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It Depends on What the Meaning of “in” Is

Many of us can recall former President Bill Clinton’s famous line, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Most were left scratching their heads, wondering how a single, seemingly insignificant word can change the outcome of an issue. 

It turns out that an analysis of a statutory scheme can fall to the interpretation of a simple preposition. The Indiana Supreme Court recently had the pleasure of interpreting the word “in” in West v. Office of Indiana Sec’y of State, No. 49S02-1511-PL-668, 2016 WL 3090189 (Ind. June 2, 2016). And that interpretation certainly altered the outcome of the case, even leading to a reversal of the lower Appellate Court.

The dispute arose when a dealership located in Anderson wanted to relocate into (or “in” if you’re Justice Massa) Hamilton County. Three dealerships located from about seven to 24 miles from the proposed relocation boundary challenged the relocation with the Indiana Secretary of State Auto Dealer Services Division. The problem: only existing dealerships that are located within the “relevant market area” have standing to challenge the proposed relocation. In other words, dealerships must be sufficiently close (within either six or 10 miles) to the boundary line of the proposed relocation before they can raise a challenge.

How close is close enough? We have a statute for that. “Relevant market area” means “a new motor vehicle dealer who plans to relocate the dealer’s place of business in a county having a population of more than 100,000, the area within a radius of six miles of the intended site of the relocated dealer.”  Now, with respect to a “(A) proposed new motor vehicle dealer; or (B) new motor vehicle dealer who plans to relocate the dealer’s place of business in a county having a population of not more than 100,000; the area within a radius of 10 miles of the intended site of the proposed or relocated dealer.”

Put simply, if an established dealer plan to move its dealership in a county with more than 100,000 people, only those existing dealerships within six miles can challenge the plan. If the county has fewer than 100,000 people, only those within 10 miles can challenge the plan. And if an entirely new dealership will be established, rather than just relocated, the 10 mile rule applies, regardless of county population.

Here’s where things get interesting. The dealerships challenging the proposed move argued that the word “in” means “within” a county. The relocating dealership argued that the word “in” means “into” a county.  Under the former definition, if a dealership relocates “within” a county of less than 100,000 people, other dealers within 10 miles can object. If relocating “within” a county with more than 100,000, dealers within six miles can object. Under this definition, the relevant market area contemplates the size of the county where the relocating dealership is currently located. If we change the word “within” to “into,” then we contemplate the size of the county that the dealership is moving into, rather than where the dealership is currently located.

Here’s the rub. If the word “in” means “within,” then we have no rule that governs dealerships who cross the county line as a result of relocation. So, the only option is to conclude that the rule that applies to a “proposed new motor vehicle dealer” is not limited to newly established dealerships, but is instead broad enough to capture those dealers who cross the county line, i.e., those moving out of their current county.  That’s precisely what the challenging dealers argued. And although the challenging dealers were able to cite statutory support for this position, the Justices didn’t buy it.

In the end, the Supreme Court decided that the word “in” doesn’t necessarily mean “within” or “into,” but means exactly what it means, which is “in.” So when a dealer moves “in” a county, it doesn’t matter whether the dealer crosses the county line or not. The end location is what matters. And now we know.