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Meekins v. City of Oberlin

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District, Cuyahoga

April 5, 2018


          Civil Appeal from the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Case No. CV-16-869402

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT/CROSS-APPELLEE David L. Harvey Matthew B. Abens Jason T. Hartzell Harvey Abens Iosue, Co., L.P.A.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES/CROSS-APPELLANTS Abraham Cantor Johnnycake Commons, Jonathan D. Clark Law Director, City of Oberlin

          BEFORE: E.A. Gallagher, A.J., Boyle, J., and Keough, J.



         {¶1} Plaintiff-appellant/cross-appellee Matthew Meekins appeals from the trial court's decision granting summary judgment in favor of defendant-appellee/cross-appellant city of Oberlin ("Oberlin" or the "city") on Meekins' claims of false arrest/imprisonment and battery under state law and related federal claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983 ("Section 1983 claims"). Meekins contends that he was wrongfully arrested and prosecuted when the Oberlin Police Department failed to properly investigate false claims made by his son's mother that he had sent her threatening text messages and violated a civil protection order. Oberlin cross-appeals the denial of its motion to dismiss Meekins' complaint for failure to join an indispensable party under Civ.R. 19. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the trial court's judgment in favor of Oberlin as to Meekins' state-law claims, reverse the trial court's judgment in favor of Oberlin as to Meekins' claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983 and remand the matter for further proceedings.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         {¶2} Meekins and Kimberlee George were involved in a relationship and, in April 2015, had a son. Meekins' and George's relationship deteriorated and Meekins filed an action in the Lorain County Juvenile Court to establish paternity and obtain visitation with his son (the "juvenile court case").

         {¶3} On December 30, 2015, George obtained an ex parte domestic violence civil protection order from the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas based on her claim that Meekins had sent her threatening emails on November 17, 2015, and December 29, 2015. A full hearing on George's petition for a civil protection order was scheduled for January 14, 2016.

         {¶4} On January 3, 2016, George went to the Oberlin Police Department and claimed that Meekins had violated the civil protection order by sending her screen shots of prior text conversations that they had exchanged. George indicated that she wanted to pursue criminal charges against Meekins. Two days later, George returned to the Oberlin Police Department and indicated that her attorney had advised her to file a police report regarding the threatening emails she had allegedly received from Meekins in November and December 2015. George again indicated that she wanted to pursue criminal charges against Meekins.

         {¶5} After reviewing the allegations, the city prosecutor recommended charging Meekins with domestic violence in violation of R.C. 2919.25(C), and the Oberlin Police Department requested a warrant for Meekins' arrest on that charge. The Oberlin Municipal Court refused to grant the request finding a lack of probable cause due to the absence of "imminent" harm.

         {¶6} Meekins denied sending any threatening emails to George. In January 2016, he hired an expert to examine his cell phone and laptop in an attempt to determine the source of the email messages allegedly sent to George. The expert issued a report in which he concluded that the Google searches and locations associated with the email account from which the threatening emails were allegedly sent "more closely related" to George than Meekins. The expert further stated that this fact, combined with the "lack of corroborating artifacts" on Meekins' electronic devices, strongly suggested that Meekins did not send the emails (the "January 31, 2016 expert report"). The January 31, 2016 report was shared with George's counsel and, two days later, George dismissed her petition for a domestic violence civil protection order.

         {¶7} On March 22, 2016, a final pretrial was held in the juvenile court case. It was recommended that Meekins be granted regular visitation with his son. George refused to agree to visitation and a trial was scheduled for April 14, 2016.

         {¶8} The next day, George returned to the Oberlin Police Department and reported that she had received a series of texts, beginning on January 12, 2016, and continuing through March 16, 2016, from nine different phone numbers, the content of which threatened her and her son. George told Oberlin Patrol Officer Matthew Sustarsic that she believed the texts were from Meekins, who was either using a "burner" phone or was sending the texts by "spoofing" other telephone numbers. Officer Sustarsic testified that he reviewed the police report regarding the prior complaints George had made against Meekins and could not determine why no action had been taken on them. He testified that because he was the sole patrol officer on duty at the police department that day - as was the case "60 percent of the work week or so" - he was unable to contact Meekins or otherwise investigate George's complaint, other than to ask Oberlin Police Detective Jessica Beyer, who was more knowledgeable regarding electronic evidence, to explain"spoofing" to him. Later that afternoon, Officer Sustarsic executed an affidavit requesting an arrest warrant and complaints charging Meekins with one count of domestic violence in violation of R.C. 2919.25(C) and two counts of aggravated menacing in violation of R.C. 2903.21(A). The following morning, the affidavit and complaints were filed with the Oberlin Municipal Court and the court issued a warrant for Meekins' arrest. The Oberlin Municipal Court also granted George's request for an ex parte domestic violence temporary protection order. No one from the Oberlin Police Department attempted to contact Meekins or in any way investigate George's claims before a warrant was issued for his arrest.

         {¶9} On March 25, 2016, Meekins was arrested at his workplace, the Ritz Carlton, in Cleveland, Ohio and taken to the Lorain County jail. At his arraignment two days later, Meekins pled not guilty to the charges. He denied sending any threatening texts to George and provided the prosecutor with a copy of the January 31, 2016 expert report. On March 29, 2016, Meekins was released with a GMS monitoring device and was barred from entering the city of Oberlin.

         {¶10} On April 7, 2016, George again appeared at the Oberlin Police Department and alleged that Meekins had violated the protection order she had obtained on March 25, 2016. Detective Beyer took the report. Detective Beyer contacted Meekins who denied having any contact with George. The Oberlin Police Department subpoenaed Meekins' and George's cell phone records and took Meekins' cell phone for safekeeping, noting that George was not to be made aware that Meekins had turned over his cell phone to the police. On May 3, 2016, Detective Beyer sent a report to the prosecutor detailing the results of her review of the subpoenaed records. She noted that George's cell phone records showed more calls between George and Meekins than Meekins' cell phone records reflected and that their cell service provider had advised Beyer that this was because the calls were "spoofed" to make it appear as if the calls were coming from Meekins when, in fact, they did not originate from his phone. Beyer also noted that George had been asked several times to allow her phone to be forensically examined but that she refused to consent to such a search.

         {¶11} The following day, the city prosecutor filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Meekins, asserting that "there is substantial doubt about whether the defendant was the author of the threatening texts which were the basis of the pending charges." The prosecutor detailed the facts giving rise to the "uncertainty" and stated that, given this uncertainty, the city did not wish to pursue the charges at this time. The prosecutor indicated, however, that "[further evidence or investigation may clarify the facts giving rise to the ...

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