Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Piazza v. Cuyahoga County

Supreme Court of Ohio

June 26, 2019

Piazza, Appellee,
v.
Cuyahoga County, Appellant, et al.

          Submitted March 5, 2019

          Appeal from the Court of Appeals for Cuyahoga County, No. 104724, 2017-Ohio-8163.

          Schuster & Simmons Co., LP.A., and Nancy C. Schuster, for appellee.

          Michael C. O'Malley, Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney, and Brian R. Gutkoski, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney; Robert J. Triozzi, Cuyahoga County Law Director, and Awatef Assad and Jonathan M. Scandling, Assistant Law Directors, for appellant.

          Gwen E. Callender; and Bolek, Besser, Glesius, L.L.C., and Matthew D. Besser, urging affirmance for amici curiae Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio, Inc., and Ohio Employment Lawyers Association.

          FRENCH, J.

         {¶ 1} This appeal asks us to clarify the meaning of R.C. 2744.09(B), which provides that the Political Subdivision Tort Liability Act, R.C. Chapter 2744, does not apply to "[c]ivil actions by an employee * * * against his political subdivision relative to any matter that arises out of the employment relationship between the employee and the political subdivision."

         {¶ 2} Appellee, Marcella King Piazza, sued her former employer, appellant, Cuyahoga County, for false-light invasion of privacy based on a statement allegedly made by Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald regarding the termination of Piazza's employment. Both the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas and the Eighth District Court of Appeals applied R.C. 2744.09(B) to reject the county's assertion of political-subdivision immunity. We affirm.

         Facts and procedural background

         {¶ 3} In 2003, Piazza began working as an office manager for the Cuyahoga County Board of Revision ("BOR"). She continued to work there until August 2010, when the county transferred her from the BOR to the Department of Justice Affairs. In June 2010, about two months before Piazza's transfer, the Plain Dealer Publishing Company ("Plain Dealer") began to publish a series of articles reporting on an ongoing investigation into the BOR and its employees and board members. In December 2010, the Plain Dealer described its investigation as having "unearthed rampant mismanagement, deplorable work habits, questionable tax breaks, favors for the connected and violations of state law."

         {¶ 4} On March 9, 2011, the county terminated Piazza's employment as well as the employment of two other county employees who had previously worked at the BOR. In a press release, County Executive FitzGerald stated, "Today three people have been terminated from employment with Cuyahoga County due to the reorganization of the Cuyahoga County Board[] of Revision." Within 90 minutes of being informed of her termination, Piazza received a telephone call from a Plain Dealer reporter seeking comment on her discharge. Piazza refused to comment.

         {¶ 5} About 30 minutes later, the Plain Dealer published an article on www.cleveland.com with the headline, "Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald fires three employees tied to board[] of revision scandal." The article began, "Three more Cuyahoga County employees have lost their jobs because of the extensive dysfunction and mismanagement uncovered last year at the board[] of revision." Despite noting that Piazza and the other two terminated employees had been reassigned in August 2010 to other county departments "after The Plain Dealer reported about poor work habits of board employees," the article quoted a FitzGerald spokesperson as stating that the terminations were "due to our reorganization of the board of revision."

         {¶ 6} Later that day, the Plain Dealer published a second article with the headline, "Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald says he couldn't justify keeping reassigned board[] of revision workers in new positions." The second article quoted FitzGerald as stating, "Instead of terminating [Piazza and the other two former BOR employees], the previous administration reassigned them. * * * We can't afford to reshuffle people for their own job security." The second article included a photograph of Piazza that the county had supplied.

         {¶ 7} Piazza initially filed a complaint for false-light invasion of privacy against the county and the Plain Dealer in October 2013 ("Piazza I "), but she later voluntarily dismissed that complaint pursuant to Civ.R. 41(A)(1). She filed this action against the county and the Plain Dealer in August 2015. Piazza bases her false-light claim against the county on the quoted statement from FitzGerald, and she alleges that the statement created a false inference that she was involved in the BOR corruption scandal. Piazza alleges that the statement was made with a reckless disregard for its truth or falsity. She also alleges that as a result of conduct by the county and the Plain Dealer, she suffered severe emotional distress, public humiliation, and damage to her personal and professional reputation. Here, we are concerned only with Piazza's claim against the county.

         {¶ 8} The county moved for summary judgment, arguing that it was immune from liability pursuant to R.C. 2744.02(A) and that Piazza's claim was time-barred. The trial court denied the county's motion for summary judgment in a two-sentence journal entry, holding that "[g]enuine issues of material fact exist and [Piazza's] false light claim is not time-barred, nor does political subdivision immunity apply to [Piazza's] claim arising from her employment relationship with" the county.

         {¶ 9} The county filed an interlocutory appeal from the denial of its motion for summary judgment. The Eighth District addressed only the question of immunity, and in a two-to-one decision, it affirmed the trial court's rejection of the county's assertion of immunity, holding that Piazza's claim "arose out of her employment relationship with the county, and the county is not immune from liability pursuant to the express exception in R.C. 2744.09(B)." 2017-Ohio-8163, 98 N.E.3d 1263, ¶ 23.

         {¶ 10} This court accepted the county's discretionary appeal. 152 Ohio St.3d 1442, 2018-Ohio-1600, 96 N.E.3d 298. The county maintains that R.C. 2744.09(B) is unambiguous, is in derogation of common-law immunity, and must be strictly construed in favor of immunity. The county essentially asks this court to hold that R.C. 2744.09(B) does not apply when a former employee of a political subdivision brings an intentional-tort claim that accrued when she was no longer employed by the political subdivision. In particular, the county argues that a former employee is not an "employee" under R.C. 2744.09(B) and that such a claim does not "arise[] out of the employment relationship."

         Analysis

         {¶ 11} R.C. Chapter 2744, the Political Subdivision Tort Liability Act, establishes a comprehensive statutory scheme for the tort liability of political subdivisions and their employees. The act initially sets out a broad, general rule that a political subdivision is not liable in damages in civil actions for injury, death or loss to person or property caused by an act or omission in connection with a governmental or proprietary function. R.C. 2744.02(A)(1). The act, however, goes on to provide several exceptions to immunity, R.C. 2744.02(B), as well as defenses to those exceptions, R.C. 2744.03.

         {¶ 12} R.C. 2744.09 identifies certain scenarios in which R.C. Chapter 2744 does not apply. As relevant here, R.C. 2744.09(B) provides that Chapter 2744 "does not apply to, and shall not be construed to apply to * * * [c]ivil actions by an employee * * * against his political subdivision relative to any matter that arises out of the employment relationship between the employee and the political subdivision." R.C. 2744.09(B) "is designed to protect employees by allowing them to recover against their employers, who would otherwise be entitled to immunity under R.C. Chapter 2744." Sampson v. Cuyahoga Metro. Hous. Auth., 131 Ohio St.3d 418, 2012-Ohio-570, 966 N.E.2d 247, ¶ 13.

         {¶ 13} The county asserted in its motion for summary judgment that it is immune from Piazza's claim pursuant to the general grant of immunity in R.C. 2744.02(A)(1) because R.C. 2744.02(B) does not provide any exceptions to immunity for intentional torts. In response, Piazza did not dispute that the county is a political subdivision nor did she argue that any exception to immunity in R.C. 2744.02(B) applies here. Piazza primarily argued that issue preclusion barred the county's immunity argument, but she also quoted Sampson for the proposition that "[w]hen an employee of a political subdivision brings a civil action against the political subdivision alleging an intentional tort, that civil action may qualify as a 'matter that arises out of the employment relationship' within the meaning of R.C. 2744.09(B)," id at paragraph one of the syllabus, quoting R.C. 2744.09(B). Piazza noted that she had previously opposed the county's motion for judgment on the pleadings in Piazza I by arguing that the intentional nature of the tort she alleges does not "erase[]" "the employment relationship between [Piazza] and the County" or preclude a finding that the alleged tort arose out of the employment relationship.

         {¶ 14} Both the trial court and the Eighth District applied R.C. 2744.09(B) to reject the county's assertion of immunity. Because the order on appeal is a denial of a motion for summary judgment, we review the matter de novo, governed by the standards in Civ.R. 56. Vacha v. N. Ridgeville, 136 Ohio St.3d 199, 2013-Ohio-3020, 992 N.E.2d 1126, ¶ 19, citing Comer v. Risko, 106 Ohio St.3d 185, 2005-Ohio-4559, 833 N.E.2d 712, ¶ 8.

         {¶ 15} This appeal presents a legal question-whether R.C. 2744.09(B) requires an ongoing employment relationship between the plaintiff and the political-subdivision employer, either at the time the plaintiffs claim accrued or at the time the plaintiff filed her complaint-and a factual question-whether Piazza's false-light claim is relative to a matter that arises out of her employment relationship with the county. We address the legal question first.

         R.C. 2744.09(B) does not require an ongoing employment relationship between the plaintiff and ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.