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Court News Ohio

Common Pleas Court Did Not Have Jurisdiction to Review Legality of Court Costs Paid to Municipal Courts

A common pleas court did not have the authority to review a case from a Cleveland man who alleged that a municipal court charged him and other defendants improper court costs, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Supreme Court determined that the relief requested by William C. Glick in his class-action lawsuit considered by the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court essentially asked to invalidate part of his sentence from the Berea Municipal Court. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who wrote the court’s opinion, concluded that the common pleas court had no power to vacate the municipal court’s decision and lacked jurisdiction to proceed with Glick’s case.

Glick was cited in August 2004 for weaving and operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. As part of a plea agreement, he agreed to plead guilty to reckless operation and to pay court costs. The Berea Municipal Court charged a $450 fine and court costs of $427 related to the reckless-operation conviction and $83 in the dismissal of the weaving charge. While he was unclear why he had to pay court costs for the dismissed charge, Glick did not appeal his conviction or sentence.

In June 2005, Glick, Michael A. Lingo, and Gregory B. Williams filed a class action in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, alleging that municipal courts were improperly charging court costs for traffic violations. The suit was originally filed against only the state but was later amended to include Raymond J. Wohl, clerk of the Berea Municipal Court. (The parties did not add the clerks of any other courts.) Glick and the other plaintiffs asked the court for a declaration that municipal, county, and mayor’s courts had illegally assessed costs against members of the class, that they had a right to full refunds of the improper costs, and to direct the state to prevent these courts from collecting costs in these ways, among other requests.

In November 2011, the common pleas court denied the certification of the original group for the class action; certified a class action for a group limited to only individuals who paid improper charges to the Berea Municipal Court; named Glick as the sole class representative; and dismissed the state and other defendants, except for Wohl, from the case. The common pleas court found that Wohl, as clerk, is an administrative officer, and the court had jurisdiction to review his actions under the Ohio Constitution. The court then decided that the costs Glick paid for the dismissed charge violated state law, and it ordered Wohl to return those funds.

Wohl appealed to the Eighth District Court of Appeals. It reversed, holding that the costs are part of a sentencing order that is final and appealable and had to be challenged in a direct appeal. The court determined that Glick and the other plaintiffs had paid the costs and never pursued an appeal, so their claims were defeated. As a result, there was no live controversy, so the common pleas court had no jurisdiction to hear the case and no authority to certify the class action, the appeals court ruled.

Glick appealed the Ohio Supreme Court. The court today affirmed the appellate court’s decision but for different reasons.

“The plaintiffs’ action was able to progress as far as it did largely due to creative pleadings and a multilayered attack,” Chief Justice O’Connor wrote. “On one level, the plaintiffs justified their demand for disgorgement of funds by purporting to target an administrative error, i.e., one that arose from the clerk’s alleged misfeasance. But on another level, the plaintiffs attempted to avoid procedural defeat by portraying the error as a judicial issue and claiming that the ultimate judgment was rendered void as a result of the error.”

The chief justice noted that “[c]osts are part of a defendant’s final, appealable judgment entry of sentence.” She explained that the relief Glick wanted is possible only if the common pleas court reviews the municipal court’s decision and invalidates some part of that judgment; however, the power to review and vacate another court’s decision is reserved exclusively for an appellate court. The common pleas court did not have the authority to grant declaratory judgment to Glick in this case, she concluded.

“Although the purpose of the [declaratory judgments] act is to declare rights in the face of uncertainty, it is well settled that declaratory judgment is not a proper vehicle for determining whether rights that were previously adjudicated were properly adjudicated,” the chief justice wrote. “For direct and collateral attacks alike, declaratory judgment is simply not a part of the criminal appellate or postconviction review process.”

“In the present case, Glick’s criminal proceedings had come to a final conclusion, as had the proceedings of the members of the plaintiff class,” she continued. “Although the trial court did not err in initially entertaining this case, it erred in proceeding to decide it on its merits. Upon review of the merits and underlying facts, it is clear that the plaintiffs were not actually asking for disgorgement of funds wrongfully held as a result of an invalid policy promulgated by an administrative officer. Instead, they were asking the court to partially vacate final, unappealed judgments. Regardless of the character or severity of an error in a judgment entry, and regardless of whether that error renders the judgment void or voidable, the criminal appellate and postconviction review processes remain the sole avenues for redress. Declaratory judgment was therefore unavailable as a means of reviewing and vacating a portion of the costs imposed as part of Glick’s sentence.”

On the Eighth District’s reasoning in its decision, Chief Justice O’Connor noted, “The statement that void judgments are not open to collateral attack and that attacks on void judgments can be defeated by the doctrine of res judicata is mistaken. A void judgment is a nullity and open to collateral attack at any time.”

“Because the common pleas court was not empowered either inherently or by Ohio’s Constitution to provide the requested review and relief, the court lacked jurisdiction to proceed with the plaintiffs’ case. In this context, the intent of the Eighth District’s holding is better understood; whether an error in a criminal judgment entry causes a portion of the judgment to be void or voidable, the remedy lies in a direct or collateral attack before a court with the authority to vacate the decision, not an attack on the judgment in a different court with no authority to vacate the decision.”   

Joining the majority were Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Sharon L. Kennedy, and Judith L. French.
Justice O’Donnell wrote separately in a concurrence joined by Justice Kennedy. Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger concurred only in the judgment of the court.

Justice Paul E. Pfeifer dissented in an opinion that Justice William M. O’Neill joined.

In his concurring opinion, Justice O’Donnell agreed with the majority that a common pleas court has no authority to review orders of municipal courts, and in this case, the common pleas court lacked authority to provide relief. Justice O’Donnell’s opinion addressed the subliminal issue of whether a municipal court has authority to assess court costs on a per charge basis and on dismissed charges.

He noted that imposing costs for each criminal charge raises concerns if the costs are not special project fees. In addition, Justice O’Donnell pointed out that various statutes indicate that the General Assembly intended to impose certain court costs for charges that lead to convictions, but it did not intend to assess costs for dismissed charges.

“[A]lthough we cannot dispose of the issues pertaining to the imposition of certain costs in this case, courts that continue to assess court costs that are not ‘special project’ fees on a per charge basis and to impose costs on dismissed charges in the absence of a plea agreement run the risk being compelled to refund those costs if they are ultimately found to be improperly assessed,” he concluded.  

In his dissent, Justice Pfeifer agreed with the majority that a common pleas court has no power to vacate an order issued by a municipal court and also agreed with the rest of the syllabus in this case. However, when a court clerk charges court costs not authorized by statute, then that action is a void act, one that is not a final, appealable order, he wrote. The common pleas court therefore had jurisdiction to declare that the actions by the court were void, he concluded.

“Once we have accepted jurisdiction, it is our duty to provide justice to the parties before us,” Justice Pfeifer wrote. “In this case, the way to do that is to reinstate the decision of the [common pleas] court, which required the Berea Municipal Court to refrain from illegal activity, and allow the plaintiffs an opportunity to prove that they are entitled to equitable redress.”

2012-1774. Lingo v. State, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-1052.

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