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Child Service Agency Immune From Civil Suit Unless Claim Falls Within Exception In Immunity Statute

2007-0306.  Rankin v. Cuyahoga Cty. Dept. of Children & Family Servs., Slip Opinion No. 2008-Ohio-2567.
Cuyahoga App. No. 86620, 2006-Ohio-6759.  Judgment affirmed in part and reversed in part.
Moyer, C.J., and Lundberg Stratton, O'Connor, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, and Cupp, JJ., concur.
Pfeifer, J., dissents.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2008/2008-Ohio-2567.pdf

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(June 4, 2008)  The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today that a political subdivision is not liable for damages in a civil action for injury, death or loss to person or property allegedly caused by any act or omission of a public children services agency unless the act or omission causing injury falls within a specific exception to immunity set forth in R.C. 2744.02(B).

In a 6-1 decision partially reversing a ruling of the 8th District Court of Appeals, the Court reinstated a summary judgment dismissing civil claims against the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family services by the mother and grandmother of a child who was sexually assaulted by the child’s father during a supervised visitation at a CCDCFS facility. The Court affirmed the 8th District’s ruling allowing further proceedings in the mother and grandmother’s individual claims against a CCDCFS social worker and the department’s director to determine whether their actions on the day of the assault qualifiy as “reckless” conduct that could expose them to personal liability.

Cherita and Estella Rankin of Cleveland filed suit against CCDCFS, department director James McCafferty and social worker Gina Zazzara in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. Their claims were based on a July 2003 incident in which Cherita Rankin’s daughter, identified by the initials D.M., was sexually assaulted by the child’s father, Andre Martin, during a supervised  visit at the department’s Hunter Social Services Center. Martin was subsequently convicted of criminal offenses arising from the incident.

The department, McCafferty and Zazzara filed motions for summary judgment dismissing Rankin’s claims against them. The trial court granted summary judgment, holding that, even if Rankin could show that the department or its employees acted negligently, they were still exempt from civil liability for acts or omissions occurring in the performance of their governmental duties by the state’s sovereign immunity statute, R.C. Chapter 2477. Rankin appealed. The 8th District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, reinstated Rankin’s claims against both the agency and McCafferty and Zazzara, and remanded the case for further proceedings. The court of appeals ruled that summary judgment based on sovereign immunity was not appropriate because the general immunity conferred on the defendants by R.C. Chapter 2744 could be superseded by case law holding that when a government agency or official has a “special relationship” with an injured party, the agency or official owes an individual duty to that party that could render them civilly liable.

The defendants appealed the 8th District’s ruling to the Supreme Court, and the justices agreed to review the case.

Writing for the Court in today’s decision, Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer said the court of appeals erred in holding that CCDCFS could be held liable for damages when the acts or omissions allegedly responsible for the plaintiffs’ damages did not fall within any of the specific exceptions enumerated in the sovereign immunity statute.

He wrote: “Pursuant to R.C. 2744.02(A)(1), the department cannot be subjected to liability for D.M.’s injuries unless one of the exceptions provided in R.C. 2744.02(B) applies to the case. R.C. 2744.02(B) lists five exceptions to the general denial of liability; however, none of the exceptions applies to these facts. The injuries in this case did not involve the operation of a motor vehicle (R.C. 2744.02(B)(1)), a proprietary function (R.C. 2744.02(B)(2)), public roads (R.C. 2744.02(B)(3)), physical defects of a building (R.C. 2744.02(B)(4)), or a duty expressly imposed on appellants by statute (R.C. 2744.02(B)(5)).  As a result, the general denial of liability granted in R.C. 2744.02(A) applies to the department, and the court of appeals erred when it reversed the summary judgment for the appellant department. ... While the public-duty rule and special-relationship exception might be relevant in establishing a claim, these common law doctrines are irrelevant to a claim against a political subdivision unless the claim is permitted under R.C. 2744.02.”

In affirming the 8th District’s remand of the plaintiffs’ claims against McCafferty and Zazzara to the trial court for further proceedings, Chief Justice Moyer noted that claims asserted against an individual government official or employee are subject to a different legal analysis than claims against a political subdivision itself.

“At issue here is whether McCafferty’s and Zazzara’s general denial of liability for injury established in R.C. 2744.03(A)(6) is abolished pursuant to the following exception to employee immunity from liability: ‘The employee’s acts or omissions were with malicious purpose, in bad faith, or in a wanton or reckless manner.’ R.C. 2744.03(A)(6)(b),” the Chief Justice wrote. “We note that showing recklessness is subject to a high standard. ... Although the court of appeals recited a standard of recklessness that is consistent with our decisions, we are not convinced that the record supports the court’s conclusion that ‘reasonable minds could conclude that these two individuals acted in a reckless manner in allowing these “supervised” visits between Martin and D.M. to be conducted as they were.’ ... The record before us is incomplete as to whether genuine issues of material fact exist regarding McCafferty’s and Zazzara’s alleged reckless conduct. Thus, we affirm the decision of the court of appeals to remand this cause to the trial court for further proceedings regarding what involvement, if any, McCafferty and Zazzara had in the supervised visit that occurred between D.M. and Martin.”

The majority opinion was joined by Justices Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Maureen O’Connor, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger and Robert R. Cupp.

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer dissented, citing his longstanding opinion that the Court should abandon what he views as the “archaic” doctrine of sovereign immunity. Justice Pfeifer wrote: “Again this court holds, contrary to the state constitution, that the state cannot be sued unless a statutorily-created exception applies.  Section 16, Article I of the Ohio Constitution (“every person, for an injury done him ... , shall have remedy by due course of law”).  No matter how many times this court explains why the state should be treated differently from other defendants, it doesn’t make sense.” 

Shawn M. Mallamad, 216.443.7799, for the Cuyahoga County Department of Children & Family Services.

Joel Levin, 216.928.0600, for Cherita and Estella Rankin (mother and grandmother of minor child D.M.).