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Court News Ohio

Cuyahoga County Not Immune from Lawsuit Filed by Fired Employee

Political subdivisions are not immune from lawsuits by former employees as long as the worker’s claim is connected to the “employment relationship” with the government body, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court rejected Cuyahoga County’s argument that it was immune from a false-light invasion of privacy claim by Marcella King Piazza, who alleged that former County Executive Ed FitzGerald created the impression she was tied to a political scandal revealed in 2010 when he issued a press release regarding the termination of Piazza and two others.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Judith L. French wrote that R.C. 2744.09(B) is an exception to the general principle that government bodies are immune from civil lawsuits. The law applies to actions “relative to any matter that arises out of the employment relationship between the employee and the political subdivision,” the opinion stated. The law does not require that the person must be a current employee, as the county argued. The opinion stated that the county’s interpretation would encourage government bodies to terminate employees after an incident occurred to avoid being sued.

“It is unreasonable to presume the General Assembly intended to incentivize an employer to terminate an employee who may have an employment-related claim to preserve its entitlement to political subdivision immunity,” Justice French wrote.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Michael P. Donnelly joined Justice French’s opinion, as did Second District Court of Appeals Judge Jeffrey E. Froehlich, sitting for Justice Melody J. Stewart.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Patrick F. Fischer wrote the statute clearly states that the exception from immunity applies only to lawsuits filed by employees and Piazza was not an employee at the time she filed her lawsuit in 2015.

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and R. Patrick DeWine joined Justice Fischer’s dissent.

The decision affirmed the Eighth District’s judgment that the county does not have immunity, and returned the matter to the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court for further proceedings.

Worker Sues after Article Links Her to Scandal
Piazza began working as an office manager for the Cuyahoga County Board of Revision (BOR) in 2003. In June 2010, the Cleveland Plain Dealer began to publish a series of articles about the BOR, which the newspaper would later describe as having “unearthed rampant mismanagement, deplorable work habits, questionable tax breaks, favors for the connected and violations of state law.”

About two months after the articles began, Piazza was transferred to the county’s Department of Justice Affairs. In March 2011, FitzGerald fired Piazza and two other county employees who previously worked at the BOR under the former county administration. His administration issued a press release in which FitzGerald was quoted as stating, “Today three people have been terminated from employment with Cuyahoga County due to the reorganization of the County Board[] of Revision.”

Within 90 minutes of being fired, Piazza received a telephone call from a Plain Dealer reporter and she refused to comment. About 30 minutes later, the newspaper published an article on its website with the headline, “Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald fires three employees tied to board of revision scandal.” The article stated that three employees lost their job “because of the extensive dysfunction and mismanagement” uncovered by the newspaper.

Later that day the Plain Dealer published a second article quoting FitzGerald saying he “couldn’t justify keeping reassigned board of revision workers in new positions.” The article included a photo of Piazza that the county supplied.

Piazza initially filed a false-light invasion of privacy lawsuit against the county and the Plain Dealer in October 2013. She voluntarily dismissed the complaint and refiled in August 2015. She claimed the statement by FitzGerald and the articles created a false inference that she was involved in the BOR corruption scandal.

County Claims Immunity
The county requested summary judgment from the trial court, arguing it was immune from liability under R.C. 2744.02(A) and that Piazza failed to file her lawsuit in the time allowed. The trial court denied the request and stated that political subdivision immunity does not apply to Piazza’s claim because it arose from her employment relationship with the county.

The county appealed to the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which only addressed the question of immunity. In a 2-1 decision, the Eighth District affirmed the trial court’s rejection of the immunity protection.

The county appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Court Examines Immunity Clause
The majority opinion stated that the county’s argument is that exception to immunity does not apply when a former employee of a political subdivision files a lawsuit based on an action that “accrued” or took place after the employee no longer was employed by the government body. The county argued that it terminated Piazza, then issued the press release and gave the interviews to the Plain Dealer, which made Piazza a former employee at the time she alleges the county made the false claims.

The Court explained that R.C. Chapter 2744 establishes a comprehensive set of rules regarding immunity for political subdivisions, and, in general, political subdivisions are not liable for damages in civil lawsuits for injury, death, or loss to person or property. The chapter then provides several exceptions when government bodies can be held liable in civil lawsuits, including R.C. 2744.09(B). The provision states that immunity does not apply to civil actions by an employee against the political subdivision “relative to any matter that arises out of the employment relationship between the employee and the political subdivision.”

Justice French wrote the case poses the question of whether R.C. 2744.09(B) requires an ongoing relationship between the employee and the government, either at the time of the incident that caused the injury, or at the time the lawsuit was filed. The Court also had to determine if Piazza’s false-light claim “is relative to a matter that arises out of her employment relationship with the county.”

While the county argued the law is written to apply only to current employees, the majority found the phrasing of the law relates to whether the incident that led to injury happened at a time when there was a “causal connection between the employment and the injury.”

In several sections of the Ohio Revised Code, the opinion noted when lawmakers intended a law to apply only to current employees it uses words such as “in the course of” or “during the course of” employment. In the immunity exception, the legislature used the broader “relative to any matter that arises out of an employment relationship.”

The opinion also noted that no lower court examining R.C. 2744.09(B) has ever concluded that the lawsuit must be filed while the employee is still employed by the political subdivision. The Court majority cited R.C. 1.47(C), which states the General Assembly presumes that state laws are intended to have a “just and reasonable result.”

Citing the Eleventh District Court of Appeals’ 2006 Fleming v. Ashtabula Area City School Bd. of Edn. decision, the Court stated that adopting the county’s position would lead to the unreasonable result of encouraging the termination of an employee injured on the job in order to be immune from a future lawsuit.

“In accord with the prior decisions cited above and to avoid the unreasonable results that would arise from a contrary ruling, we hold that R.C. 2744.09(B) does not require that a plaintiff have been employed by the political subdivision at the time she filed her lawsuit,” the opinion stated.

Workers Claims Arose from Employment Matter
The county claimed that the information it provided to the newspaper was accurate and that Piazza cannot argue that its action resulted in an injury to her reputation that was connected to her employment with the county.

The majority opinion clarified that it was not judging the merits of Piazza’s claim, but considered only whether Piazza is entitled to argue her case to a trial court.

The opinion noted that Piazza’s claims against the county concern the statements FitzGerald and his administration made to the media at about the same time the county fired her. She claims the statements falsely connected her termination to the BOR scandal.

The Court ruled that termination of employment is a matter that rises out of the employment relationship, and that the only relationship between Piazza and FitzGerald was that of employment.

“Neither Piazza’s termination nor FitzGerald’s statement explaining why she was terminated could have occurred absent an employment relationship between Piazza and the county,” the opinion stated.

County Immune from Lawsuits by Former Employees, Dissent Concluded
In his dissent, Justice Fischer wrote that R.C. 2744.09(B) is unambiguous and the exception to immunity applies only if the plaintiff is an employee of the political subdivision at the time the plaintiff files the lawsuit.

The dissent stated that the definition of “employee,” as it pertains to R.C. Chapter 2744, is written in R.C. 2744.01(B), and that definition applies to the entire chapter, including R.C. 2744.09(B).

“The General Assembly has defined ‘employee’ as an individual who has existing authority to act and who is acting (present tense) within the scope of his or her employment — thus someone who is currently employed by the political subdivision,” the dissent stated.

The dissent also maintained that applying the plain language of the statute does not lead to an unreasonable result, which would be one that goes beyond the limits of fairness or is contrary to reason. The law, as written, entitles political subdivisions to immunity from lawsuits by former employees, the dissent stated.

“While this consequence might be undesirable for Piazza and other former employees of political subdivisions, it is not unreasonable, illogical, and/or unfair,” the dissent concluded.

2017-1649. Piazza V. Cuyahoga Cty., Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-2049.

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Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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