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Cleveland Red-Light Camera Case Returned to Trial Court

Before an appeals court can make any ruling, a trial court must first determine if a group of motorists ticketed by Cleveland’s automated red-light and speeding cameras had to use the city’s appeals process to challenge the tickets before they could sue for damages.

The Ohio Supreme Court in a 4-3 decision today stated  it would not consider the city’s argument that those motorists who failed to use the city’s administrative appeals process are prevented from participating in a class action lawsuit. The opinion, authored by Justice Judith L. French, partially reverses an Eighth District Court of Appeals ruling and remands the case to the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court for further proceedings.

Ordinance Contested By Leased-Vehicle Drivers
Cleveland first passed an ordinance in July 2005 to use automated traffic cameras to catch red-light and speeding violators. The ordinance originally stated the ticket goes to the vehicle owner, who had 21 days from when the ticket was mailed to pay or appeal through an administrative process conducted by the city, not a court. Those who did not pay on time were considered to have waived their right to contest the ticket and to have admitted the violation.

Drivers who leased their vehicles challenged the ordinance arguing it did not apply to them because they are not the vehicle owners. The Supreme Court agreed in a 2009 decision (Dickson & Campbell, L.L.C. v. Cleveland), and in 2009, the city amended the ordinance to also ticket those who lease or rent vehicles. Based on that ruling, Janine Lycan filed a class-action lawsuit in common pleas court in February 2009 seeking the return of fines paid by those who leased or rented before the law was changed. The suit was amended to contain five other named plaintiffs. Lycan and three others paid their $100 fines, and none of the five appealed their tickets.

Class-Action Lawsuit Faces Multiple Appeals
In November 2009, the trial court denied the motorists’ right to sue as a class and dismissed the case finding the drivers waived their right to pursue damages in court because they failed to appeal their citations. They appealed to the Eighth District, which found that failing to challenge the tickets in an administrative process did not prevent the motorists from going to court. The Eighth District also directed the trial court to reconsider certifying the class.

With the case back in trial court, the city sought a motion for summary judgment arguing the legal principle of res judicata prevented the drivers from suing without first using the appeals process. In February 2013, the court granted partial summary judgment to the drivers in a two-line entry that set a hearing for later in the month to consider class-action certification and to appoint counsel for the class. At the class-certification hearing, the city did not raise the res judicata doctrine when opposing the approval of the class, and the court found the plaintiffs met the seven requirements of Ohio court rules to be considered a class.

This time the city appealed the case to the Eighth District arguing the drivers failed to meet the requirements to sue as a class and that res judicata prevented the case from moving forward. The appellate court ruled the drivers met the class certification and the case could proceed. The city then filed an interlocutory appeal with the Supreme Court arguing that res judicata prevents the drivers who failed to appeal from suing.

Majority Finds Court Without Jurisdiction to Decide Issue
Justice French wrote that Cleveland did not contest the certification of the class action to the Supreme Court, and stated that the city never raised the issue of res judicata at the proceeding to certify the class. Because of that, there was no final, appealable order by the trial court on the issue of res judicata, and the Court would not address it.

Justice French explained that under Article IV of the Ohio Constitution, appellate courts have jurisdiction to “review and affirm, modify or reverse judgments or finals orders” of lower courts. In the absence of a final order, an appeals court or the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction, she wrote. She added that appellate courts are limited to reviewing issues actually decided by the trial court. In this case, the Court found that only the certification of the class by the trial court was a final, appealable order.

“That order, however addresses only whether plaintiffs met the seven (court rule) requirements to maintain a class action. It contains no findings or discussion pertaining to res judicata or the preclusive effect of Cleveland’s administrative process. Therefore, it provides no basis for reviewing the res judicata question in this appeal,” Justice French wrote.

She noted the city suggested the trial court’s granting of the class certification implies that it rejected its res judicata argument because one of the seven factors to be considered for certification is “typicality.” To meet the typicality standard, Lycan and the other named plaintiffs had to have essentially the same legal arguments as all the other members. In this case, the class was all motorists with leases who were ticketed before the law was amended in 2009, including those who appealed.

Justice French concluded the two-line judgment of the trial court allowing the case to proceed did not address the issue of res judicata, which means it cannot be deemed a final judgment that can be used by the city to appeal the issue.

Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and William M. O’Neill concurred in the opinion as did Eleventh District Court of Appeals Judge Cynthia W. Rice sitting on assignment for Justice Terrence O’Donnell.

Dissenting Justices Argue Issue Can Be Considered
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy noted the civil rules do not require any special language to be used by a trial court when certifying a class, but the court is required to “undertake a rigorous analysis,” before the class is certified which might include probing the merits of the claim before deciding.  Because the trial court specifically rejected the city's res judicata claim when ruling on the motion to certify the class, the matter was properly before the Eighth District and the Supreme Court can consider the issue on appeal, she concluded.

Cleveland raised the defense of res judicata when it made a motion for summary judgment, and the trial court rejected its argument. The trial court explicitly relied on its decision to reject this argument when it certified the class. Justice Kennedy pointed to the fact that the trial court made a typicality finding, which required the judge to decide if the named plaintiffs who did not appeal the tickets could lead the lawsuit. Those class members who did not appeal might have their damage claims defeated by the city’s res judicata argument while those who did appeal would not be subjected to it. That would lead to the class members having different legal arguments, and would fail to meet the typicality prerequisite to proceed as a class, she noted.

“In granting the motion for partial summary judgment, the trial court issued a one-sentence order. While the order did not contain any findings of fact or conclusion of law, a logical conclusion is that the trial court rejected both of the city’s defenses,” she wrote. The trial court referred to this decision when it certified the class action.

By referring to the one sentence summary judgment order in the class certification order, Cleveland’s defense of res judicata was included in the class certification order. The Eighth District did not make a mistake when it addressed this issue, and the Supreme Court should consider this issue on appeal, she concluded.

Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger joined the dissent, and Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor dissented separately without an opinion.

2014-0358. Lycan v. Cleveland, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-422.

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