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Employee Intentional Tort Suit Against Public Employer May Fall Within Exception to Sovereign Immunity

In Cases Where Worker's Claim 'Arises Out of Employment Relationship'

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2010-1561. Sampson v. Cuyahoga Metro. Hous. Auth., Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-570.
Cuyahoga App. No. 93441, 188 Ohio App.3d 250, 2010-Ohio-3415. Judgment of the court of appeals affirmed.
O'Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Donnell, Cupp, and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.
Lanzinger, J., concurs in judgment only.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2012/2012-Ohio-570.pdf

Video clip View oral argument video of this case.

(Feb. 16, 2012) The Supreme Court of Ohio held today that when an employee of a political subdivision brings a civil lawsuit against the subdivision alleging an intentional tort (a deliberate harmful act), that lawsuit may fall within an exception to Ohio’s sovereign immunity statute for matters “that arise out of the employment relationship.”  The court also held that an employee’s suit “arises out of the employment relationship” if there is a causal connection or relationship between the claims raised by the employee and the employment relationship.

Applying that analysis to a Cleveland case, the Court voted 7-0 to affirm a ruling by the 8th District Court of Appeals that the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) was not entitled to summary judgment dismissing intentional tort claims asserted against the agency by a former employee, Darrell Sampson. Sampson’s claims were based on the agency’s actions in having him arrested at a meeting attended by all employees of his department, suspended and later fired from his job, exposed to damaging media publicity and criminally prosecuted based on CMHA-initiated charges of theft of public property that were later dismissed by a court and found by a collective bargaining  arbitrator to have been unsupported by the evidence.

The Court’s decision was authored by Justice Robert R. Cupp.

In his complaint filed in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, Sampson asserted claims against CMHA for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, abuse of process, and negligent misidentification. CMHA obtained judgment on the pleadings dismissing the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. The agency subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment dismissing all of Sampson’s remaining claims, arguing that the agency was immune from civil liability for those claims under R.C. Chapter 2744, the Political Subdivision Tort Liability Act. 

The trial court denied Sampson’s argument that his claims fell under the exception to political subdivision immunity set forth in R.C. 2744.09(B) for “matters arising out of the employment relationship.”  However, the court denied CMHA’s summary judgment motion based on a finding that a material question of fact remained regarding whether CMHA’s conduct fell under a different statutory exception to immunity  for “wanton” or “reckless” conduct.

CMHA appealed the denial of its summary judgment motion.  On review, the 8th District upheld the judgment of the trial court, but did so based on the court of appeals’ conclusion that Sampson’s claims fell within the R.C. 2744.09(B) exception to immunity for claims arising out of the employment relationship.  That decision was subsequently upheld by a majority vote of the full court of appeals in an en banc rehearing. CMHA sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the 8th District’s ruling.

In today’s decision affirming the court of appeals, Justice Cupp began by declining to apply a line of prior court decisions, starting with Blankenship v. Cincinnati Milacron Chemicals Inc. (1982), in which this Court considered whether employees were barred by a provision of the state’s workers’ compensation laws, R.C. 4123.74, from bringing intentional tort claims against their employers arising from workplace injuries. Blankenship and subsequent decisions held that a deliberate act of an employer that intentionally causes harm to a worker does not “arise from the employment relationship” for workers’ compensation purposes. Justice Cupp declined to extend the analysis of those prior court decisions to the state’s political subdivision immunity statute.

He wrote: “The similarity of the phrase ‘relative to any matter that arises out of the employment relationship’ in R.C. 2744.09(B) to the language of R.C. 4123.74 does not justify importing Blankenship’s analysis. R.C. 2744.09(B) is designed to protect employees by allowing them to recover against their employers, who would otherwise be entitled to immunity under R.C. Chapter 2744. To undo those protections in cases of the worst of employer misconduct would violate the language and frustrate the purpose of the provision.”

“...(T)he context of political-subdivision immunity is different from that in a workers’ compensation circumstance. ... The Workers’ Compensation Act that we know today is the result of (a) balancing of interests: workers relinquish their common-law remedies in exchange for a more certain recovery, while employers relinquish common-law defenses in exchange for a more limited liability. ... Unlike the Workers’ Compensation Act, R.C. Chapter 2744 is not the result of any bargain between employer and employee because the employer-employee relationship is not its subject.  Rather, R.C. 2744.09(B) was enacted in the context of political-subdivision immunity. 

“Upon consideration of the differences between workers’ compensation and political-subdivision tort immunity policies, we decline to incorporate the Blankenship rationale and corresponding line of cases into a political-subdivision immunity circumstance and the exception contained in R.C. 2744.09(B).”

Having concluded that intentional tort actions such as Sampson’s may fall within the exception to political subdivision immunity for matters that “arise from the employment relationship,” Justice Cupp reviewed the facts alleged in Sampson’s complaint, and concluded that they could lead reasonable minds to conclude that Sampson’s claims arose out of his employment relationship with CMHA, and therefore were sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment.

Justice Cupp wrote:  “First, the record contains evidence that the alleged tort arose from an accusation by the employer that the employee had stolen from the employer by using the employer-owned gasoline credit cards for personal needs. ... Second, Sampson presented evidence that the investigation of CMHA employees was conducted entirely by CMHA police, based on CMHA documents. Third, Sampson adduced evidence that his arrest occurred at a CMHA-called mandatory meeting of all CMHA employees as a part of their regular CMHA work day. ... Fourth, Sampson presented evidence that his arrest by CMHA police employees was publicized by CMHA at the mandatory meeting and through a subsequent press release and press conference. The timing of the arrest was intended to send a message of deterrence to other employees of CMHA.  Fifth, Sampson’s evidence shows that he was terminated from his employment by CMHA, that he grieved the termination through his CMHA and union arbitration agreement, and that he was reinstated by CMHA.”

“All in all, the facts, supported by the evidence, could lead reasonable minds to conclude that Sampson’s civil action arose from the employment relationship and, therefore, is excepted from immunity under R.C. 2744.09(B). ... In view of the foregoing analysis, we conclude that the appellate court properly determined that reasonable minds could conclude that the claims in Sampson’s civil action, if proven, are matters that arise out of the employment relationship between Sampson and CMHA and, that pursuant to R.C. 2744.09(B), CMHA is not entitled to the immunity provided by R.C. Chapter 2744.  Accordingly, the judgment of the court of appeals is affirmed.”

Justice Cupp’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Terrence O’Donnell and Yvette McGee Brown.

Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger concurred in judgment only, and entered a separate opinion stating her view that, by enacting R.C. 2745.01, which redefines “intentional tort,” the General Assembly rejected the “artificial” theory set forth in the Blankenship cases that intentional torts arise outside the employment relationship and cannot be received in the course of employment.  She stated, “I believe that in this case we are acknowledging that an intentional tort, as it has been redefined by statute, may indeed arise in the course of employment. The legal fiction that such a tort arises outside of the employment relationship should be put to rest, and language that was invoked initially to broaden workers’ recovery should not now be used to immunize political subdivisions.”

Justice Lanzinger concluded: “Because R.C. 2744.09(B) removes the protection of immunity for a political-subdivision employer for injuries to its employees that arise out of the employment relationship, a political subdivision is at risk for liability in intentional-tort suits that satisfy the terms of R.C. 2745.01. If the General Assembly wishes to expand immunity to protect the political-subdivision employer and leave only the individual tortfeasor liable, as appellants argue is the legislative intent, then the General Assembly must amend the statute to do so.”

Contacts
Stephen W. Funk, 330.376.2700, for Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.

Nancy C. Schuster, 216.348.1100, for Darrell Sampson.