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Miracle v. Ohio Department of Veterans Services

Supreme Court of Ohio

August 20, 2019

Miracle, Appellee,
v.
Ohio Department of Veterans Services et al., Appellants.

          Submitted April 23, 2019

          Appeal from the Court of Appeals for Franklin County, No. 16AP-885, 2018-Ohio-819.

          Adams & Liming, L.L.C., and Sharon Cason-Adams, for appellee.

          Dave Yost, Ohio Attorney General, Benjamin M. Flowers, Deputy Solicitor, Michael J. Hendershot, Chief Deputy Solicitor, and Lee Ann Rabe, Assistant Attorney General, for appellants.

          The Gittes Law Group, Frederick M. Gittes, and Jeffrey P. Vardaro, urging affirmance for amicus curiae Ohio Employment Lawyers Association.

          Willis Spangler Starling and Jason E. Starling, urging affirmance for amicus curiae Ohio Association for Justice.

          French, J.

         {¶ 1} In Greeley v. Miami Valley Maintenance Contrs., Inc., 49 Ohio St.3d 228, 551 N.E.2d 981 (1990), we recognized a public-policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine and held that an employee may maintain a common-law tort action when the employee has been discharged or disciplined for a reason prohibited by statute, id. at paragraph one of the syllabus. This discretionary appeal requires us to determine whether Ohio's civil-service laws express a public policy that would give rise to Greeley claims by public employees terminated during their probationary period.

         {¶ 2} Appellee, James Miracle, filed a complaint alleging that his former employer, the Ohio Department of Veterans Services, wrongfully terminated him during his probationary period at the direction of the governor's office. The Tenth District Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the trial court's dismissal of Miracle's complaint under Civ.R. 12(B)(6). Appellants, the department and the governor's office (collectively, "the state"), have appealed the Tenth District's judgment.

         {¶ 3} We conclude that R.C. 124.27(B) and 124.56, the civil-service statutes invoked by Miracle, do not express a clear public policy providing the basis for a wrongful-discharge claim by a probationary employee. We therefore reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and reinstate the trial court's order dismissing Miracle's complaint.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         {¶ 4} Miracle's claims arise from the termination of his employment as an administrative officer and facilities manager of the veterans' home located in Sandusky, Ohio. As alleged in Miracle's complaint, prior to his hiring in 2015, Miracle had advised the superintendent of the Sandusky Veterans Home, known as the Sandusky Domiciliary, and a deputy director of the Department of Veterans Services of his adverse job history at the Ohio Department of Corrections. Miracle had previously worked as a building-construction superintendent at the Mansfield Correctional Institution. In July 2013, an inmate escaped from the Mansfield facility. After an investigation of the incident, the Department of Corrections terminated Miracle for failing to secure tools and for falsifying tool-inventory documents. Pending Miracle's appeal of his termination before the State Personnel Board of Review ("SPBR") and after the negotiation of a settlement, the Department of Corrections reinstated Miracle to a position at a different correctional institution.

         {¶ 5} According to Miracle, the superintendent of the Sandusky Domiciliary assured Miracle that his adverse job history would not pose a problem. Miracle began working in February 2015 as a probationary employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs. At his June 9, 2015 performance review, Miracle received ratings of "meets expectations" or "exceeds expectations" in each category. Six days later, during Miracle's probationary period, the department's human-resources director informed Miracle that the department was terminating his employment because it "was moving in a different direction." The department declined to provide any additional information. Miracle later learned that Jai Chabria, a senior advisor to Governor John Kasich, had directed the superintendent to terminate Miracle because of negative press about Miracle's alleged involvement in the Mansfield inmate escape.

         {¶ 6} Following his termination, Miracle filed a four-count complaint in the Ohio Court of Claims against the Department of Veterans Services and the governor's office. Count One alleges that Miracle's termination violated the public policy articulated in R.C. 124.27(B) in favor of retaining probationary employees who have satisfactorily performed their duties. Count Two asserts a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of the public policy articulated in R.C. 124.56. That statute provides for an investigation and possible removal of an appointing authority who has appointed, removed or suspended an employee in violation of R.C. Chapter 124. Count Three asserts wrongful discharge in violation of the procedural protections guaranteed by R.C. 124.34 and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Count Four asks for a determination that Chabria is not entitled to immunity under R.C. 9.86.

         {¶ 7} The state filed a motion to dismiss Miracle's complaint under Civ.R. 12(B)(6) for failure to state a claim. The trial court granted the motion.

         {¶ 8} On appeal, the Tenth District Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, reinstating the wrongful-discharge claims Miracle asserted in Counts One and Two based on R.C. 124.27(B) and 124.56, respectively. The court also reinstated Miracle's request for an immunity determination in Count Four, which the trial court had dismissed for lack of an underlying state-law claim. But the court determined that Miracle had abandoned Count Three's wrongful-discharge claim for failure to assert any related assignment of error.

         {¶ 9} We accepted the state's discretionary appeal, 153 Ohio St.3d 1402, 2018-Ohio-2380, 100 N.E.3d 422, which presents two propositions of law:

1. A Greeley tort is not available under R.C. 124.27 or 124.56 and, more generally, statutes about public employment ordinarily should ...

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