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Washington v. Department of Rehabilitation and Correction

Court of Claims of Ohio

May 12, 2017


          Sent to S.C. Reporter 6/23/17

          Christopher P. Conomy Assistant Attorney General.


          ROBERT VAN SCHOYCK Magistrate.

         {¶1} Plaintiff, who at all times relevant was an inmate in the custody and control of defendant, brings this action claiming that employees of defendant at the Warren Correctional Institution (WCI) defamed him. Specifically, plaintiff alleges that Assistant Healthcare Administrator Jennifer Otto told third parties that plaintiff was a thief, and that employees Rhonda Stegemoller and "Sky" "gave third parties the impression that Plaintiff is a sexual pervert by telling them that Plaintiff 'gives [them] the creeps' and that they do not feel safe around him." The case proceeded to trial before the undersigned magistrate.

         {¶2} At trial, plaintiff testified that he had a work assignment as a porter in the infirmary at WCI, which involved cleaning and housekeeping duties. At first the job went well and he received no complaints about his work, plaintiff stated. According to plaintiff, problems started to develop when Otto, his supervisor, changed his normal work hours from the second shift to the first shift. Plaintiff explained that this came about because the first shift porter, an inmate Jeffrey Kibler, quit and walked off the job one day, but Otto followed up with Kibler and worked out a solution under which Kibler would move to the second shift and plaintiff would move to the first shift.

         {¶3} Plaintiff stated that he did not like to work the first shift because he did not get along well with the corrections officer who worked in the infirmary during those hours, and because there was more work to do on the first shift. Plaintiff stated that he told Otto that he did not want to move to the first shift, but that she told him he could quit if he did not like it. Plaintiff testified that Kibler was treated more favorably and that it was not fair to him, and that he complained to Otto about her accommodating Kibler's wishes but not his own. Plaintiff stated that he felt Otto or others were putting him in a bad situation intentionally, and that after he complained about it the staff treated him poorly. Plaintiff testified that the staff talked about him behind his back and disrespected him.

         {¶4} It was plaintiffs testimony that even after moving to the first shift, he got his work done and did not have a bad attitude, but he also stated that the staff could not have expected him to talk to them much when they treated him so poorly. Plaintiff also stated that at times there were not adequate cleaning supplies for him to use, and that it was challenging for him to perform the job because he suffered a broken left hand, being his dominant hand, around the same time that he moved to the first shift.

         {¶5} Plaintiff testified that he was eventually warned by a corrections officer that prison officials were going to "come after him." About one week later, plaintiff stated, his unit manager informed him that he had been given a poor performance evaluation, a copy of which was presented to him for his signature. Plaintiff related that the unit manager also asked him some questions at that time about a bag of syringes or needles that had apparently gone missing from the infirmary. According to plaintiff, he knew nothing about the needles and never had access to them, and any accusation that he had stolen the needles would have been false.

         {¶6} Plaintiff testified that when he went to work later that same day, he asked Otto why he was being accused of stealing needles but Otto denied that anyone had accused him of doing that. Plaintiff also acknowledged that he was never brought up on any formal charges before the Rules Infraction Board pertaining to any theft accusation. Plaintiff related, though, that he believes word spread around WCI that he had stolen the needles.

         {¶7} According to plaintiff, he tried to get a job somewhere else in the prison but no one would hire him, and he felt that it was because he had been given a bad name. To that end, plaintiff testified that in addition to the matter about the needles, he was informed by a corrections officer in the infirmary that an employee there named Rhonda had said plaintiff "was creeping her out." Plaintiff testified that there was no basis for a comment like that because he was respectful to the staff and left them alone, other than to say hello when he reported for work.

         {¶8} Plaintiff stated that he was ultimately fired from his job, but that defendant later transferred him to the Madison Correctional Institution, where he obtained a comparable job as a porter in the infirmary at that institution.

         {¶9} Jennifer Otto testified that she is employed by defendant as the Assistant Healthcare Administrator at WCI, and that in this role she is responsible for hiring and supervising the inmate porters assigned to the infirmary. According to Otto, plaintiffs job performance started out satisfactorily but worsened over time, and the decline began long before plaintiff injured his hand.

         {¶10} Otto testified that on September 3, 2015, she completed an Inmate Evaluation Report in which she assessed, on a scale of 1 (poor) to 10 (excellent), several aspects of plaintiffs job performance as follows: Attitude (2); Initiative (1); Quality/Quantity (2); Attendance (5); Dependability (5); Safety/Housekeeping (2); Increasing Knowledge/Skills (2). Otto testified that she also wrote the following comments: "Inmate Washington lacks motivation, initiative, and has a poor attitude when given instructions. The quality of his work is poor. Washington's shift and days off have changed to weekend relief porter-Saturday and Sunday, 1st and 2nd shift. Even after this change in schedule the Nurses report to me that he does not do any work unless instructed exactly what to do." (Defendant's Exhibit B.) Otto stated that she subsequently fired plaintiff from his job as a porter in the infirmary because of his poor initiative.

         {¶11} According to Otto, she never told anyone that plaintiff had stolen anything or engaged in any kind of inappropriate sexual conduct. Otto explained that if she had suspected an inmate of taking needles from the infirmary, the process to be followed was to notify the shift supervisor, and ...

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