appeals could undermine similar statutes meant to protect Indiana employers from class action liability resulting from actions taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As many other states throughout the country similarly passed laws meant to protect businesses from liability due to COVID-19, the Mellowitz decision provides a potential avenue for plaintiffs to challenge laws in other states. Mellowitz demonstrates that employers should continue to be aware of the potential for class action lawsuits stemming from response to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite efforts by Indiana’s legislature and other states’ legislatures to prevent such costly, high-risk litigation.