Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Michael Walling, Administrator of the Estate of Raeann Walling, Deceased v. Ransford S. Brenya, M.D., et al. , Case no. 2021-0241
Sixth District Court of Appeals (Lucas County)

State of Ohio v. Jeremy Stutler , Case no. 2021-0428
Fifth District Court of Appeals (Stark County)

Brian M. Ames v. Rootstown Township Board of Trustees, Case no. 2021-0706
Eleventh District Court of Appeals (Portage County)

State of Ohio v. Monai Sherea Brown, Case no. 2021-0392
First District Court of Appeals (Hamilton County)

Can Negligence Lawsuit Against Hospital Move Forward if Doctor Is Not Found Negligent?

Michael Walling, administrator of the estate of Raeann Walling v. Ransford S. Brenya, M.D., et al., Case No. 2021-0241
Sixth District Court of Appeals (Lucas County)

ISSUE: If there is no legal determination that a physician who was sued for medical malpractice was negligent, can a negligence claim against a hospital for granting privileges to the doctor go forward?

Following the death of his 26-year-old daughter, Raeann, Michael Walling filed a lawsuit against his daughter’s cardiologist.

Walling’s daughter had a genetic condition that caused an abnormal heart rhythm. She was treated by Dr. Ransford Brenya. In 2013 and 2014, Brenya performed three cardiac procedures on Walling’s daughter to stop electrical signals from triggering abnormal arrhythmias, which could be fatal. Two of the procedures were conducted at the Toledo Hospital and one at another area hospital. Brenya had staff privileges at both facilities.

Raeann died in April 2014, about a month after the third procedure.

Walling’s 2015 lawsuit alleged that Brenya’s “repeated and incompetent” procedures caused an excessive narrowing of her pulmonary veins. Brenya failed to recognize the symptoms of the vein narrowing, which caused Raeann to suffer and eventually die from the undiagnosed and untreated pulmonary condition, the negligence suit asserted.

Father Adds Allegation of Negligent Credentialing to Lawsuit
Based on information obtained during discovery and depositions, Walling amended the medical negligence complaint in February 2017. He added a claim of negligent credentialing against Toledo Hospital because it granted privileges to Breyna to practice there.

The hospital asked the Lucas County Common Pleas Court to divide the case and hear the medical negligence claim against the doctor first. The court granted the request. A few days into the 2019 jury trial on the medical negligence issues, the parties agreed to a confidential settlement. The lawsuit was dismissed.

Toledo Hospital asked for summary judgment in its favor on the negligent credentialing part of the lawsuit. In granting the hospital’s request, the court found Brenya didn’t concede liability in his testimony during the truncated trial, so the negligent credentialing claim couldn’t proceed.

Walling appealed to the Sixth District Court of Appeals, which upheld the trial court’s decision. He appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio, which agreed to consider the issue.

Claim Against Hospital Not Dependent on Proving Doctor’s Malpractice, Father Contends
Walling states that hospitals have a duty to give staff privileges to only competent doctors, and hospitals can be held directly liable for negligence in their credentialing of doctors.

Walling points to the Supreme Court’s decision in Evans v. Akron Gen. Med. Ctr. (2020), in which a patient alleged she was sexually abused by a medical center employee. The patient sued the medical center for negligent hiring, supervision, or retention of the employee. The Court ruled the employee doesn’t need to be found guilty of a crime or liable in a civil case for the plaintiff to make a legal claim against the employer for negligent hiring, supervision, or retention.

Walling notes the Court’s opinion discussed how the decision on negligent hiring is consistent with its earlier rulings in Schelling v. Humphrey (2009) and other cases involving an employer’s credentialing of staff. Walling argues for the reasoning of Evans to be applied in this case – permitting a separate, independent claim of negligent credentialing against the hospital to proceed regardless of whether the doctor was found negligent.

Walling also argues that Brenya conceded negligence during his trial testimony before the settlement and that the doctor’s actions led to Raeann’s death. Brenya stated that he didn’t remember reviewing an X-ray showing a possible pulmonary vein obstruction, that not reviewing the records fell below the standard of care, and that the appropriate next step would have been to order a CT scan, Walling maintains.

Schelling indicated that hospitals typically shouldn’t have to defend against cases alleging negligent credentialing without a finding, “either by adjudication or stipulation,” of medical malpractice. Walling’s brief argues the decision’s focus on only adjudications and stipulations is “illogical and impractical.” In this case, Brenya’s acknowledgments on the stand support a finding of malpractice, allowing the negligent credentialing claim against the hospital to proceed, the brief concludes.

Doctor’s Negligence Must Be Established Before Pursuing Facility, Hospital Asserts
In Schelling, the Court allowed a claim of negligent credentialing to go forward after the case against the doctor was dismissed when he filed for bankruptcy. But Schelling explained that in typical cases a physician must first be found negligent before a plaintiff can pursue a claim against a hospital for negligent credentialing.

Applying that ruling, the claim against the hospital in this case cannot move forward because Brenya’s negligence wasn’t established, Toledo Hospital maintains. Its brief argues Walling “had a full and fair opportunity to prove medical negligence” against the doctor, but chose instead to settle the matter.

The hospital also rejects the relevance of Evans, which involved a doctor who was an employee rather than an independent-contractor doctor with staff privileges, as Brenya was. The hospital stresses that it doesn’t have the same control and supervision over a doctor with privileges as it does with a doctor who is an employee.

As for Brenya’s testimony at the partial trial, the hospital asserts the statements weren’t enough to establish medical negligence. Brenya hadn’t yet shared his perspective on his patient’s care, the defense experts hadn’t testified, and the jury wasn’t presented with all the evidence, the hospital maintains. It notes Walling could have but didn’t let the trial go forward to a verdict and didn’t obtain a stipulation of liability in the settlement agreement. The hospital also points out that the trial court stated Brenya’s testimony didn’t include expressions of liability that are needed to advance the claim against the facility.

Legal and Hospital Groups File Briefs
A joint amicus curiae brief supporting the Toledo Hospital’s position was submitted by the Ohio Association of Civil Trial Attorneys and Ohio Hospital Association.

Kathleen Maloney

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

Representing Michael Walling, administrator of the estate of Raeann Walling: Jeffrey Stewart, 313.324.8300

Representing the Toledo Hospital: James Brazeau, 419.249.7900

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Was Court’s Refusal to Lessen Institutionalized Person’s Restrictions Backed by Evidence?

State of Ohio v. Jeremy Stutler, Case No. 2021-0428
Fifth District Court of Appeals (Stark County)

ISSUE: Can a trial court deny a change to the restrictions placed on a person in a mental health institution if the state didn’t present clear and convincing evidence to block the change?

Jeremy Stutler was accused of stabbing his girlfriend, Danette Loy, to death, in August 2011 in their Alliance home. Stutler was found not guilty by reason of insanity in February 2012 in the Stark County Common Pleas Court. The court ordered Stutler to be placed in a maximum-security psychiatric facility.

Over the years, the trial court adjusted some of Stutler’s confinement restrictions, moving him to a less restrictive facility, located in Northfield, and permitting him to go out into the community under certain conditions for medical reasons.

The facility’s chief clinical officer filed a report with the court in September 2019 requesting a change to Stutler’s conditions of confinement. A psychologist and psychiatrist from Stutler’s treatment facility testified at the hearing. Stutler had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, with psychotic elements in remission at that time, and was on medication. If the court approved the lesser restrictions with greater mobility outside of the facility, Stutler would wear a GPS device, be accompanied by two mental health professionals, and be joined by a plainclothes police officer, the psychologist stated. The plan presented to the court mentioned possible visits to Starbucks, Walmart, and Panera.

In December 2019, the court denied the request. Stutler appealed to the Fifth District Court of Appeals, which upheld the decision.

Stutler appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio, which accepted the case.

State Law Governs Changes to Commitment Conditions
R.C. 2945.401 describes the trial court’s role in cases in which a person is acquitted by reason of insanity and institutionalized. Several factors that trial courts consider when adjusting restrictions in these cases are detailed. The statute also sets a burden of proof for prosecutors opposing these types of changes – “to show by clear and convincing evidence that the proposed change represents a threat to public safety or a threat to the safety of any person.”

At the hearing’s conclusion, the statute explains, “the trial court may approve, disapprove, or modify the recommendation and shall enter an order accordingly.”

Man Argues Evidence Supported Adjustments to Restrictions
Stutler asserts there was no evidence – let alone clear and convincing evidence – from the prosecutor to warrant the court’s rejection of a change to his restrictions. In his view, the expert witnesses and testimony instead showed that the trial court should have approved the lesser restrictions. However, Stutler maintains, the court focused on negative comments noted in his file and the facts leading to his institutionalization. The court ignored the expertise of his treatment team, who supported the change as part of his treatment and reintegration, he argues. He states that nothing presented at the hearing demonstrated he would be an unreasonable danger to the public.

State Contends Trial Courts Make Decision
The Stark County Prosecutor’s Office counters that the trial court reviewed the factors in the statute. The court determined that Stutler remains a danger to the public, the doctors who testified weren’t part of his actual treatment team, they gave contradictory testimony, and his condition isn’t curable and could reoccur if Stutler stopped his medication.

A trial court isn’t mandated by the law to accept the treatment facility’s recommendation, the prosecutor maintains. The law states that the trial court “may approve, disapprove, or modify the recommendation.” The prosecutor argues the court has an independent role in considering all of the circumstances and deciding the person’s conditions of confinement.

Public Defender Questions Review by Appeals Court
The Ohio Public Defender’s Office submitted an amicus curiae brief supporting Stutler, specifically addressing the legal standard the Fifth District used when reviewing a lower court decision about an individual’s liberty.

Kathleen Maloney

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

Representing Jeremy Stutler: Michael Partlow, 330.400.2290

Representing the State of Ohio from the Stark County Prosecutor’s Office: Vicki DeSantis, 330.451.7019

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Can Single $500 Fine Be Imposed for Township Trustee’s Multiple Open Meetings Violations?

Brian M. Ames v. Rootstown Township Board of Trustees, Case No. 2021-0706
Eleventh District Court of Appeals (Portage County)

ISSUE: Under the Ohio Open Meetings Act, if a court finds a public body committed multiple, similar violations of the act, can it issue one injunction to prohibit future violations and levy one civil forfeiture?

A dispute between a Portage County resident and the Rootstown Township Board of Trustees has blossomed into a statewide debate about the appropriate sanctions for noncompliance with the state’s Open Meetings Act. Brian Ames notes he has filed at least three cases about Portage County government bodies, claiming multiple violations of the law. He argues he is entitled to a $500 award for each violation along with reasonable attorney fees. His argument is supported by the Ohio attorney general, who filed an amicus curiae brief on his behalf.

Rootstown agrees with an Eleventh District Court of Appeals’ decision, which found similar violations of the same act can be sanctioned with one injunction and one $500 fine. Several organizations representing local government entities, including the Ohio Municipal League and Ohio School Boards Association, have joined Rootstown in arguing for the single $500 fine. They argue that allowing $500 fines per violation incentivizes open meeting “bounty hunters” to bring claims that are ultimately paid for by taxpayers.

Ames states he became aware of the ongoing proceedings regarding the Third District Court of Appeals’ decision in State ex rel. Patrick Bros. v. Putnam Cty. Bd. Of Commrs. Based on open meeting violations, the Putnam County Commissioners ultimately agreed to pay $6,500 in civil forfeiture, $497,000 in attorney fees, and $23,000 in court costs to the individuals who sued them. “Concerned with the considerable financial risks” faced by Portage County taxpayers, Ames’ brief says he sought to bring local Open Meetings Act violations to an end.

Ames filed a lawsuit against the Rootstown Township Board of Trustees in 2017, alleging the trustees violated R.C. 121.22, which is the Open Meetings Act, 16 times between 2015 and 2016. Ames claimed the board violated R.C. 121.22(G)(8) several times by going into executive session and meeting in private without appropriately moving into the private session through a roll-call vote. He cited the meeting minutes as evidence they didn’t follow the proper procedure.

The Portage County Common Pleas Court ruled in favor of the township, and Ames appealed to the Eleventh District. The Eleventh District found the board violated the law 14 times and directed the trial court to impose an injunction on the township to prevent future violations.

At the trial court, Ames sought to collect $7,000 – $500 for each meeting violation and $1,584 in attorney fees. The trial court issued a single $500 fine and granted Ames $1,000 in attorney fees.

Ames appealed the decision to the Eleventh District. The Eleventh District ruled that multiple violations could be grouped together because they were similar and declared Rootstown’s actions as “technical” violations of the law. The appellate court ruled a single injunction was appropriate, and the law allows for a $500 fine when a single injunction is imposed.

Ames appealed the Supreme Court of Ohio, which agreed to hear the case.

Law Provides for Multiple Penalties, Resident and Attorney General Argue
Ames notes the implication of the decision regarding the fine affects not only Rootstown but also his two other lawsuits that are pending. He has accused the Portage County Board of Commissioners with more than 100 open meeting violations and the Portage County Budget Commission of 31 violations.

R.C. 121.22 allows any citizen to bring a claim of an open meeting violation against a government body. Ames explains that if there is a violation, according to the law, the common pleas courts can issue an injunction requiring the public body to comply; impose punishments including the $500 civil forfeiture; and remove any member of a public body from office for knowingly violating the open meetings law.

The statute doesn’t provide discretion to courts to weigh whether the violations are “technical” or if multiple violations can be considered as a single violation, Ames argues. Only the General Assembly has the power to change how the law is to be imposed. Without the threat that a penalty would be paid for each violation, a public body would have little incentive to refrain from repeatedly violating the act, Ames argues. The law doesn’t say a penalty can be limited to a single fine when multiple violations have been proven, he concludes.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office agrees. The law speaks to a violation as a single act, and doesn’t speak to the circumstances where the government violates the law multiple times. The office argues the more “natural” interpretation is that law permits a per-violation forfeiture.

“Imagine, for example, a criminal statute requiring courts impose ‘a sentence of up to ten years.’ Would anyone read this to mean that a defendant convicted of eighteen violations may receive just one sentence? No,” the attorney general’s brief states.

The attorney general argues the Eleventh District wrongly equated the open meeting law’s purposes of the injunction and the forfeiture. The appellate court stated, “[T]he overarching purpose of the injunction is to prevent future injury, not to redress past wrongs.” While that may be true of the injunction, it makes little sense to assume that purpose applies to the forfeiture, the office asserts. The fine advances the legislature’s interest in requiring “public bodies to publicly deliberate on public issues,” the office concludes.

One Violation Appropriate, Government Bodies Maintain
Rootstown notes Ames’ accusations are based on meeting minutes that didn’t reflect that the trustees took roll-call votes to go into executive sessions. There is no proof the trustee conducted executive sessions for improper reasons or privately conducted public business, the township argues. Because these are technical violations, the trial court correctly issued one injunction directing them to comply with the procedures to note that they went into executive session to discuss economic development matters, the township argues.

The township maintains that the law is clear — when an injunction is issued, a $500 forfeiture can be imposed. Since the judge issued a single injunction, the fine amount was legal, the township concludes.

An amicus brief supporting Rootstown was filed jointly by:

  • Coalition of Large Ohio Urban Townships
  • County Commissioners Association of Ohio
  • Ohio Municipal League
  • Ohio School Boards Association
  • Ohio Township Association.

The groups argue the process and requirements of R.C. 121.22(I) do not serve to punish bodies for past misdeeds, but instead to ensure future compliance with the Open Meetings Act. The threat of removal from office is the incentive for public officials to comply, the organizations state. The forfeiture, along with court costs and attorney fees, are tied to the act of a citizen seeking an injunction. Because the financial sanctions are tied to the injunction, the result of issuing one injunction, regardless of number of violations, is the imposition of one $500 fine, the groups maintain.

Ohio courts have correctly assessed that violations that are inadvertent and not in bad faith can be resolved with an injunction and a single fine, they argue. The courts have the power to remove officials from office for intentional and egregious violations of the law, they note.

The act wasn’t intended to provide those bringing complaints with “a windfall of cash, funded by local taxpayers” for noting past violations of the Open Meetings Act, the group’s brief states.

Dan Trevas

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

Representing Brian Ames: Curt Hartman, (513) 379-2923

Representing Rootstown Township Board of Trustees: James Mathews, 330.499.6000

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Are False Statements Made in Civil Cases Subject to Criminal Prosecution?

State of Ohio v. Monai S. Brown, Case No. 2021-0392
First District Court of Appeals (Hamilton County)

ISSUE: Does the public policy underlying the immunity given for false statements made in civil lawsuits also provide immunity from prosecution for a crime based on the statements?

While Loie Hallug and his wife were in the process of divorcing, Hallug moved in with his parents and missed a few mortgage payments on the couple’s Hamilton County house. He received the house in the 2016 divorce, and he worked with his bank to modify his mortgage in August 2017.

Near that time, Hallug received a letter from Monai Brown, someone Hallug had never met. It stated that Hallug had “permanently vacated” the house on or after Feb. 25, 2017, “with no intentions to return to said property.” Brown stated she intended to take the property through “adverse possession.” She also demanded $733 for maintenance plus other costs to make repairs and improvements to the property. Hallug responded to Brown in a letter, which was returned as undeliverable.

Brown also filed a civil complaint in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court on July 21, 2017, asserting Hallug had abandoned the house, she was the legal owner of the property, and she had entered the house on Aug. 1, 2017, and claimed title to it.

At the request of Hallug’s attorney, the court dismissed Brown’s lawsuit.

Woman Indicted After Attempting to Take House Through Civil Case
Brown and five other defendants were indicted in a series of allegedly fraudulent claims to “quiet title” on properties in the county. Brown was accused of tampering with records; theft of property valued between $150,000 and $750,000; and unauthorized use of property. She waived her right to an attorney.

At the April 2019 trial, Hallug testified he didn’t know Brown and hadn’t hired her to work on his house. He noted that her complaint contained numerous false statements. To defend himself against the legal action, he hired an attorney, which cost him $1,500.

Brown testified, explaining she had discovered in 2017 a legal process called adverse possession, researched it, and concluded that if she occupied a property for 21 years she could obtain the title to it. She stated she found Hallug’s property listed as vacant on the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts website, filed the lawsuit, and sent the letter. She acknowledged that her statements that she was the legal property owner and had entered the property were false.

The jury found Brown guilty of tampering with records and not guilty of unauthorized use of property. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the theft charge. The court imposed a one-year prison sentence and ordered Brown to pay court costs and $1,500 in restitution to Hallug.

Conviction Overturned on Appeal
Brown appealed to the First District Court of Appeals, which reversed her conviction. The First District determined that the false statements in her civil complaint couldn’t be used as the basis for a criminal charge and conviction.

The Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio, which agreed to review the issue.

Criminal Charges Not Barred for False Statements in Civil Case, State Maintains
The prosecutor notes that in the interest of justice, witnesses need to be able to speak freely in civil cases. However, the prosecutor argues, the Supreme Court has never concluded that the immunity from civil liability for false statements made in a civil case prohibits the state from filing appropriate criminal charges.

“To allow a similar immunity from criminal prosecution when a person knowingly makes false statements in a judicial proceeding would thwart the judicial process,” the state’s brief argues.

At the trial, Brown admitted she made false statements to pursue her fraudulent claim to take Hallug’s property, the prosecutor states. The immunity that protects a person from civil liability shouldn’t excuse Brown from responsibility for criminal conduct, the prosecutor maintains.

Person Can’t Be Prosecuted for False Statements in Civil Suit, Woman Argues
Brown’s brief responds that the state had to prove Brown knew it was illegal to make false statements in her complaint. The brief argues that if immunity from civil liability is intended “to prevent a chilling effect” on the participation of average citizens in court proceedings, then a criminal prosecution in retaliation for statements made in a civil case would cause a greater chilling effect in the justice system.

Her brief asserts Brown has the right to make the allegations in the civil complaint even if she knew they weren’t true at the time. And, even if the immunity protected her only in the civil case, the prosecutor didn’t prove Brown knew of the legal prohibition on false statements when she filed her lawsuit.

“There was no evidence Ms. Brown believed she could be criminally responsible for claims she made as a party in a judicial proceeding, simply because they would ultimately be held not to be true,” the brief states.

Kathleen Maloney

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 Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office: Ronald Springman Jr., 513.946.3052

Representing Monai S. Brown from the Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office: David Hoffmann, 513.946.3876

These informal previews are prepared by the Supreme Court’s Office of Public Information to provide the news media and other interested persons with a brief overview of the legal issues and arguments advanced by the parties in upcoming cases scheduled for oral argument. The previews aren’t part of the case record, and aren’t considered by the Court during its deliberations.

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