Trial Rules Prevail Over Statutory Deadlines

Lawyers are trained to follow clear statutory guidance. And nothing is clearer than a statute that says that a task “shall” be accomplished within a specific period of time. But as this case shows, there may be exceptions to these bright-line rules.

The DCS initiated CHINS proceedings on November 14, 2017 regarding M.S. after an incident resulting in another child’s death. The relevant statute provides that the factfinding in such a case be completed within 60 days. But that deadline could be waived. In that event, the factfinding “shall” be completed within 120 days.

Both parents waived the 60-day deadline, and the factfinding was continued until February 23. In the meantime, Mother requested discovery, and the trial court heard a motion to quash on February 16. Mother requested a continuance to resolve the discovery dispute, and the trial court granted that request.

The factfinding hearing took place on March 16. At that hearing, Mother submitted over 2,000 video recordings into evidence. The trial court gave her seven days to identify which of the videos were most relevant to the CHINS petition. This deadline was extended at Mother’s request.

Factfinding concluded on April 17, but the trial court did not adjudicate M.S. to be a CHINS until October 8, and it did not enter a dispositional order until November 2. Mother moved to dismiss because the factfinding was not completed in the 120-day timeframe. The trial court denied that motion, and Mother appealed. The Court of Appeal reversed, applying the statute’s bright-line rule. The Supreme Court then granted transfer.

On transfer, the Court agreed that the statutory deadline was a bright-line rule. But that did not mean that the trial court erred when extending this deadline. First, the Court found that the statute in question was procedural, rather than substantive, “because it includes mechanisms for extending the time by which factfinding hearings should be completed in CHINS proceedings.” When it comes to matters of procedure, the Trial Rules trump statutory deadlines, and Rule 53.5 allows a trial court to continue deadlines “upon a showing of good cause.” Therefore,

we hold that Trial Rule 53.5 allows a party to move for a good cause continuance under Indiana Code section 31-34-11-1(b). Unlike subsection (a) of the same statute which allows an extension of time by agreement of the parties for any reason, a party seeking to extend a CHINS action beyond 120 days must show good cause.

But when reaching this conclusion, the Court gave a cautionary note about extending this deadline too freely, warning that extensions of the 120-day deadline should “be few and far between.”

We urge our trial courts to carefully consider whether parties have truly shown good cause for an extension of time. This may, at minimum, require a hearing to determine whether good cause has been shown. But to create a clean record, we urge trial courts to make a finding, on the record, that good cause has been shown for an extension of time.

In this case, Mother’s discovery issues were a good reason for the continuance, so the trial court had the authority to extend that deadline.

Lessons:
1. When a deadline set by a statute conflicts with a Trial Rule, then the Trial Rule governs.
2.The deadline for completing a CHINS proceeding may be continued for good cause.

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