INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Supreme Court has ruled that the River Ridge Development Authority is not on the hook to pay more than $230,000 in opposing parties’ attorney fees in a civil billboard lawsuit that was dropped in 2018.
In 2017, the River Ridge Development Authority (RRDA) brought the suit against six entities — Outfront Media LLC, No Moore Inc., The Schlosser Family Partnership, the Town of Utica and the Utica Board of Zoning Appeals, and the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) — seeking to prevent construction of seven billboards along Interstate 265 in Utica.
In the initial complaint, RRDA stated that the billboards were not legally permitted and would have negatively impacted the “marketability, visibility and profitability” of the River Ridge Commerce Park — they were slated to be built along a stretch of road RRDA had planned for a more than $20 million entrance to the property.
RRDA removed INDOT from the lawsuit and ultimately dropped the case in April 2018. The original defendants later sued for what they had stated in their complaint was a “frivolous lawsuit,” initiated only to buy time until that stretch of road would be designated as a scenic byway and thus not allowed to have billboards.
In September 2018, Special Judge Richard Striegel agreed, stating in his opinion that lawsuit had been “meritless,” and inflicted significant unnecessary costs on a small town and business entities. He ordered that RRDA had 30 days to pay $237,440 to the original defendants.
RRDA appealed the ruling and prevailed in July 2019. In August, the original defendants sought transfer to the Indiana Supreme Court, where the oral arguments were heard in January of this year.
The Supreme Court ruling issued in late May states that while trial courts do have the authority to order payment of attorney’s fees, it was not appropriate in this case.
“Trial courts have the discretion to award attorney’s fees, but that discretion cannot be abused,” the Supreme Court ruling reads, in part. “Before a court can invoke its inherent authority to order such an award, it must conclude that the party ‘has acted in bad-faith’ and that the conduct was ‘calculatedly oppressive, obdurate, or obstreperous.’”
In other words, the court said that just because RRDA dropped the suit doesn’t mean it should be held accountable for accrued fees of others, under the law.
“I’m glad it’s over,” said Jerry Acy, executive director of the River Ridge Development Authority, when reached by phone Thursday.