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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Iran Doss v. State of Ohio , Case no. 2012-0162
Eighth District Court of Appeals (Cuyahoga County)

Carl DiFranco et al. v. First Energy et al., Case no. 2011-2025
Eleventh District Court of Appeals (Geauga County)

State of Ohio v. Damaad S. Gardner, Case no. 2011-2134
Second District Court of Appeals (Montgomery County)

Theresa Miller et al. v. Motorists Mutual Insurance Company et al., Case no. 2012-0053
Eleventh District Court of Appeals (Portage County)

Does Reversal of Conviction Based on Insufficient Evidence Entitle Defendant to Sue State for Wrongful Imprisonment?

Or Must Defendant Affirmatively Prove ‘Actual Innocence’ to Establish Right to Recovery

Iran Doss v. State of Ohio, Case no. 2012-0162
Eighth District Court of Appeals (Cuyahoga County)

ISSUE:  When a criminal defendant has been convicted of an offense and served part of a prison term for that conviction, if the conviction is reversed based on a court of appeals’ finding that the evidence presented at trial was not sufficient to prove the charged offense, is that reversal, without more, sufficient to support a subsequent summary judgment that the defendant qualifies as a “wrongfully imprisoned individual” eligible to sue the state for damages?

BACKGROUND:  Under Ohio’s wrongful imprisonment statute, R.C. 2743.48, a person who has been imprisoned by the state but whose conviction is later vacated or dismissed may be eligible to seek recovery of civil damages from the state through a lawsuit in the Ohio Court of Claims.

In order to pursue such a claim, however, the law requires that a former inmate must first obtain a declaratory judgment by a common pleas court that he or she qualifies as a “wrongly-imprisoned individual.” In order to be found qualified, the law requires that an ex-prisoner must show that he or she was released from prison either because of a procedural error, or because a court found that the crime for which he or she was convicted “was not committed by that individual, or was not committed by any person.”

In this case, Iran Doss of Cleveland was found guilty of kidnapping and rape based on an incident in which a woman identified by the initials J.P., who had been drinking at the same bar as Doss and his girlfriend on New Year’s Eve 2004, awoke the following morning in Doss’ apartment in clothes she had not been wearing the previous evening and with internal and external injuries that were determined to be the result of sexual intercourse. J.P., who did not know Doss prior to the incident, filed a criminal complaint alleging that she had blacked out at the bar and Doss and his girlfriend had taken her to Doss’ apartment in a semi-conscious or unconscious state, where Doss had engaged in sexual relations with her while she was unable to consent or resist. Doss admitted that he had sex with J.P., but told police she was the instigator and denied that she was unable to resist or consent.

A jury found Doss guilty of kidnapping and rape by means of sexual conduct with a person “while that person’s ability to resist or consent was substantially impaired because of a mental or physical condition, and the defendant knew or had reasonable cause to know that the other person was substantially impaired.” 

Doss appealed.  On review, the Eighth District Court of Appeals vacated the kidnapping conviction, but initially affirmed the rape conviction.  Doss moved for reconsideration, and the appellate panel reversed its earlier decision, with a 2-1 majority holding that the state had not proved that Doss knew or had reason to know that J.P. was too impaired to consent at the time Doss had sex with her. Doss’ rape conviction was vacated and he was released from prison.

Doss subsequently initiated a wrongful imprisonment action against the state by asking the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas to issue a declaratory judgment that he fell within the legal definition of a wrongfully-imprisoned individual. In his petition, Doss argued that he should be declared eligible to sue the state because he had been released from custody based on a finding that he was actually innocent of the crimes for which he had been convicted. The state opposed the declaratory judgment action, arguing that the Eighth District’s reversal of his rape conviction did not constitute a finding that Doss was actually innocent. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of  Doss, authorizing  him to pursue a wrongful imprisonment suit against the state in the Court of Claims.

The state appealed. In another 2-1 decision, the Eighth District affirmed the trial court’s action, holding that the court of appeals’ reversal of Doss’ rape conviction based on insufficiency of the evidence amounted to a finding either than Doss was actually innocent or that that no crime had been committed.  In either case, the court held that the reversal of Doss’ conviction placed him within the definition of a wrongfully-convicted individual under R.C. 2743.48.

The state sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Eighth District’s ruling.

Attorneys for the state argue that the trial court’s summary judgment order and the Eighth District’s decision affirming it are contrary to prior court decisions, including the Supreme Court of Ohio’s 1989 holding in Walden v. State.

In Walden, they assert, this court held that an order of acquittal does not presumptively show that a defendant was actually innocent, but is merely a judicial determination that the state did not prove every element of the offense for which a defendant was charged by the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” They point out that the process set forth in R.C. 2744.48 for establishing a claim of wrongful imprisonment is not criminal but civil in nature, and that in contrast with the burden of proof in a criminal trial, the wrongful imprisonment statute places the burden of proof on the defendant to affirmatively show by a preponderance (majority) of the evidence the he or she was actually innocent of the charged offense. 

They contend that in support of his petition for  declaratory judgment, Doss did not provide the trial court with any additional evidence regarding J.P.’s level of impairment or his awareness of that impairment other than his own self-serving statements.  In contrast, they note that the state submitted a transcript of trial testimony by several witnesses that J.P. was so intoxicated that she could barely stand or walk without assistance, that she was so obviously impaired that the wait staff would not serve her, and that Doss observed her condition from a near proximity for at least 90 minutes before taking her to his apartment.

They contend that the state’s evidence clearly raised material questions regarding J.P.’s level of impairment and Doss’ awareness of that impairment, and those questions should have been found sufficient to defeat Doss’ motion for summary judgment. They urge the court to reverse the Eighth District’s ruling and remand the case to the common pleas court for further proceedings on Doss’ declaratory judgment action.

Attorneys for Doss respond that the Eleventh District’s decision reversing his convictions and freeing him from prison included a specific finding that the state had not shown the essential element that Doss knew or should have known that J.P. was so intoxicated that she could not consent to having sex.  Given that finding, they assert, the trial court correctly granted a declaratory judgment in favor of Doss under the section of R.C. 2743.48 that allows a wrongful imprisonment claim to be pursued when an inmate is freed based on a finding that “no person committed the crime” for which that person was charged and sent to prison.

Representing the State of Ohio: Alexandra T. Schimmer, 614.995.2273

Representing Iran Doss: Paul Mancino Jr., 216.621.1742

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Does Fraud Claim By Homeowners Against Electric Company Fall Under Exclusive Jurisdiction of Public Utilities Commission?

Or May Plaintiffs Seek Damages Through Tort Lawsuit In Common Pleas Court

Carl DiFranco et al. v. First Energy et al., Case no. 2011-2025
Eleventh District Court of Appeals (Geauga County)

ISSUE:  When customers of an electric utility company seek to recover damages based on a claim that the company fraudulently induced them to buy all-electric homes or convert from non-electric to electric heating  by promising a “permanent” discount on their monthly electric bills, but later rescinded that discount, do the customers’ claims against the company constitute a “dispute over utility rates or service” that may only be be resolved by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), or are they common law fraud claims that are subject to resolution through a lawsuit in common pleas court?

BACKGROUND:  Beginning in the early 1970s, a period of shortages and corresponding increases in the prices of natural gas and home heating oil, the electric utility companies serving various areas of Ohio began promoting the advantages of “all-electric” homes in which all heating, cooling, water heating and other utility needs were powered by electricity.

As an incentive for homeowners to buy new all-electric homes or replace their current natural gas or oil furnaces, gas water heaters etc. with electric appliances, the companies sought and were granted PUCO approval of tariffs (rate structures) that allowed them to offer a lower per-kilowatt-hour rate for electric service to residential customers whose homes were “all-electric” than the rate the company charged its other residential customers. The electric companies then cited this preferential rate structure in advertising campaigns promoting the advantages of buying or converting to an all-electric home.

While the companies’ sought and were granted changes in the rates they charged various classes of customers throughout the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, each new tariff continued to provide a discount from standard residential rates for all-electric homes.

This case involves a dispute between the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company and Ohio Edison Company, both of which are owned by FirstEnergy Corp., and residential customers of those companies whose discounted service rates as owners of all-electric homes were discontinued in 2009.

The customers, one of whom is Carl DiFranco of Chardon, filed a class action lawsuit against FirstEnergy and its subsidiaries in the Geauga County Court of Common Pleas.  In their complaint, the plaintiffs asserted claims for breach of contract and fraud. Among other damages, they alleged that the withdrawal of their electric service discounts had reduced the re-sale value of their homes and/or forced them to replace the less-efficient electric furnaces and water heaters they had installed in reliance on the companies’ promise of continuing discounts.
FirstEnergy filed a motion asking the trial court to dismiss all of the customers’ claims on the basis that the issue in dispute between the parties was the adjusted kilowatt-hour rate at which they were billing all-electric customers. They argued that under the plain language of the state’s public utility laws and multiple Supreme Court decisions, the PUCO has exclusive jurisdiction over disputes between utility companies and their customers regarding “rates or service,” and therefore the court lacked jurisdiction to consider the customers’ complaint. The trial court agreed and dismissed all of the customers’ claims.

The customers appealed.  On review, the Eleventh District Court of Appeals agreed that the breach of contract claims were a dispute over rates and therefore could be pursued only through proceedings before the PUCO. The court of appeals found, however, that the customers’ fraudulent inducement claims against the electric companies were “pure tort” claims that the PUCO had no authority to decide, and remanded those claims for further proceedings in the common pleas court.

FirstEnergy sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Eleventh District’s ruling remanding the customers’ fraud claims to the trial court.

Attorneys for FirstEnergy argue that, regardless of the legal language in which the plaintiff customers have couched their claim, the core issue in dispute between the parties is the PUCO-approved, non-discounted rates those customers are being charged for residential electric service. Because all disputes between utilities and their customers over rates or service fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of the PUCO, they assert, the Eleventh District erred in holding that the plaintiffs’ fraud-based claims in this case can be litigated in a trial court.

They cite multiple Supreme Court decisions that have denied a trial court’s jurisdiction to hear complaints by customers against utility companies even though those complaints were framed as claims for torts such as breach of contract, interference with contractual or business relationships, fraudulent billing, etc.  In each of those cases, they say, the court found that the real underlying issue was the rates a utility was charging its customers, an issue that may only be decided by the PUCO.

Attorneys for DiFranco and the other utility customers respond that all of their original claims challenging the higher electric bills they have paid since 2009, and/or seeking reinstatement of their former discounted rates, have been dismissed and are no longer part of this case.  They assert that the sole remaining issue in dispute is their claim that the electric companies fraudulently induced them to buy all-electric homes or install electric furnaces and water heaters by promising permanent discounts, and that the homeowners suffered loss of property value and other financial harm as a result of relying on the companies’ assurances.

They cite prior Supreme Court decisions holding that disputes between utility companies and their customers are not appropriate for resolution by the PUCO if they involve only legal questions that are outside the technical expertise of the commission. In this case, they argue, the resolution of their  fraud claims requires only determinations of whether the companies’ statements and actions were misleading, the customers acted in reasonable reliance on the companies’ promises, and the customers can show that they suffered financial harm as a result of relying on those promises. Because none of those legal issues involves utility regulation or operations, the homeowners say, the Eleventh District was correct in holding that the PUCO has no jurisdiction over their fraud claims, which must be litigated in court.

Representing FirstEnergy Corporation: David A. Kutik, 216.586.3939

Representing Carl DiFranco and other plaintiff homeowners: Michael E. Gilb, 513.204.6703

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Does Outstanding Arrest Warrant Deprive Suspect of Ability To Seek Exclusion of Evidence From Alleged Unlawful Search?

When Police Conduct Search Before They Discover Outstanding Warrant

State of Ohio v. Damaad S. Gardner, Case no. 2011-2134
Second District Court of Appeals (Montgomery County)

ISSUE:  When there is an outstanding warrant for the arrest of a person at the time he is detained and searched by police, but the police are not aware of the warrant and do not base the detention or search on it, does the existence of the warrant deprive the arrested person of any “expectation of privacy” and therefore preclude him from asserting a claim that his detention and search were unconstitutional?

BACKGROUND: The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees each individual the right to be free of unreasonable government seizure (detention) or search of his or her person.  Over the past two centuries, federal and state court decisions have established a body of case law defining what constitutes an “unreasonable” search or seizure and establishing guidelines that must be followed by police when they stop or search an individual. Generally, when they are executing an arrest warrant issued by a court,  police officers may immediately detain and search the individual named in the warrant without any requirement that the officer personally observe or suspect current illegal conduct.  In situations where there is no warrant, however, police may legally detain or search an individual only under specified circumstances that include either the officer’s personal observation of illegal conduct or a reasonable suspicion of illegal conduct for which the officer can provide tangible supporting evidence.

If a person who is arrested or searched later shows that police violated his or her Fourth Amendment rights in conducting a stop or search, the “exclusionary rule” requires a court hearing charges against the defendant to exclude (not consider or allow a jury to hear testimony about) any evidence that was obtained through the unlawful search or seizure.

This case asks the court to determine if and how the exclusionary rule applies in a case in which police detained and conducted a warrantless search of an individual based on an officer’s suspicion that he was involved in illegal activity, and the officer only later discovered that there was an outstanding arrest warrant for that person.

Damaad Gardner of Dayton was a passenger in a car that was being followed by a police detective in an unmarked patrol car. The officer did not observe any illegal conduct by the driver or anyone else in the car. By tracing the car’s license number, however, the officer determined that there was an outstanding warrant for the arrest of its owner, Richard Easter. When the car stopped at a service station and the driver got out, the officer approached  him on foot, determined that he was Easter, and placed him under arrest.

While he was handcuffing and searching Easter, the officer saw Gardner moving inside the car in a way that the officer said made him suspect Gardner may have been concealing drugs or retrieving a weapon. The officer ordered Gardner out of the car, handcuffed him, and conducted a pat-down body search that turned up a “rock” of crack cocaine concealed in Gardner’s shorts. Some time later, after placing Gardner under arrest for drug possession, the officer conducted a computer check and discovered that there was an outstanding warrant for Gardner’s arrest based on an unpaid traffic fine.

Prior to his trial on the drug possession charge, Gardner entered a motion to suppress (exclude) all evidence against him obtained through the pat-down search. He argued that the officer had not reasonable suspicion that he possessed drugs or was guilty of any other illegal conduct, and had ordered him out of the car, handcuffed and searched him based on nothing more than an unsupported “hunch”  in violation of Gardner’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress the search results without addressing Gardner’s lack-of-reasonable-suspicion argument. Instead, the court relied on a 1994 decision, Dayton v. Click, in which the Second District Court of Appeals held that when there is an outstanding warrant for the arrest of an individual, that person has no “expectation of privacy” with regard to being detained or searched by police, and therefore has effectively forfeited his Fourth Amendment rights against search or seizure. 

Gardner then entered a no-contest plea to the drug possession charge and was sentenced to a term of community control. He subsequently appealed the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress the search results.

In ruling on that appeal, the Second District Court of Appeals traced a series of its own decisions since Dayton v. Click, and decisions of other courts including the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that arrived at divergent rulings on the Fourth Amendment rights of persons who are the subject of an outstanding arrest warrant at the time they are stopped and searched in an unrelated case.  A 2-1 majority of the three-judge panel ruled that, based on the most compelling precedents, the existence of a warrant in an unrelated case did not extinguish Gardner’s  right to seek suppression of evidence based on a claim that the circumstances under which he was detained and searched in the current case violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Accordingly, the court of appeals vacated Gardner’s conviction and remanded the case to the trial court with a directive to consider Gardner’s motion to suppress on its merits.

The state sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Second District’s decision.

Arguing for the state, attorneys from the Montgomery County prosecutor’s office contend that the issuance of an arrest warrant for an individual eliminates that person’s right to invoke the Fourth Amendment because it authorizes any law enforcement officer in the state to immediately detain and search that person regardless of the circumstances.  Accordingly, they say, the Second District erred by abandoning its own precedents dating back to Click and allowing Gardner to invoke Fourth Amendment arguments to suppress the search results in this case based on the coincidence that he was searched shortly before, rather than after, the arresting officer became aware of the outstanding warrant against him.

Attorneys for Gardner respond that that the framers of the Fourth Amendment intended to create a legal environment in which the “default” position is that an individual may not be detained or searched by officers of the state unless those officers have a warrant or can point to specific, tangible evidence of current illegal conduct; and in which the courts deter police from exceeding their limited authority by excluding evidence gained through unlawful stops and searches. They argue that adopting the state’s position in this case would turn those priorities upside down, because it would enable police to disregard the probable cause requirements imposed by Fourth Amendment case law, stop anyone they choose for long enough to determine if there is an outstanding warrant for that person, and then allow them to arrest and prosecute persons for whom they find an outstanding warrant without fear that the results of their arbitrary stop and search will be suppressed.

Representing the state and Montgomery County prosecutor’s office: Carly J. Ingram, 937.225.5757

Representing Damaad Gardner: Rebekah S. Neuherz, 937.322.3860

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Does Collision Between Car and Multiple Motorcycles Constitute One ‘Accident’ or Multiple Accidents for Insurance Purposes?

Where At-Fault Driver’s Insurance Policy Does Not Define ‘Accident’

Theresa Miller et al. v. Motorists Mutual Insurance Company et al., Case no. 2012-0053
Eleventh District Court of Appeals (Portage County)

ISSUE: Under Ohio’s insurance laws, when the driver of a car collides with multiple other vehicles in the course of a single incident, and the at-fault driver’s insurance policy does not include a definition of the term “accident,” is each collision with another vehicle considered a separate accident for which the occupants of that vehicle may recover up to the full per-accident limit of liability set forth in the driver’s auto insurance policy? Or is the overall event considered to be a single accident for which the occupants of all the other vehicles involved may collectively recover only the single per-accident liability limit set forth in the driver’s policy?

BACKGROUND: In July 2008, a car driven by Daniel Masterson on State Route 5 in Portage County crossed the center line and collided with two oncoming motorcycles that were about 25 feet apart. One motorcycle was occupied by driver David Perrine and his passenger, Julia Hill, and the other was occupied by driver Geoffrey Davis and his passenger, Theresa Miller. All four motorcycle occupants suffered injuries that required extensive medical care.

Masterson, who admitted that he was at fault, was covered by an auto insurance policy issued by Motorists Mutual Insurance Co. (MMIC) that had stated limits of liability for personal injury to others of $100,000 per person and $300,000 per accident. In response to claims filed by the injured parties, MMIC asserted that the incident constituted a single accident and offered to pay the policy’s $300,000 per-accident limit to settle all of the injured parties’ claims.  Miller and Davis rejected that offer, asserting that Masterson’s collision with their motorcycle constituted a separate “accident” from the initial collision with the motorcycle occupied by Perrine and Hill, and they were therefore entitled to a separate “per accident” recovery of up to $300,000.

Because MMIC’s liability for at least one accident was not in dispute, the parties entered into an agreement under which: 1) MMIC would make a payment of $300,000 that would be divided among all of the injured parties; 2) Miller and Davis would file suit in the Portage County Court of Common Pleas seeking a declaratory judgment that the events leading to their injuries constituted a separate “accident” under the terms of the MMIC policy; and 3) If the court determined that two accidents had occurred, MMIC would pay an additional $100,000 each to Miller and Davis.

Miller and Davis filed their declaratory judgment action, which was opposed by MMIC.  Both sides filed motions asking the court to enter summary judgment in their favor.  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the insurance company, based on policy language that the judge found limited MMIC’s liability to the stated policy limits “regardless of ... the number of vehicles involved in the accident.” 

Miller and Davis appealed. On review, the Eleventh District Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment order and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.  In its opinion, the Eleventh District noted that MMIC’s policy did not include language used in many other companies’ policies that defines an accident in terms that include “continuous or repeated exposure” to a sudden and unanticipated turn of events.  In the absence of such language, or any specific definition of what constitutes an “accident,” the court of appeals held that ambiguous language in the MMIC policy must be read in a manner most favorable to policyholders, and said such a reading could reasonably conclude that because Masterson’s collision with Perrine’s motorcycle was a separate event that caused different injuries than his collision with the vehicle occupied by Miller and Davis, each collision constituted a separate accident, subject to a separate per-accident liability limit.

The insurance company sought and was granted Supreme Court review of the Eleventh District’s decision.

Attorneys for MMIC urge the court to overrule the Eleventh District and instead follow decisions of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio and the Sixth District Court of Appeals, which have applied a “causation approach” to the interpretation of similar auto policy language.  Under that approach, they say, courts have determined whether multiple injuries or claims arose from a single accident or multiple accidents based on the actions that caused those injuries, rather than the number of different persons or vehicles impacted. 

In this case, they say, evidence from the accident scene showed that the Perrine and Davis motorcycles were struck by Masterson’s car less than one second apart, and both collisions were the result of the same negligent act, i.e. Masterson’s loss of control when he leaned down to pick up a lighter from the floor of his car.  Under those circumstances, they assert, the trial court was correct in finding that all of the motorcycle occupants were injured in the same “accident,” and they are therefore collectively entitled to recover only the $300,000 per-accident limit that MMMIC has already paid them.

Attorneys for Miller and Davis respond that the court decisions cited by MMIC involved auto insurance policies that included a definition of “accident” that made reference not only to the onset of an unexpected event but also to the continuation of a prior event.  They urge the court to affirm the Eleventh District’s finding that, because no such language was included in Masterson’s MMIC policy, the term “accident” in that policy must be given its ordinary dictionary meaning which is simply “an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance.” 

They argue that meaning is ambiguous in the context of a motor vehicle crash, and can be reasonably interpreted to distinguish the collision of Masterson’s car and Perrine’s motorcycle as one distinct event and his subsequent collision with Davis’ motorcycle as a second distinct event that caused different injuries, even though the two events happened in very close proximity and as a result of the same negligent act by Masterson.  They point to established case law holding that when disputed language in an insurance policy can be reasonably read to have two different meanings, courts interpreting that language must apply the meaning that favors coverage for a policyholder.  In this case, they say, the Eleventh District  found the language of Masterson’s policy was ambiguous, and correctly interpreted it to find that he caused two separate “accidents” that were subject to separate per-accident coverage limits.

Representing Motorists Mutual Insurance Company: Merle D. Evans III, 330.455.0173

Representing Theresa Miller and Geoffrey Davis: Robert P. Rutter, 216.642.1425

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These informal previews are prepared by the Supreme Court's Office of Public Information to provide the news media and other interested persons with a brief overview of the legal issues and arguments advanced by the parties in upcoming cases scheduled for oral argument. The previews are not part of the case record, and are not considered by the Court during its deliberations.

Parties interested in receiving additional information are encouraged to review the case file available in the Supreme Court Clerk's Office (614.387.9530), or to contact counsel of record.