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Coleman v. Cuyahoga County Department of Health & Human Services

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District

September 5, 2013

JAMES S. COLEMAN PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT
v.
CUYAHOGA COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES DEFENDANT-APPELLEE

Administrative Appeal from the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Case No. CV-790534

ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT Kimberly Kendall

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE Donald C. Bulea Giffin & Kaminski, L.L.C., Amy E. Mar quit Renwald Assistant Law Director Cuyahoga County Department of Law

BEFORE: Stewart, A.J., Keough, J., and McCormack, J.

JOURNAL ENTRY AND OPINION

MELODY J. STEWART, ADMINISTRATIVE JUDGE

(¶ 1} This accelerated-calendar appeal, brought pursuant to App.R. 11.1 and Loc.R. 11.1, raises an issue concerning the scope of a court of common pleas review of an administrative employment suspension under R.C. 2506.04. Appellee Cuyahoga County of Department of Health and Human Services, Employment Division (the "department") terminated employee-appellant James Coleman after he admitted to allowing non-authorized personnel to access his computer and unique user identification code. The Cuyahoga County Human Resources Commission (the "commission") modified the termination to a 15-month suspension. Coleman's sole issue on administrative appeal to the court was that the length of his suspension was unreasonable because there were mitigating circumstances for his conduct, and that the length of his suspension was arbitrarily dictated by the delay caused in establishing a new human resources commission following the reformation of county government. The court ruled that "the issue as to whether appellant's suspension was unreasonably long is outside the purview of this court's review, " found that the evidence supported the commission's decision to convert the termination into a suspension, and affirmed.

(¶ 2} Coleman argues that the court applied the wrong standard of review and erred by concluding that it could not review the length of the suspension. He maintains that the court should have weighed all of the evidence, most importantly his evidence in mitigation of his conduct.

(¶ 3} This administrative appeal is governed by R.C. 2506.04. Our review of an R.C. 2506.04 appeal is limited solely to questions of law, not the weighing of any facts or evidence. Henley v. Bd. of Zoning Appeals, 90 Ohio St.3d 142, 147, 735 N.E.2d 433 (2000). As a matter of law, the trial court's review of an administrative appeal includes the authority to "affirm, reverse, vacate, or modify" the order or decision being appealed if that order is, among other things, illegal, arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable. See R.C. 2506.04.

(¶ 4} The court's judgment entry states in relevant part:

The court has reviewed appellant's brief and assignments of error, appellee's brief, appellant's reply, and the certified record. Based upon the statutory standard, the issue as to whether appellant's suspension was unreasonably long is outside the purview of this court's review. The court finds that the evidence supports the commission's decision to convert appellant's permanent employment termination to a 15-month suspension. The commission's decision as to the length of the suspension is affirmed.

(¶ 5} The court answered a question that no one raised and did not answer the single question that was raised. It unnecessarily decided that the commission did not err by converting the termination into a suspension. Coleman raised no argument that the commission erred by converting his termination into a suspension, nor would he have been expected to make that argument given the obvious benefit he derived from the conversion. The discussion involving the propriety of converting the termination into a suspension was unnecessary.

(¶ 6} The court did not answer the question presented — whether the commission abused its discretion by making the suspension last for 15 months — because the court determined that it lacked the authority to review or take any action with regard to the length of Coleman's suspension. This was erroneous as a matter of law.

(¶ 7} As the department concedes, R.C. 2506.04 specifically authorizes the court to modify an administrative decision. The court's authority to modify an administrative decision necessarily extends to determining whether the length of a disciplinary suspension is arbitrary or unreasonable.

(¶ 8} Coleman argued that there were mitigating circumstances that prompted his conduct and that the 15-month suspension was arbitrary because it directly correlated to the amount of time it took the newly-established commission to hear his appeal — in essence, he argues that the suspension was the administrative equivalent of "time served" but not based on his conduct, but on the length of the delay in hearing his appeal. Had the court believed it was allowed to consider these factors, it may well have concluded ...


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