Ohio’s Political Subdivision Tort Liability Act broadly bars intentional tort claims against political subdivisions. But, that almost absolute immunity may not apply when an employee asserts the same claim against his or her employer, according to the Supreme Court of Ohio’s recent decision in Sampson v. CMHA, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-570.
Revised Code Section 2744.09(B) exempts certain claims from the Act. One such category of claims is a “matter that arises out of the employment relationship.”
In Sampson, the Supreme Court unanimously held that when an employee sues “a political subdivision alleging an intentional tort, the civil action may qualify as a ‘matter that arises out of the employment relationship’ within the meaning of R.C. 2744.09(B).” The Court determined an employee’s action “arises out of the employment relationship between the employee and the political subdivision within the meaning of RC 2744.09(B) if there is a causal connection or a causal relationship between the claims raised by the employee and the employment relationship.”
This case has an important impact on public entities and their insurers when political subdivisions are faced with tort suits brought by their employees.
Plaintiff Darrel Sampson was employed by the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) in the maintenance department. CMHA began an investigation regarding several employees’ alleged misuse of CMHA gasoline cards for personal use. After the investigation, CMHA arrested Sampson and several others during an employee meeting that was highly publicized. CMHA placed Sampson on paid administrative leave. After being charged and indicted by a grand jury for felony theft and misuse of credit cards, Sampson was terminated by CMHA. The criminal charges were ultimately dismissed against Sampson.
CMHA reinstated Sampson. But he contended that upon his return the atmosphere was no longer tolerable, and he resigned. Sampson sued CMHA raising various intentional tort and negligence claims arising out of his arrest. CMHA asked the trial court to grant summary judgment in its favor under tort immunity. The court refused, but determined that the R.C. 2744.09(B) exemption did not apply because Sampson’s claims did not arise out of the employment relationship. The Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed, but concluded that the R.C. 2744.09(B) exemption prevented CMHA from raising immunity. In a deeply divided en banc decision, the Eighth District affirmed that finding.
The Supreme Court of Ohio’s decision
The Supreme Court of Ohio unanimously affirmed. The Supreme Court held that Sampson’s claims, including those for intentional torts, could arise out of his employment relationship and thus barred CMHA from asserting immunity under R.C. 2744.09(B) on summary judgment. The Court determined that there were genuine issues of material fact about whether reasonable minds could conclude that Sampson’s claim arose out of his employment relationship.
CMHA argued that an intentional tort necessarily occurs outside of the employment relationship because an intentional act is a complete breach of the employment relationship. CMHA relied on cases decided in the context of workers compensation law to explain what constitutes an action that “arises out of the employment relationship.” The Supreme Court rejected this approach. Based on the differing purposes of workers compensation laws and tort immunity, the Sampson Court explained that “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. 2744. To undo those protections in cases of the worst of employer misconduct would violate the language and frustrate the purpose of the provision.” (Id. at ¶14.) The Court ultimately concluded that in the tort immunity context, “any matter that arises out of the employment relationship” merely “requires only a causal connection between the subject matter of the civil action and the employment relationship.” (Id. at ¶ 16.)
Applying that law, the Sampson Court determined that there were genuine issues of material fact about whether Sampson’s claim arose out of his employment relationship. The Court noted that the alleged tort arose from an accusation by the employer that the employee had stolen from the employer by using company credit cards for personal needs. These allegations were in the context of Sampson’s duties as a plumber; the investigation was conducted entirely by CMHA police; and the arrest occurred during a CMHA-called mandatory meeting as part of a regular work day. The Court also noted that there was evidence that his arrest was publicized by CMHA through subsequent press releases and press conferences. The Court concluded that based on these facts, among others, reasonable minds could conclude that Sampson’s civil action arose from the employment relationship and therefore was excepted from immunity under R.C. 2744.09(B).
While the Tort Liability Act provides broad immunity to political subdivisions, that immunity is not absolute, and certain claims are exempted from the Act’s provisions. Ohio law remains established that intentional tort claims are generally barred by the Tort Liability Act. But political subdivisions and their insurers must know that when an employee raises an intentional tort claim against his or her governmental employer, immunity may not be available to that political subdivision. Sampson merely requires a causal connection or a causal relationship between the claims raised by the employee and the employment relationship — an issue that will be decided on a case-by-case basis. If no causal relationship exists, immunity may still apply. Under Sampson, there arguably was a strong connection between the claims and the employment relationship. It remains to be seen how intermediate appellate courts will view relationships that are not as strong and whether immunity will apply in those situations. Nevertheless, Sampson undoubtedly broadens potential liability for this class of tort claims, and political subdivisions will likely see more intentional tort claims — or claims couched as intentional torts — asserted against them.
(This post is a follow-up on Frank’s prior post “Five Public Entity Cases to Watch in 2012.”)