Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Third District: No Immunity for Sheriff Who Posted Wrong Woman’s Photo for Welfare Fraud

A registered nurse with no criminal record can pursue her defamation and emotional distress lawsuit against the Shelby County sheriff and a deputy. The two mistakenly posted her photo during a press conference announcing the crack down on welfare fraud instead of a woman with the same name who the county already convicted and sentenced for the crime.

The Third District Court of Appeals ruled Monday that Sheriff John R. Lenhart and Deputy Sheriff Patrick Goldschmidt are not immune from civil liability. The decision overturns a Shelby County Common Pleas Court ruling that dismissed the case against the two, and directed the court to hear Christine Hughes’ arguments that the two acted in bad faith or in a wanton or reckless manner.

At a January 24, 2014 press conference, Lenhart, flanked by Shelby County Jobs and Family Services Director Steve Pulfer, and Shelby County Prosecutor Tim Sell, stood before a poster of seven women the county convicted of welfare fraud and articulated their plans to pursue other convictions. Hughes, of Sidney, was alerted to the media coverage of the press conference. She found numerous news articles online linking her image to the case because the sheriff’s department provided the photos of the women to the media and posted them on the department’s Facebook page.

The next day the sheriff’s department responded to Hughes and apologized for the misuse of  her photo. It was Deputy Goldschmidt who incorrectly obtained Hughes’ photo instead of the convicted woman, who  was sentenced to five years of community control and ordered to pay $531 in restitution.

The department issued a retraction indicating it “provided the wrong mug shot or otherwise photograph of a convicted felon or individual charged with a criminal act.” Hughes argued that the statement still falsely implied she was either a convicted felon or charged with a different criminal act. She said she received emails and phone calls regarding the situation and suffered economic and personal loss to her career and reputation.

Hughes filed suit a month after the incident for defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Lenhart and Goldschmidt motioned for the court to dismiss the case based on the governmental immunity from civil lawsuits granted in R.C. 2744.02. The court granted the dismissal in August 2014, and Hughes appealed to the Third District.

Writing for the appellate court, Judge John R. Willamowski stated that the statute the sheriff invoked provides immunity from negligence for the government agency accused in a civil lawsuit. Hughes filed her complaint only against the sheriff and the deputy, not the department, and the statute that grants immunity to government employees is R.C. 2744.03. One exception to immunity is when an employee’s “acts or omissions were with malicious purpose, in bad faith, or in a wanton or reckless manner,” which is found in R.C. 2744.03(A)(6)(b).

“Hughes argues that the use of her picture in relation to a criminal story in which she was not a party falls under section (b)’s exception to immunity,” Judge Willamowski wrote. “The department explained that the real offender was a woman with the same name and they had mistakenly used the wrong photo. However, the retraction still indicated that Hughes was either a convicted felon or had been charged with a criminal act.”

He concluded that Hughes had sufficiently alleged facts that show the conduct was either intentional or reckless, which would be an exception to immunity, and should be allowed to prove her case in court. The case was remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Judges Stephen R. Shaw and Vernon L. Preston concurred in the decision.

Hughes v. Lenhart, 2015-Ohio-933
Civil Appeal From: Shelby County
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: March 16, 2015

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