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Hemmer v. Indiana State Board of Animal Health

July 9, 2008


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, New Albany Division. No. 05 C 152-Sarah Evans Barker, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Flaum, Circuit Judge


Before FLAUM, MANION, and EVANS, Circuit Judges.

Stephen Hemmer is a veterinarian employed by the Indiana State Board of Animal Health ("ISBOAH"). He was accused of violating certain employee procedures. After a severe motorcycle accident that rendered him disabled, he attended a hearing with his employer regarding the issue of whether he could be fired for cause on account of his failure to follow these procedures. Hemmer was discharged, and he appealed this decision to a state agency, and then the state trial court, where he argued that he was denied due process because, among other things, he was mentally incapacitated during the hearings. The Indiana Court of Appeals subsequently ruled that the state trial court-which agreed that Hemmer was denied due process-did not have jurisdiction to hear his case. Hemmer then decided to file a complaint in federal district court, again arguing that he was denied due process. The district court determined that it was precluded from hearing the claim because it was "inextricably intertwined" with a prior state court judgment. Because we find that the effect of the Indiana Court of Appeals decision was to void the prior state court judgment, we reverse.

I. Background

Hemmer worked in the Indiana State Meat and Poultry Inspection Service for approximately 18 years before he was terminated on January 3, 1999. This division had a particular set of procedures for signing in and out and for submitting travel vouchers. In June 1997, Hemmer's supervisor, Dr. Dimmick, sent him a note explaining that he was not following protocol with respect to these procedures, and that if he did not correct his behavior, he might be subjected to a three day suspension. Almost contemporaneous with receiving this note, Hemmer was receiving re-training on these issues. He went through this re-training successfully (and amicably), and the record does not reflect any further infractions visà-vis these policies.

Hemmer was on the road quite a bit as a part of his job because he was an "area supervisor," which meant that he had to travel throughout Southern Indiana to supervise the meat inspectors assigned by ISBOAH to each plant. On October 7, 1997, during the course of his employment, he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident. He was smashed by a hit-and-run motorist and soared 100 feet in the air before landing. The state trial court summarized his injuries as follows:

[H]e sustained severe head trauma, neck and back injuries, internal bleeding, a broken left arm and thorax, abdominal injuries, multiple abrasions and contusions, and multiple sprains, and over the course of the next year received ongoing treatment from a neurologist, an orthopedic, a urologist, a neuro-psychologist, a clinical psychologist, a cognitive retraining expert, and radiologists.

The injuries took a toll on Hemmer's cognitive abilities, and caused short-term memory problems as well as post-traumatic brain syndrome. His physician recommended that he stay on sick leave and not return to work. Hemmer was on Paxil and Neurontin, and his condition worsened. Three months after the accident, the Social Security Administration deemed that he was totally disabled due to the accident.

Nevertheless, on November 25, 1997, ISBOAH (through its officer Dr. Marsh) sent Hemmer a memorandum notifying him of a predeprivation meeting that was to occur on December 3, 1997. Pursuant to Indiana Code § 4-15-2-34, Hemmer could only be dismissed from his employment for cause. The memorandum informed Hemmer that he could be accompanied by a "non-participating witness" and that ISBOAH was considering disciplinary action including the possibility of termination due to the "failure to sign in and out of plants . . . as required by division policy . . . [and] the falsification of travel vouchers." The hearing was rescheduled for a couple of weeks later, and on December 18, 1997, Dr. Lutz (Hemmer's primary care physician) sent Dr. Marsh a letter indicating that Hemmer should not attend the hearing on account of mental confusion. Ultimately, the predeprivation hearing took place on January 5, 1998. Hemmer contravened his doctor's advice and attended. Observers claim that he was not fully aware of the gravity of the hearing, was not allowed to bring witnesses, was confused, and had difficulty putting details together. In fact, Mr. Tyron, the human resources director who caused Hemmer to be investigated in the first place, stated that:

I would have recommended that knowing that Dr. Hemmer was totally disabled and probably would not come back to work that we would have probably left it . . . probably would not have done anything.

Hemmer was allowed to file written materials following the hearing, but was only able to do so with assistance from another physician, Dr. Hicks, who knew very little regarding the facts involved here. Dr. Hicks himself testified that he did not feel that it was necessary to do much research in this matter because he thought that Hemmer would only be subject to a three-day suspension for any discrepancies in his forms. It should be noted that all of the evidence that ISBOAH used against Hemmer came from forms pre-dating the June 1997 note from Dr. Dimmick. In total, there were nine "suspect vouchers" after 18 years of service. The state trial court did not determine that these vouchers were actually fraudulent in any way, particularly since there were witnesses who saw Hemmer at the various plants in question. Most witnesses testified that Hemmer was an above-average to outstanding employee.

After the hearing, ISBOAH issued a Notice of Disciplinary Action on January 20, 1998, suspending Hemmer for 30 days without pay pending termination. This was based on his failure to sign in and out of plants and falsification of travel documents. Hemmer then filed suit in federal court, claiming that ISBOAH violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act when it terminated his employment. The district court ruled, in November 2000, that ISBOAH was a state agency and thus was not amenable to suit under the Eleventh Amendment. While the suit was pending in federal court, Hemmer also appealed ISBOAH's decision to the State Employee's Appeals Commission ("SEAC") on April 8, 1998. The SEAC conducted two hearings and issued its decision in favor of ISBOAH on June 25, 1999. They found that ISBOAH's predeprivation procedures were adequate. Pursuant to the Administrative Orders and Procedures Act, Indiana Code § 4-21.5-5-1, et seq., Hemmer appealed the SEAC's decision to the Gibson Circuit Court (the state trial court). That court held that "[p]laintiff had been deprived of his constitutionally protected rights to due process, and that the termination was wrongful, and not based on sufficient evidence." ISBOAH then filed an appeal with the Indiana Court of Appeals which, on August 18, 2004, reversed the lower court judgment and found that it did not have jurisdiction over Hemmer's claim because he failed to timely file the agency record with the state court as required by the Administrative Orders and Procedures Act.*fn1

Afterwards, Hemmer filed a petition for transfer to the Indiana Supreme Court, which was ...

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