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Lampela v. Village of Put-In-Bay

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Sixth District, Ottawa

June 21, 2019

Robert D. Lampela Appellant
v.
Village of Put-In-Bay, Ohio Appellees

          Trial Court No. 15 CV 256

          Thomas A. Sobekci, for appellant.

          Susan Keating Anderson and Max V. Rieker, for appellees.

          DECISION AND JUDGMENT

          OSOWIK, J.

         {¶ 1} This is an appeal from a judgment of the Ottawa County Court of Common Pleas which affirmed the decision of appellee to remove appellant from the office of appellee's village marshal. For the reasons set forth below, this court affirms the judgment of the trial court.

         {¶ 2} Effective on August 11, 2015, defendant-appellee, Village of Put-In-Bay, Ohio, removed plaintiff-appellant, Robert D. Lampela, from the office of village marshal. Appellee previously brought seven charges against appellant pursuant to R.C. 737.171 arising from criminal charges against appellant for violations of R.C. 2921.13(A)(1), 2921.44(B), and 2903.21(A). These criminal charges were brought by the Ohio Attorney General, who investigated public corruption allegations involving appellant. Separately, this court reversed the trial court's sole conviction of appellant for disorderly conduct. State v. Lampela, 2016-Ohio-8007, 67 N.E.3d 836 (6th Dist).

         {¶ 3} Appellant timely appealed appellee's decision to the Ottawa County Court of Common Pleas pursuant to R.C. 2506.01(A). Following a two-day "bench trial" pursuant to R.C. 2506.03, the common pleas court affirmed appellee's decision on April 3, 2018.

         {¶ 4} Appellant then filed this appeal setting forth two assignments of error:

I. The trial court erred when it failed to conduct the evidentiary analysis required by O.R.C. § 2506.04 and to generate an entry capable of review by the Court of Appeals, because the trial court's Decision and Judgment Entry provides inadequate analysis to permit an appellate court to provide meaningful review of the decision. Decision And Judgment Entry at 1-3.
II. The trial court erred in finding the decision of the Village to be supported by a preponderance of reliable, probative, and substantial evidence. Decision And Judgment Entry at 3.

         I. Standard of Review

         {¶ 5} We review a decision by a common pleas court on appeal from a final administrative order for a question of law. Stanton v. Jerusalem Twp., 6th Dist. Lucas Nos. L-13-1197, L-14-1070, 2015-Ohio-463, ¶ 4; R.C. 2506.04 ("The judgment of the court may be appealed by any party on questions of law * * *."). We review a question of law de novo. Cleveland Clinic Found. v. Bd of Zoning Appeals, 141 Ohio St.3d 318, 2014-Ohio-4809, 23 N.E.3d 1161, ¶ 25.

         {¶ 6} Courts of appeals do not review the supportive evidence of the administrative agency's decision; rather, we exclusively look to the supportive evidence of the decision by the common pleas court. Id. at ¶ 27. We lack the common pleas court's power to weigh the evidence and are "more deferential to the lower court's decision." Id. at ¶ 25. A lower court's failure to explain its rationale or to identify supporting evidence is not fatal unless we find, as a matter of law, the lower court's decision "was unsupported by the required evidence." Id. at ¶ 28.

         {¶ 7} "Within the ambit of questions of law for appellate-court review is whether the common pleas court abused its discretion." Independence v. Office of the Cuyahoga Cty. Executive, 142 Ohio St.3d 125, 2014-Ohio-4650, 28 N.E.3d 1182, ¶ 14. Abuse of discretion "'connotes more than an error of law or judgment; it implies that the court's attitude is unreasonable, arbitrary or unconscionable.'" Blakemore v. Blakemore, 5 Ohio St3d 217, 219, 450 N.E.2d 1140 (1983), quoting State v. Adams, 62 Ohio St.2d 151, 157, 404 N.E.2d 144 (1980). We must affirm unless, as a matter of law, we find "that the trial court's decision is not supported by a preponderance of reliable, probative, and substantial evidence." Independence at ¶ 14.

         {¶ 8} "[P]reponderance of evidence means the greater weight of evidence. * * * The greater weight may be infinitesimal, and it is only necessary that it be sufficient to destroy the equilibrium." Travelers' Ins. Co. v. Gath, 118 Ohio St. 257, 261, 160 N.E. 710 (1928).

         {¶ 9} In citing to The American Heritage Dictionary (1981), the Ohio Supreme Court stated, in reference to analogous R.C. 119.12 language, that reliable evidence "is dependable; that is, it can be confidently trusted. In order to be reliable, there must be a reasonable probability that the evidence is true." Our Place, Inc. v. Ohio Liquor Control Comm., 63 Ohio St.3d 570, 571, 589 N.E.2d 1303 (1992). Probative evidence "is evidence that tends to prove the issue in question; it must be relevant in determining the issue." Id. Substantial evidence "is evidence with some weight; it must have importance and value." Id.

         {¶ 10} "[S]hould the procedural requirements of R.C. 2506.03(A)(1) to (A)(5) not be satisfied by the initiating body, the common pleas court is directed to hear the appeal, 'upon the transcript and such additional evidence as may be introduced by any party.'" Gibraltar Mausoleum Corp. v. Toledo, 106 Ohio App.3d 80, 84, 665 N.E.2d 273 (6th Dist.1995), citing R.C. 2506.03. "The common pleas court must then assess this augmented record, giving due deference to the weight afforded the evidence by the administrative board. This supplementation of evidence, however, does not alter the common pleas court's standard of review to affirm the administrative board's decision absent the court's conclusion that it is deficient in one of the aspects enumerated in R.C. 2506.04." Id.

         {¶ 11} "In sum, the standard of review for courts of appeals in administrative appeals is designed to strongly favor affirmance. It permits reversal only when the common pleas court errs in its application or interpretation of the law or its decision is unsupported by a preponderance of the evidence as a matter of law." Cleveland Clinic, 141 Ohio St.3d 318, 2014-Ohio-4809, 23 N.E.3d 1161, at ¶ 30. As the Eighth District stated in Austin v. Cuyahoga Metro. Hous. Auth., 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 107247, 2019-Ohio-636, ¶ 23:

Because R.C. 2506.04 limits our review to questions of law, there are two fundamental principles that we must adhere to with respect to the evidentiary-based arguments advanced in administrative appeals. On evidentiary matters, appellate courts are limited to reviewing to determine whether the trial court's decision is unsupported by a preponderance of reliable, probative and substantial evidence. * * * "In this context, a reversal 'as a matter of law' can occur only when, having viewed the evidence most favorably to the decision, there are no facts to support " the trial court's decision. * * * However, if the trial court considers evidence outside the administrative record by allowing additional evidence under the statutory scheme, the review of those determinations falls under the abuse of discretion standard of review. * * * Importantly, the prohibition on a court of ...

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