Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Twelfth District: Former Coroner Owes $7,500 in Attorney Fees to Sheriff Employees Accused of Inmate’s Murder

The former Brown County coroner, who alleges that sheriff’s deputies killed an inmate and staged his death as a suicide, owes the county employees $7,500 in legal fees spent to defend themselves against her claims, an Ohio appeals court ruled.

The Twelfth District Court of Appeals recently affirmed a Brown County Common Pleas Court ruling that permanently blocked former coroner Judith Varnau from continuing an official examination of the 2013 death of Zachary Goldson. The Brown County Sheriff’s Office asked for an injunction and more than $25,000 in legal fees paid to defend itself in the lawsuit. The Twelfth District found the trial judge correctly determined that $7,500 was sufficient to cover actual costs, noting the county sought $300 per hour to have an attorney drive a motion to the courthouse to file, rather than send it by mail or some other lower-cost method.

The appellate court also indicated its ruling doesn’t end the long-standing legal feud between Varnau and her husband, Dennis, with former Brown County Sheriff Dwayne Wenninger. Wenninger defeated Dennis Varnau in the 2008 race for sheriff.

Disputed Death Sparks Feud
Writing for the Twelfth District, Judge Robin N. Piper explained in its August 14 decision that Varnau’s appeal stems from a September 2016 ruling stopping her inquiry into Goldson’s death. Varnau was in her last year as the elected coroner and didn’t seek re-election. She wasn’t in office at the time of this ruling.

Goldson had a history of suicidal behavior, and his sister and his girlfriend testified that he threatened to harm himself on multiple occasions. He was incarcerated in the Brown County Jail when he swallowed several items and was transported to a local hospital. During the transport, he assaulted a police officer, attempting to grab his weapon. The incident caused serious cuts to the officer’s face.

Goldson was returned to jail, where, the opinion stated, he was left alone in his cell for 23 minutes and 42 seconds before officers discovered Goldson had hung himself from an overhead sprinkler using a bedsheet.

Goldson’s body was sent to Montgomery County for an autopsy, and the coroner there confirmed Goldson’s death was a result of hanging by the neck. The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) confirmed the death as a suicide. During its investigation, the BCI obtained video surveillance of the hallway outside of Goldson’s cell from the county, which showed no one entering or leaving from Goldson’s cell for the 21 minutes prior to his death.

However, Varnau stated she believed the sheriff’s staff killed Goldson by strangling him with a ligature and staging the hanging to look like a suicide. She alleged the deputies killed Goldson for assaulting the officer during the transport. Varnau indicated on Goldson’s death certificate that his death was caused by strangulation and was a homicide.

Varnau Seeks Criminal Charges
Varnau developed a slide presentation regarding Goldson’s death and presented it to a county grand jury, which declined to indict anyone for the death. She then announced a second inquiry to “clarify” her findings, and her allegations against the sheriff’s office became widely known, the opinion stated.

Several members of the sheriff’s office filed a federal lawsuit against Varnau and her husband for defamation and other causes related to their claims. The administrator of Goldson’s estate then filed a federal lawsuit against the sheriff’s office and several employees claiming wrongful death and mistreatment of a detained person.

Employees Attempt to Block Inquiry
Varnau served six subpoenason sheriff’s office employees as part of her inquiry. The employees responded by filing a lawsuit in Brown County Common Pleas Court to stop the second investigation and declare that Varnau lacked the authority to issue the subpoenas. They also sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) to stop any further activity by Varnau in the matter until the case was resolved.

The trial judge issued the TRO, but four days later Varnau subpoenaed the makers of the overhead sprinkler Goldson used to hang himself, and then she used county funds to test the sprinkler equipment. She also created a “Coroner Inquest Page” on her official website and invited the public to submit information. Additionally, she filed a public records request with the sheriff for contact information for the bedsheet manufacturer, and she published an hour-long online presentation about Goldson’s death.

The trial court granted a permanent injunction prohibiting Varnau from conducting any further inquest into Goldson’s death. The trial court also awarded the sheriff’s employees $7,500 in attorney fees. Varnau appealed the decision, and the employees filed a cross appeal seeking more than $25,000 in legal fees.

Law Limits Time for Coroner Inquiries
Judge Piper wrote that R.C. 313.17 grants county coroners the right to issue subpoenas as part of an investigation into a death. However, the coroner has no authority to conduct a subsequent or second inquest to prove or verify the determination once the cause of death is recorded on the certificate, the Twelfth District concluded.

The Twelfth District also cited the Ohio Administrative Code, which gives a coroner six months to conclude an investigation and certify the cause of death. Goldson died in October 2013, and Varnau’s six-month deadline ended in April 2014. Because she didn’t begin the second inquest until December 2014, she lacked the authority to reopen the case, and the trial court acted properly in granting the injunction, the opinion stated.

The appeals court also found that the deputies suffered harm from the inquiry and the subpoenas as they “continued to be directly implicated or accused of being complicit in Goldson’s death.”

“Such accusation from a public official would have a direct impact on the citizens of Brown County and the way they view their police forces. There is no doubt that such accusations would harm the officers’ reputations and impact public trust in the Brown County Sheriff’s Office as a whole,” the opinion stated.

Fees Amount Disputed
While the Twelfth District approved stopping the inquiry, it found the employees’ requests for more than $25,000 in attorney fees wasn’t justified. The Twelfth District ruled the $300-per-hour rate was reasonable, but that it took only 25 hours of legal work by the attorneys to obtain the protective order.

The Twelfth District also noted that while Varnau can’t seek information as part of an official inquiry into the death, she can still pursue the sheriff’s department for material she believes is needed to defend herself in the employees’ federal lawsuit.

Judges Stephen W. Powell and Michael E. Powell concurred in the opinion.

Dunning v. Varnau, 2017-Ohio-7207.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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