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Stallworth v. Woods

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District, Cuyahoga

July 11, 2019

DANA STALLWORTH, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
DOUG WOODS, ET AL. Defendants-Appellants.

          Civil Appeal from the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Case No. CV-16-860713

          Jason L. Carter, for appellee.

          Ken Rubenstein, for appellants.

          JOURNAL ENTRY AND OPINION

          KATHLEEN ANN KEOUGH, JUDGE.

         {¶ 1} Defendants-appellants, Doug Woods ("Woods") and What A Lovely Home, L.L.C. ("WALH L.L.C.") (collectively "appellants"), appeal the trial court's decision denying their motions for sanctions filed against plaintiff-appellee, Dana Stallworth ("Stallworth") and her counsel, for (1) maintaining a frivolous action and (2) engaging in vexatious conduct. For the reasons that following, we affirm the trial court's decision.

         {¶ 2} The underlying lawsuit evolves from a 2014 landlord-tenant dispute where Woods d.b.a. What a Lovely Home ("WALH") initiated eviction proceedings against Stallworth in Garfield Heights Municipal Court[1] See Garfield Heights Municipal Court Case No. CVG 1402113. The eviction action was premised on an allegation that Stallworth was allowing an unauthorized person to live at the property and for property damage. The parties entered into an agreement whereby the eviction proceeding would be dismissed and Stallworth would voluntarily vacate the premises.

         {¶ 3} Although an agreement was reached, Stallworth filed an action against Woods d.b.a. WALH in Garfield Heights Municipal Court for breach of contract and retaliatory eviction. See Garfield Heights Municipal Court Case No. CVF1402358. Woods d.b.a. WALH filed a counterclaim against Stallworth seeking money damages in the amount of $4, 438.49 for unpaid rent, damage to the property, and unpaid utility bills. In September 2015, the case proceeded to trial where the court ruled in favor of Woods d.b.a. WALH on Stallworth's complaint, and also ruled in favor of Woods d.b.a. WALH on his counterclaim and entered judgment against Stallworth in the amount of $815.99 plus interest at the rate of 3% per annum from the date of judgment, and costs.

         {¶ 4} Stallworth did not pay the judgment. In February 2016 and after collection efforts were unsuccessful, Woods, individually, initiated and obtained a garnishment against Stallworth's bank accounts. Although collection letters were sent to Stallworth's forwarding address, Woods served all garnishment notices, including the order of garnishment, to the rental address that Stallworth formerly rented from Woods; he was ultimately able to garnish $462 from Stallworth's bank account in March 2016.

         {¶ 5} In an attempt to collect on the debt prior to seeking garnishment, Woods filed subpoenas to Stallworth's financial institutions. Interestingly, the subpoenas were filed in Cuyahoga C.P. No. CV-13-801757 where Woods, as plaintiff, brought suit against Bed Bath & Beyond, Inc.; Stallworth was not a party to this action. On February 23, 2016, the trial court issued an order quashing the subpoenas. The court noted that the case was "definitely closed" on April 22, 2014, but "beginning on 12/28/2015 and continuing to 02/08/16, [Woods] has issued multiple subpoenas under this case number commanding production of the personal financial records of an individual named Dana Stallworth. Ms. Stallworth was never a party to this closed case. Nevertheless, the subpoenas being this case number are captained 'Doug Woods v. Dana Stallworth.'" The trial court quashed the subpoenas filed "in their entirety, as they were fraudulently issued." The court also noted that Woods "busied himself in filing subpoenas in another case assigned to another trial judge seeking financial records of another nonparty individual; the court referenced that case in its journal entry.

         {¶ 6} On March 4, 2016, in response to the trial court's entry, Woods filed a "notice to quash subpoenas based on filing error." In the notice, Woods contended that the subpoenas were filed under the incorrect case number by an outside collection agency that he hired. Woods notified the court that Stallworth's personal financial records were not obtained under those subpoenas.

         {¶ 7} On March 21, 2016, in response to the "fraudulently issued" subpoenas, Stallworth filed the instant lawsuit against appellants asserting causes of action for fraud, conversion, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy; a first amended complaint was later filed in August 2016. In her complaint, Stallworth alleged that appellants knowingly filed subpoenas in a case where she was not a party that caused her harm. She further alleged that when the defendants filed a garnishment order in Garfield Heights Municipal Court, they knowingly sent the notice to the wrong address, even though the appellants had her correct forwarding address. She claimed that as a result of appellants' conduct, her personal funds were improperly garnished.

         {¶ 8} Woods denied the allegations contained in Stallworth's complaint, contending that he had a valid judgment, WALH, L.L.C. was not a party to the garnishment action or any other action, that the issuing of the subpoenas was in error by the collection agency he hired, and no harm was suffered by Stallworth based on the misfiled subpoenas.

         {¶ 9} On May 11, 2016, Woods d.b.a. WALH, L.L.C. filed a judgment lien against Stallworth in the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, General Division, in the amount of $815.99. See trial exhibit No. 1-P-1 (Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, General Division, docket for Case No. JL-16-769196).

         {¶ 10} In October 2017, a trial was conducted before a visiting judge, who entered judgment in favor of the appellants. Stallworth requested findings of fact and conclusions of law, and appellants moved for sanctions and an order declaring Stallworth a vexatious litigant. Prior to the visiting judge issuing his findings of fact and conclusions of law, the originally assigned judge of the case denied appellants' motions for sanctions against Stallworth and her counsel and also denied appellants' request for a vexatious-litigant declaration. Appellants appealed the denial of their motions to this court in Stallworth v. Woods, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 106633, 2018-Ohio-3185 ("Stallworth I ").

         {¶ 11} In Stallworth I, this court found that the originally "assigned judge lacked all of the necessary evidence to determine whether an award of sanctions was appropriate or whether Stallworth is a vexatious litigant." Id. at ¶ 14. Accordingly, this court reversed the judgment and "remanded [the case] to the assigned judge for a determination on [appellants'] respective motions for sanctions and vexatious conduct, in light of the visiting judge's findings of fact and conclusions of law." Id. at ¶ 15.

         {¶ 12} On October 1, 2018, the assigned judge, as ordered by this court's remand order, issued a journal entry again denying appellants' motions for sanctions and vexatious conduct against Stallworth. The court stated:

In light of the visiting judge's findings of fact and conclusions of law, defendant What A Lovely Home, L.L.C.'s motion for sanctions and for plaintiff to be deemed a vexatious litigant filed 10/27/2017, and defendant Doug Woods's motion for sanctions and for plaintiff to be deemed a vexatious litigant, filed 10/27/17, are both denied.

         {¶ 13} The trial court denied appellants' request for findings of fact and conclusions of law as it pertained to the denial of their motions for sanctions and vexatious conduct. Appellants now appeal, raising five assignments of error for our review.

         I. Judicial Determination

         {¶ 14} In their first assignment of error, appellants contend that the trial court erred and abused its discretion by failing to have the motions for sanctions decided by the visiting judge who was the real trier of fact and still had jurisdiction over the case.

         {¶ 15} In Stallworth I, this court specifically remanded the case for the "assigned judge" to determine appellants' motions for sanctions and vexatious conduct, "in light of the visiting judge's findings of fact and conclusions of law." Id. at ΒΆ 15. Accordingly, the assigned judge was operating under the remand order issued by this court; the assigned judge had no discretion. Any challenge to this court's judgment and remand order should have been ...


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