Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow v. Ohio State Board of Education et al., Case no. 2020-0182
Tenth District Court of Appeals (Franklin County)

State of Ohio v. Arron L. Lawson, Case no. 2019-0487
Fourth District Court of Appeals (Lawrence County)

Which Court Was Proper for Online School to Appeal Order to Refund $60 Million?

Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow v. Ohio State Board of Education et al., Case No. 2020-0182
Tenth District Court of Appeals (Franklin County)

ISSUE: Does a community school have a right to pursue an appeal under R.C. Chapter 119 to the common pleas court from an Ohio Board of Education adverse funding determination made under R.C. 3314.08(K)?

The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) was a community school, often referred to as charter schools, that operated online until it closed in January 2018. The Ohio Department of Education funds e-schools each month based on full-time equivalency (FTE) data that each e-school self-reports.

For school year 2015-2016, ECOT – using FTE data – reported it had 15,321.98 students. ECOT received about $108.9 million in funding based on those calculations. The education department conducts reviews of school FTEs to check for overpayments and underpayments. ECOT was one of 12 e-schools subject to review in the summer of 2016.

Before the department completed its review, ECOT filed a lawsuit contesting the department’s method for calculating the school’s funding that looked at the duration of each student’s participation time online. The trial court rejected ECOT’s claims in December 2016. The Tenth District Court of Appeals upheld the decision in June 2017, and the Ohio Supreme Court agreed in August 2018, dismissing the case. (See “State Can Measure E-School Attendance with Student Participation Data.”)

ECOT Numbers Don’t Align with Funding
The education department completed its review in September 2016, determining from student participation data that ECOT could prove only 41.2% of the FTEs it had reported.

Based on R.C. 3314.08(K)(2), ECOT filed an administrative appeal with the Ohio State Board of Education. After 10 days of arguments and evidence, the hearing officer issued a 134-page decision. The hearing officer recommended a small adjustment to the percentage based on additional data from ECOT regarding the time students spent online doing classwork through the school – from 41.2% to 44.6%. The state board reviewed the decision in June 2017 and adopted the hearing officer’s report and recommendation. The board directed the education department to collect $60.35 million in overpayment from ECOT.

E-School Sues in Two Courts
In June 2017, ECOT filed two lawsuits regarding the board’s decision.

In a legal action filed directly with the Ohio Supreme Court, the e-school asked for a writ of prohibition to block the state school board and education department from implementing the board’s decision. The e-school also requested a writ of mandamus to force the board to find that the school was entitled to the FTEs it had claimed for the 2015-2016 school year. In a 6-1 ruling in September 2017, the Supreme Court dismissed the case without an opinion.

In the second lawsuit, ECOT appealed the board’s decision in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court. ECOT made the appeal based on rights in R.C. 119.12. In October 2017, the trial court granted the state board’s and education department’s motion to dismiss. The trial court concluded that ECOT could appeal the board’s determination only through a mandamus action, not under R.C. Chapter 119.

The e-school appealed to the Tenth District, which first reversed the trial court in a 2-1 ruling, finding ECOT could appeal under R.C. Chapter 119. On reconsideration, though, the appeals court in April 2019 upheld the trial court in a 2-1 decision.

ECOT appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which agreed to review the issue regarding the avenue of appeal ECOT has in this matter. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case by a livestreamed videoconference because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Law Describes Administrative Appeals
The department of education is a state agency subject to the administrative procedures in R.C. Chapter 119, and its decisions can be appealed under R.C. 119.12(B), ECOT argues. R.C. 119.12(B) states, “Any party adversely affected by any order of an agency issued pursuant to any other adjudication may appeal to the court of common pleas of Franklin county ….”

ECOT also points to R.C. Chapter 3301, which spells out the roles and responsibilities of the state board of education and the education department. R.C. 3301.13 states:

Another law governing the education department, R.C. 3314.08(K), describes the department process for reviewing a community school’s enrollment, and how community school appeals of those reviews are handled. After hearing a community school’s appeal, “[a]ny decision made by the board under this division is final,” the statute states.

‘Final’ in Law Does Not Bar Appeal, E-School Argues
Although the lower courts in this case found that the word “final” means the community school cannot appeal the board’s decision under R.C. Chapter 119, ECOT counters by citing the Ohio Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Brookwood Presbyterian Church v. Ohio Department of Education, which involved a church that applied to be a sponsor of community schools. The relevant law had a provision similar to the one in this case that the education department’s decision “is final.” But “final” often refers to the point at which a case can be appealed, the Court explained, writing:

“We can look to our own jurisprudence and the Ohio Constitution to determine the legal significance of the word ‘final.’ In Walburn v. Dunlap, … this court explained, ‘It is well-established that an order must be final before it can be reviewed by an appellate court. If an order is not final, then an appellate court has no jurisdiction.’ … Section 3(B)(2), Article IV of the Ohio Constitution grants courts of appeals appellate jurisdiction ‘as may be provided by law to review and affirm, modify, or reverse final orders or actions of administrative officers or agencies.’ … Thus, in our system of law, ‘final’ can mean the opposite of ‘not appealable.’” (Emphasis in opinion.)

ECOT asserts that R.C. 3301.13 clearly states that appeals of education department decisions may be made under R.C. Chapter 119. When the state legislature wants to prohibit Chapter 119 appeals, it expressly notes that intent with language that a decision “is final and not appealable,” ECOT maintains, pointing to other statutes in the education department chapter.

Judicial review is important because it serves as a check on executive power and potential impropriety, ECOT argues. The e-school asks the Court to reverse the Tenth District’s decision and return the case to the trial court to be considered on the merits.

Explicit Mention of Appeal Right in Law Required, State Agencies Assert
The state board and department of education point to three Tenth District Court of Appeals decisions – State ex rel. Shumway v. Ohio State Teachers Retirement Board (1986), Carney v. School Employees Retirement System Board (1987), and Heartland Jockey Club Ltd. v. Ohio State Racing Commission (1999) – to support their position. Those cases involved statutes saying the board decision was final, without addressing appeals. The Tenth District ruled in each that the language barred appeals of those board decisions, the agencies state.

In Brookwood, the Supreme Court concluded those decisions weren’t relevant. However, the agencies note, the Court explained that the Tenth District cases were different because in Brookwood a relevant statute specifically stated that department decisions denying community school sponsorships “may be appealed by the entity in accordance with section 119.12 of the Revised Code.” The Court wrote in Brookwood:

“In those cases, the statutes lacked what is present in this case – a specific, statutory grant of jurisdiction to the trial court to review the decisions of the administrative body pursuant to R.C. 119.12. Here, that makes all the difference.”

The agencies argue there is no provision in the statute about FTE reviews explicitly allowing appeals based on R.C. 119.12. They contend that the default meaning of “final” is “not appealable,” and that understanding changes only when the law specifically grants a right to appeal.

Referring to this appeal as ECOT’s attempt at a “second bite of the apple,” they maintain the e-school’s only path to appeal the board’s decision was the mandamus action filed with the Court. The Court dismissed that lawsuit in September 2017, and ECOT cannot pursue an appeal through this path, the board and department conclude.

Kathleen Maloney

Docket entries, memoranda, briefs (including amicus briefs), and other information about this case may be accessed through the case docket.

Representing the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow: Marion Little Jr., 614.365.4113

Representing the Ohio State Board of Education and the Ohio Department of Education: Erik Clark, special counsel to the Ohio attorney general, 614.481.0908

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Lawrence County Man Who Killed Four Family Members Appeals Death Sentence

State of Ohio v. Arron L. Lawson, Case No. 2019-0487
Fourth District Court of Appeals (Lawrence County)

In October 2017, Arron Lawson killed his cousin, her 8-year-old son, and her parents, then led law enforcement officials on a three-day manhunt before confessing to the crime. Lawson’s death sentence entitles him to an automatic appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court. He argues the trial court failed to adequately assess his mental competency before he pleaded guilty to the charges.

Because of the COVID-19 health crisis, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case by videoconference, which will be livestreamed.

Woman Ends Relationship with Cousin
Lawson was a regular visitor to the Pedro, Ohio, home of Todd and Stacey Holston and their two sons, ages 8 and 2. A week prior to the day of the murders, Stacey Holston informed Lawson, her cousin, that they no longer would have sexual relations. On the night prior to the fatal encounters, Lawson propped open a window in a spare room of the Holston home with a book. The next morning, shortly after Todd Holston left for work before 5 a.m., Lawson entered through the window and hid in the room. He waited for the 8-year-old, identified in court records as D.H., to leave for school.

Lawson then shot Stacey Holston with a shotgun, disrobed her, and had sexual intercourse with her. The trial court determined from medical evidence that Stacey was deceased at the time of the intercourse. Lawson then waited for D.H. to come home and lured the child with the promise that a new video game was in his bedroom. He then shot D.H. to death and covered his body with clothes.

Throughout the day Todd Holsten tried unsuccessfully to reach his wife by phone. Concerned, he called Tammie McClure, his wife’s mother, to see if she would check on her daughter. McClure and her husband, Donald, lived on the same road about a quarter mile from the Holstons. Tammie entered the home and discovered her daughter’s body. While on the phone with Tammie, Todd heard Tammie say “Oh my god” and then heard a blast noise. The call ended. Todd called Donald McClure, who drove his truck to the Holston home. When Donald walked into the home, Lawson shot Donald to death with the shotgun.

Lawson, who had brought a backpack with him containing items to change his appearance and survive in the wild, awaited Todd Holsten’s return home. When Todd entered the home, Lawson attacked him with a knife. After a struggle, Todd was able to get the knife away from Lawson. Lawson then stole McClure’s truck and drove away.

Three days later, law enforcement tracked Lawson and he surrendered. Todd discovered the four bodies, and law enforcement was able to collect DNA evidence that implicated Lawson as their killer.

Gunman Confesses, Declines Jury Trial
Once apprehended, Lawson confessed to the crimes. In October 2017, he was indicted on 13 counts, including four counts of aggravated murder with death penalty and firearm specifications. Lawson pleaded not guilty to the charges, and attorneys were appointed to represent him. His attorneys hired a board-certified forensic psychologist to study Lawson’s background and present a summary of life events and other factors that might constitute mitigating evidence. The psychologist’s job was to conduct a comprehensive review of available records and gather information from Lawson and family members. He wasn’t asked to administer psychiatric testing.

After a jury was selected early in 2019 after pre-trial hearings, Lawson informed his attorneys that he wanted to waive his right to a jury and plead guilty to the charges. The trial judge called for a conference in his chambers with the prosecutors and Lawson’s attorneys. The judge questioned whether Lawson was competent to change his plea to guilty. The judge noted to the attorneys that months earlier he suggested that Lawson undergo a mental examination to assess his competency, but didn’t insist on the exam after Lawson’s attorneys objected to it.

One of Lawson’s lawyers explained that a competency exam at that stage would have only assessed whether Lawson was competent to stand trial, and that it was undisputed that the exam would confirm his ability to stand trial. However, Lawson’s attorney explained that an examination to determine competency to stand trial is far different than an exam to determine the mental ability to understand the ramifications of pleading guilty to death penalty charges.

At the judge’s suggestion, the lawyers asked Lawson to reconsider pleading guilty, and Lawson agreed to go to trial. However, by the next day, Lawson again asked to waive the jury trial and pleaded guilty.

A three-member judicial panel was assembled, and Lawson was questioned to determine if he understood the consequences of pleading guilty. He acknowledged he did, and the judges found him guilty of most of the charges. After a sentencing hearing, the judges imposed the death penalty and 59 years in prison for the other offenses.

Rights Violated When Plea Accepted, Lawson Argues
Lawson argues the trial court violated his due process rights by accepting his waiver of a jury trial without conducting an inquiry into his competence. While the prosecution and the presiding trial court judge noted that Lawson was examined by a psychologist hired by his defense team, Lawson’s lawyers countered the exam was to assess what mitigating evidence might exist to demonstrate Lawson shouldn’t receive the death penalty if convicted. His trial lawyers explained a whole separate type of exam is required when a person gives up the right to a trial and allows themselves to be convicted of capital murder.

On appeal, his lawyers argue that Lawson has never been examined to determine if he was competent to understand the ramifications of waiving his right to a jury trial, nor was he made aware that if only one juror agreed he shouldn’t receive the death penalty that his life would be spared. Lawson also told the judge during his plea hearing he was on two mood-stabilizing medications and other prescribed drugs at the time he discussed his plea with the court and his waiver of the jury trial. Lawson argues that was a “red flag” that should have raised the trial court’s concerns that he wasn’t competent to waive his rights, and that due process requires an exam.

Lawson agrees that a trial court isn’t required to order a competency exam before a defendant agrees to plead guilty to a capital charge. But in his case, he maintains, when he changed his mind twice about pleading guilty, his constitutional rights were violated by not conducting the exam.

Additional Issues Raised in Briefs
Lawson also asserts his constitutional rights were violated because his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance. He maintains the performance of his trial lawyers fell below an acceptable level when they allowed the court to proceed with the waiver of his rights to a jury trial without more fervently insisting that he receive a competency exam.

Lawson maintains the lawyers knew both of the presiding judge’s lingering concerns about Lawson’s mental state and that he was on mood-altering prescription drugs when he entered the plea, yet they didn’t insist on an evaluation. In his brief, Lawson also maintains the trial court insufficiently weighed the mitigating and aggravating circumstances and incorrectly sentenced him to death. He also argues Ohio’s death penalty is unconstitutional.

Process Was Fair, Prosecutors Argue
The Lawrence County Prosecutor’s Office notes that there was a nine-day break between the time the jury was excused and the first hearing before the three-judge panel. The prosecutor maintains Lawson and his lawyers had that time to seek a competency exam or request time for an exam, but didn’t do so. The prosecutor’s brief states the presiding judge conducted “an extensive and exhaustive colloquy” directly with Lawson, and that Lawson himself answered the judge 145 times. At no time did Lawson’s response seem inappropriate, and the judge had ample time to gauge Lawson’s competency to waive the jury rights, the brief states.

The prosecutor notes Lawson expressed remorse for killing family members and expressed a desire not to put his family and the community through the process of a jury trial. The prosecutor also contends Lawson had seasoned defense attorneys assigned to his case, who had dozens of years of experience defending murder suspects. Lawson’s attorneys repeatedly noted to the court that Lawson was ignoring the advice of counsel in waiving his right to a jury trial, which the office argues demonstrates that the lawyers’ actions weren’t below the expected performance.

The prosecutor also maintains that the presence of mood-stabilizing drugs in Lawson’s system doesn’t require a competency hearing and there isn’t a requirement in the law or in court rules for criminal trials that require it. The office maintains that the trial judge’s own assessment along with the opinion of Lawson’s trial lawyers that the medications weren’t affecting Lawson’s decision-making was sufficient to proceed with the case.

Dan Trevas

Docket entries, memoranda, briefs (including amicus briefs), and other information about this case may be accessed through the case docket.

Representing the State of Ohio from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office: Stephen Maher, 614.728.7055

Representing Arron L. Lawson: Thomas Rein, 216.687.0400

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