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Court News Ohio

Conviction Not Required to Pursue Civil Lawsuit Based on Criminal Acts

Ohio law allows a person to pursue a civil lawsuit based on injuries caused by a criminal act without having to show the crime resulted in a conviction , the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

A federal district court asked the Supreme Court to clarify two state statutes before moving forward with a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by a Geauga County Health District employee who accused the health district’s leaders of criminal acts that led to her dismissal.

Writing for the Court majority, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor stated the laws do not state that a conviction is required before a lawsuit for civil liability based on criminal acts can be filed. Without clear indication from the legislature that a conviction is required, the Court “will not read such intent into” the law, Chief Justice O’Connor stated.

Justices Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, Michael P. Donnelly, and Melody J. Stewart joined the opinion.

Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in judgment only.

Worker Challenges Termination
In 2018, Rebecca Buddenberg sued in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, alleging federal and state anti-discrimination laws were violated by Geauga County Health Commissioner Robert K. Weisdack, certain members of the health board, her supervisor, and James Budzik, the health district’s attorney.

Buddenberg alleged that under R.C. 2307.60 she could file claims for civil liability based on the violation of alleged criminal acts of retaliation, intimidation, and interfering with civil rights. The health district asked the federal court to dismiss the case, arguing the civil claims could only be pursued if there were a conviction for the alleged crimes.

The federal court denied the request and certified two questions to the Supreme Court. Does R.C. 2307.60 require a conviction in order to file a civil lawsuit? And does the civil claim for the crime of intimidation, R.C. 2921.03, specifically require a conviction before a claim can be filed? The Court agreed to answer the questions.

Court Examines Statutes
The Court examined the statutes. R.C. 2307.60(A)(1) states: “Anyone injured in person or property by a criminal act has, and may recover full damages in, a civil action unless specifically excepted by law, may recover the costs of maintaining the civil action and attorney’s fees if authorized by any provision of the Rules of Civil Procedure or another section of the Revised Code or under the common law of this state, and may recover punitive or exemplary damages if authorized by section 2315.21 or another section of the Revised Code.”

The opinion stated that if the meaning of the words in a statute are unambiguous, the Court will apply the words as written without further interpretation. The Court found that the law does not require any proof of an underlying criminal conviction.

The Court noted the word “conviction” is noticeably absent. The health district had argued a civil lawsuit could be filed if an act were “committed,” which means there must be a conviction.

“But crimes can be committed without a conviction. They often are,” the opinion stated. “The fact that a person’s actions subject him or her to prosecution in no way establishes that he or she will in fact be prosecuted.”

The Court also noted if a conviction were required under R.C. 2307.60(A)(1), it would make the next section of the law, R.C. 2307.60(A)(2), superfluous. That section allows a plaintiff to use a conviction as evidence in a civil lawsuit. The provision permits, but does not require, the use of a conviction to prove a case, and the provision would not be necessary if a conviction were required, the Court explained.

The intimidation statute, R.C. 2921.03, allows a civil lawsuit if harm was caused “as a result of the commission of the offense.” The health district argued the language implies there must first be a conviction before a suit can be filed.

The Court rejected the argument, finding again that the word “conviction” is absent from the statute. The health district argued the term “offense” is synonymous with “crime” and both mean “acts that have been the subject of criminal proceedings.” The Court disagreed.

“But, again, being the subject of a criminal proceeding is not the equivalent of being convicted of the crimes charged,” the opinion stated.

2018-1209. Buddenberg v. Weisdack, Slip Opinion No. 2020-Ohio-3832.

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