Mazanec, Raskin & Ryder (“MRR”) attorneys Todd Raskin and Frank Scialdone earned a unanimous appellate decision in favor of an Ohio township that had been improperly subjected to a probate court’s authority.
Ohio’s Eleventh District Court of Appeals reversed and vacated the Geauga County Probate Court’s ruling that invalidated a contractual agreement between a park district and Chester Township. In re Creation of Park Dist. Within Chester Twp., 2017-Ohio-4031. The agreement defined the scope of the park district’s involvement with the township’s park lands. The Eleventh District also rejected the probate court’s imposition of costs on the township for the probate court’s use of a master commissioner that consulted with a park district on allegations of financial misconduct. MRR founding partner Todd Raskin and partner Frank Scialdone handled the case on behalf of MRR’s client, Chester Township.
The heart of the case involved whether the probate court had jurisdiction over Chester Township. Probate Court Judge Timothy Grendell had initially invoked the probate court’s “continuing jurisdiction” over the township based on its role in the creation of the park district in the early 1980s. In 1984, the Chester Township Board of Trustees (“Trustees”) had applied to create the Chester Township Park District (the “Park District”) in the probate court. The primary question on appeal was: Did the probate court maintain jurisdiction over the Trustees and the township as a political entity either through the exercise of its plenary power to enforce the terms of the 1984 order creating the Park District or, otherwise, through the probate court’s continuing jurisdiction over the Park District as provided in R.C. Chapter 1545.
The unanimous Eleventh District answered that question with a resounding no. The appellate court agreed with MRR’s arguments that the probate court exceeded its jurisdiction.
In this unique and complex matter, MRR’s Raskin and Scialdone asserted that probate courts have sharply limited responsibilities over Chapter 1545 park districts. In accord with MRR’s arguments, the Eleventh District held that there are no statutory provisions allowing a probate court “a general supervisory power over park district matters or  any additional jurisdiction over a party or entity other than the park district’s board of commissioners.”
The probate court’s effort to exercise broad jurisdiction over non-parties (the Township) was in part based on the court’s mistaken belief that it had “plenary power,” or complete power, over these matters. MRR asserted, and the Eleventh District held, that while “plenary power” exists in some instances not applicable to the present dispute, those matters must still be “properly before the Court” or based on a statutory grant of jurisdiction. The probate court exceeded its jurisdiction when it tried to interfere with and alter the terms of a contract entered into between the Trustees and the Park District, an agreement between two independent public entities that had been in force for decades. The Eleventh District rejected the probate court’s belief that the 1984 order gave it continuing authority. The 30-plus-year-old order did not impose any duties on the Township and the appellate court explained “there are no terms of that order to be enforced in perpetuity.”
The probate court also attempted to impose on the Township a portion of the almost $40,000 in fees of the “master commissioner” who the probate court used to investigate the conduct of the Park District Commissioners. The Eleventh District expressly rejected the imposition of fees because the probate court did not have jurisdiction.
After reviewing extensive briefing and hearing oral argument, the Eleventh District concluded that Chester Township was “not a party over which the probate court has continuing jurisdiction – the township has no authority to remove or appoint any of the Commissioners. The master commissioner’s fees imposed as costs against the township were improper.”