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Plate v. Johnson

United States District Court, N.D. Ohio, Western Division

July 25, 2018

Richard William Plate, Administrator of the Estate of Scott Allyn Plate, Plaintiff
Charles Johnson, et al., Defendants



         This case under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 arises from the death of Scott Allyn Plate (Scott), a detainee at the Lucas County, Ohio, Jail who died while in custody.

         In August, 2013, officers from the Toledo Police Department arrested Scott twice within a seven-hour span. After the second arrest, officers booked Scott into the county jail pending his arraignment. There, according to the complaint, Scott told jail officials that he suffered from a seizure disorder. He also told defendant Charles Johnson, a Deputy Sheriff, that he felt a seizure coming on, but Johnson failed to secure medical treatment. Scott died in his cell.

         Two years later, Scott's father Richard Plate (Richard) applied to the Probate Court of Sandusky County, Ohio, for authority to administer his son's estate.

         Under Ohio law, only the probate court of the county in which a decedent resided at the time of death may appoint an administrator. O.R.C. § 2113.01; State ex rel. Lee v. Trumbull Cnty. Probate Court, 83 Ohio St.3d 369, 372-73 (1998). Richard's application stated that his son resided at Richard's home in Sandusky County, and the probate court appointed Richard as the administrator.

         Richard then filed this § 1983 suit in his capacity as the estate administrator. He alleges that Johnson was deliberately indifferent to Scott's medical needs, and that Lucas County and its Sheriff are liable for the constitutional violation under the rule of Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978).

         Pending is the defendants' motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. (Doc. 59).

         The gravamen of the motion is that Scott did not, in fact, reside in Sandusky County at the time of his death. Defendants argue that the Sandusky County Probate Court therefore had no power to appoint Richard to administer the estate, that the estate is “void ab initio, and in turn this Court has no subject matter jurisdiction over the pending action.” (Doc. 60 at 24).

         Because the validity of the appointment order affects only Richard's capacity to sue, and not my subject-matter jurisdiction, I deny the motion to dismiss. I also order further briefing as described below.


         A. Scott's Residency

         Scott Plate was born in Adrian, Michigan. (Doc. 63 at 93).

         After attending college in Iowa, Scott returned to Michigan and, in 1995, married Kathleen Jiles. (Id. at 96). They lived together in Jackson County, Michigan, until early 2009, when their divorce proceedings concluded. (Id. at 38). (Before the divorce decree issued, Scott also lived for a period of time with his mother, Susan Plate, in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Doc. 73-6 at 24)). A significant factor in the couple's divorce was Scott's alcoholism. (Doc. 73-6 at 21).

         Sometime in 2010, Scott moved into his father's home in Bellevue, a city in Sandusky County, Ohio. (Doc. 73-6 at 24). Scott had his own apartment in the house. (Id.). According to Richard, Scott kept important documents - tax returns, court orders relating to his child-support obligations, his college diploma - at the Bellevue residence. (Id. at 15).

         Between 2010 and 2012, Scott lived at different times: 1) with his mother in Brooklyn, Michigan; 2) with his father in Bellevue, Ohio; 3) in various places in Port Clinton, Ohio and Sandusky, Ohio (which is the seat of Erie County, Ohio); and 4) at homeless shelters in Ohio and Michigan. (Doc. 73-6 at 35, 36). Scott also spent time at a number of rehabilitation facilities, receiving treatment for his drinking problem.

         It appears that, in early 2012, Scott was living in Jackson County, Michigan. In January, for example, he spent time in the Jackson County jail after an arrest for not paying child support. (Doc. 63 at 65). The next month, Scott was badly injured in a fight in Jackson, Michigan. He spent three weeks at the University of Michigan Hospital, in Ann Arbor, after undergoing a hemicraniectomy. (Id. at 71-72).

         In late February, 2012, Scott moved into the Arbors of Waterville, a rehabilitation facility in Waterville, Lucas County, Ohio. When he checked in, he gave his “last permanent address” as his mother's home in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Id. at 77). Scott remained at the Arbors until April 4, 2013, when he moved back to his father's home in Bellevue. He lived with Richard for only two weeks. He left Bellevue, took a job in Michigan, and moved into his mother's home in Brooklyn. (Doc. 63 at 16-17).

         After the move, Scott returned to the Bellevue house only twice before his death: once to show his father his new car, and once to visit with his new boss. (Id. at 17).

         Back in Michigan, meanwhile, Scott received mail at his mother's house, opened a bank account at a Bank of America branch in Brooklyn (Doc. 63 at 121, 123), and bought and registered a car in Brooklyn (id. at 136, 138, 144). All of the paperwork associated with these events indicates that Scott considered his then-current address to be his mother's home in Brooklyn. Then, in early June, 2013, sheriff's deputies arrested Scott in Jackson, Michigan, for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. (Id. at 84).

         From that date until Scott's death in late August, Scott's dwelling place becomes harder to pin down.

         Between June and August, 2013, Scott was hospitalized several times in Toledo and Port Clinton for issues relating to his alcoholism. (Id. at 116) (June 18, 2013 hospitalization in Toledo); (id. at 168) (August 4, 2013 hospitalization in Port Clinton); (id. at 157-60) (emergency medical assistance provided in Toledo on August 11, 2013). Associated medical records indicated that Scott was either “homeless” (id. at 169), did not have a “local residence” (id. at 168), or had “mov[ed] out of state” - i.e., moved out of Ohio (id. at 116). Documentary evidence also establishes that he spent the nights of July 31, August 1, and August 2 at a motel in Port Clinton. (Id. at 172-73).

         When, on August 24, 2013, Toledo police officers twice arrested and twice brought Scott to the Lucas County Jail, Scott told the jail's intake officer that he lived in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Doc. 60 at 10; see also Doc. 60, Exh. N).

         At the same time, Scott also told the officer that his name was “Eric Plate, ” which is his brother's name. (Doc. 91 at 12). It also appears that Scott was intoxicated at the time of his first arrest. As defendants concede, “he spent 4 hours in the detox cell” after that arrest, which involved charges of public intoxication. (Doc. 60 at 6-7).

         B. Probate Proceedings

         On August 18, 2015, Richard, acting through counsel - and apparently believing that Scott was a Sandusky County resident when he died - applied to the Sandusky County Probate Court for authority to administer his son's estate. (Doc. 63 at 28-30).

         Richard's application, which stated that Scott resided at Richard's home in Bellevue, advised the probate court that:

This estate is being opened solely to pursue a potential wrongful death claim. The estate has no assets or liabilities to be probated. The case is rapidly approaching the statute of limitations and counsel needs to file the case no later than August 25, 2015. This case was just brought to counsel last week on Friday, August 7.

(Id. at 29).

         The application represented that the beneficiaries of Scott's estate knew about the probate proceeding and the anticipated wrongful-death claim. (Id.). Likewise, Scott's mother and his three children (acting through their mother, Scott's ex-wife Kathleen) waived their rights to administer the estate. (Id. at 30).

         In an order filed on August 20, the Probate Court appointed Richard the administrator of Scott's estate and issued him letters of authority. (Doc. 91-2 at 2). Richard then brought this suit on August 24, one day before the two-year limitations period for the § 1983 claims expired. See Ferrito v. Cuyahoga Cnty., 2018 WL 1757410, *3 (N.D. Ohio 2018) (Boyko, J.).

         As far as the Probate Court's online docket indicates, that court is unaware of the dispute that has arisen in this case about the validity of the appointment order.

         Standard of Review

         Defendants purport to bring a factual attack on my subject-matter jurisdiction to adjudicate this case. (Doc. 60 at 10-13).

         “A factual attack . . . raises a factual controversy requiring the district court to weigh the conflicting evidence to arrive at the factual predicate that subject-matter [jurisdiction] does or does not exist.” Wayside Church v. Van Buren Cnty., 847 F.3d 812, 817 (6th Cir. 2017) (internal quotation marks omitted). In such a case, “the district court has wide discretion to allow affidavits, documents, and even a limited evidentiary hearing to resolve jurisdictional facts.” Gentek Bldg. Prods, Inc. v. Sherwin-Williams, Co., 491 F.3d 320, 330 (6th Cir. 2007).

         The “factual controversy” that supposedly affects my subject-matter jurisdiction here is Scott's residence at the time of his death.

         In State ex rel. Lee, supra, 83 Ohio St.3d at 372-73, the Ohio Supreme Court characterized O.R.C. ยง 2113.01, which governs the appointment of administrators for an intestate decedent's estate, as a grant of subject-matter jurisdiction to the probate court to administer the ...

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