Indiana Supreme Court’s COVID Order Interpreted: Post-Judgment Interest
November 24, 2021
Lesson. Post-judgment interest was not tolled by the Indiana Supreme Court’s 2020 COVID-related emergency orders.
Case cite. Denman v. St. Vincent Med. Grp., Inc., 2021 Ind. App. LEXIS 254 (Ind. Ct. App. 2021)
Legal issue. Whether the Indiana Supreme Court’s order that “no interest shall be due or charged during the tolled period” was unconstitutional with respect to statutory post-judgment interest.
Vital facts. Plaintiff obtained a $4.75 million judgment against Defendant in January 2020. Beginning on March 13, 2020, the Indiana Supreme Court entered a series of orders that dealt with the COVID public health emergency. The order pertinent to the Denman case included the following language:
The Court authorizes the tolling … of all laws, rules, and procedures setting time limits for speedy trials in criminal and juvenile proceedings; public health and mental health matters; all judgments, support, and other orders; and in all other civil and criminal matters before Indiana trial courts. Further, no interest shall be due or charged during this tolled period.
Procedural history. On March 30, 2020, the trial court in Denman ordered that post-judgment interest on Plaintiff’s judgment shall be tolled per the Supreme Court’s order. Plaintiff appealed that ruling and others.
Ind. Code § 24-4.6-1-101 states that: “[e]xcept as otherwise provided by statute, interest on judgments for money whenever rendered shall be from the date of the return of the verdict or finding of the court until satisfaction at: . . . (2) an annual rate of eight percent (8%) if there was no contract by the parties.”
As opposed to prejudgment interest, trial courts have no discretion over whether post-judgment interest will be awarded. Prevailing plaintiffs are awarded it automatically.
Holding. The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order tolling the accrual of post-judgment interest.
Policy/rationale. The Court found that the trial court erred in applying the Supreme Court’s interest-tolling order to post-judgment interest “because so doing would give the [order] effect beyond the power constitutionally and statutorily allocated to the courts.” Post-judgment interest is a “creature of statute, borne of legislative authority.”
The Court upheld the trial court’s tolling of prejudgment interest, however, which is discretionary. One of its reasons in doing so was the Supreme Court’s “inherent authority,” in an emergency, to supervise all courts of the state. This authority “allows it to suspend trial courts' discretionary decision-making, like the grant of prejudgment interest.” The Court explained:
Permitting grants of prejudgment interest would have cost litigants for a delay they did not cause. As we explained above, Indiana's Tort Prejudgment Interest Statute is meant to influence litigants' behavior. To award prejudgment interest for delays not attributable to any party would not advance that goal. Post-judgment interest, on the other hand, arises just as automatically during a pandemic as it does any other time—and it will continue to do so until the legislature decides otherwise.
The “elephant in the room” is whether the Supreme Court’s order impacted interest accruing on a loan, such as contractual interest under a promissory note. The Indiana Court of Appeals’ treatment of pre- and post-judgment interest in Denman is telling on this point. Interest on a loan is not discretionary (in my view, at least). It is based on a contract entered into between private parties that, arguably, is constitutionally protected from an emergency order from the judicial branch. Contractual interest, not unlike post-judgment interest, arises automatically during the pandemic - as it does any other time. Accordingly, I do not believe that the Supreme Court’s COVID-related orders in 2020 tolled the accrual of interest on loans, and the outcome in Denman supports that conclusion.
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