Essential Features of a Suit Could be the Determining Factor When It Comes to Having a Jury Trial

Where a cause of action has both legal and equitable claims, the court will look at the essential features of the suit to decide if a jury trial is appropriate. If the claim as a whole is equitable and the legal causes of action are not “distinct and severable,” then there is no right to a jury trial because the equitable claim will integrate the legal causes of action.

In Mary Beth Lucas and Perry Lucas v. U.S. Bank, N.A., as Trustee for the C-Bass Mortgage Loan Asset-Backed Certificates, Series 2006-MH-1, No. 28S01-1102-CV-78, the loan servicer Litton charged the Lucases late fees, but the Lucases argued they timely paid all their fees. Lucases filed for bankruptcy and the following month requested that Litton discontinue their escrow account. Litton continued to charge the Lucases late fees and sent the Lucases notice that it planned on accelerating their account. The current mortgage holder, U.S. Bank National Association, filed a complaint against the Lucases seeking to foreclose on the mortgaged property for failure to make payments. The Lucases filed affirmative defenses, counterclaims, and a third party complaint, along with a demand for a jury trial on issues deemed triable. U.S. Bank filed a motion to strike the Lucases’ request for a jury trial. The trial court granted U.S. Bank’s motion asserting that seeking foreclosure is essentially an equitable claim. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order relying on the test used in Songer v. Civitas Bank, 771 N.E.2d 61 (Ind. 2002).

The Supreme Court reiterated the policy from Trial Rule 38(A): “when both equitable and legal causes of action or defenses are joined in a single case, the equitable causes of action or defenses are to be tried by the court while the legal causes of action or defenses are to be tried by a jury.” The Court looked at the facts of the case to ascertain the “essential features of the suit.” The Court implemented a multi-pronged inquiry used in Songer to determine whether a suit is essentially equitable: “The court must examine several factors of each joined claim—its substance and character, the rights and interests involved, and the relief requested. After that examination, the trial court must decide whether core questions presented in any of the joined legal claims significantly overlap with the subject matter that invokes the equitable jurisdiction of the court. If so, equity subsumes those particular legal claims to obtain more final and effectual relief for the parties despite the presence of peripheral questions of a legal nature.” Despite the presence of some legal claims and requests of legal remedies by the Lucases, the Court found that the main legal issues overlap with the foreclosure issues to a substantial degree. Since the essential features of the suit are equitable, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of the Lucases’ request for a jury trial.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Dickson focused on the fact that the analysis in Songer should not be modified. The modification to include the additional test of “significantly overlap” could often exclude a defendant’s right to a jury trial on distinct and severable legal claims. Legal claims that are distinct and severable from the equitable foreclosure action should be available for trial to a jury and should not be subsumed as an equitable cause of action.

About Bose McKinney & Evans LLP

Bose McKinney & Evans LLP is a business law firm, headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, serving both publicly held and privately held businesses, governmental entities and high-growth industries. Our clients include Fortune 100 companies, international manufacturers, national and regional financial institutions, agribusinesses, sports teams, university-incubated start-ups, media, utilities, cities and schools, to name a few. We strive to build strong relationships with our clients as key business advisors, to exceed expectations in the quality of our work, to be knowledgeable about our clients’ businesses and sectors, to be responsive to service needs and to continually seek to improve the delivery of client services. Our ultimate focus is on our clients.
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