Oral Argument Preview: Employer Intentional Torts and Sovereign Immunity. Sampson v. Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.

Update: the merit decision in this case was handed down February 16, 2012. Read the analysis of that decision here.

 On September 20, the Ohio Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Sampson v. Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, 2010-1561.

     Chapter  2744 codifies political subdivision tort liability. This chapter contains immunities and exceptions to immunities. R.C. 2744.09 (B) provides that “[The chapter defining immunity] does not apply to, and shall not be construed to apply to, the following *** (B) Civil actions by an employee… against his political subdivision relative to any matter that arises out of the employment relationship between the employee and the political subdivision.

      The issue presented in this case is whether an employee of a political subdivision may sue the political subdivision (an entity normally entitled to sovereign immunity) for intentional tort claims arising out of the employment relationship between the employee and the political subdivision.  Does 2744.09(B) create an exception to immunity in this case?

      Darrell Sampson was a Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority employee in the maintenance department. He and some of his fellow employees were given credit cards for use in refueling CMHA-owned vehicles on the job. In 2004, CMHA received an anonymous tip that its maintenance employees were using the gas cards to purchase gasoline for their personal vehicles. CMHA officials investigated the maintenance workers for four weeks and then called a special meeting of CMHA employees where the offenders were to be arrested by police.

      On August 31, 2004, hundreds of CMHA employees gathered at a warehouse. A police sergeant called out the names of thirteen CMHA employees, including Sampson, and announced in front of all the other employees that the named individuals were under arrest for theft. The thirteen were handcuffed and searched in front of the group, then led into patrol cars waiting outside the building, where they were photographed by the media. News broadcasts showed the identity of the arrestees.

      Sampson and other employees were indicted on various theft charges. However, five months after the arrest at the employee meeting, the state dropped the charges against Sampson. At an arbitration hearing to determine whether Sampson would be reinstated to his position, the arbitrator concluded that CMHA had not presented any evidence of gasoline theft whatsoever. Sampson returned to work but was later diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder. He sued CMHA for both negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress, as well as abuse of process and negligent misidentification.

      CMHA argued sovereign immunity on all claims under R.C. 2744.02, because it acted in accordance with a governmental function, and because none of the statutory exceptions to immunity apply in this situation.  Sampson argued CMHA is liable under the exception to immunity for a civil action arising out of the employment relationship between him and CMHA. Sitting en banc, The Eighth District Court of Appeals ruled in Sampson’s favor, holding that political subdivisions are not entitled to immunity from intentional tort claims if the intentional torts arose out of the employment relationship between the employee and the political subdivision. Because Sampson’s claim for IIED and other intentional torts arose out of his employment relationship with CMHA, CMHA could not raise sovereign immunity.

      In its merit brief, CMHA argues that an employer’s intentional tort against an employee can never arise out of an employer-employee relationship and always occurs outside of the scope of employment, even if it occurs at the workplace. The intentional harm completely severs the employer-employee relationship. This reasoning comes largely from the employer intentional tort cases from the workers’ compensation field.  With regard to policy implications, CMHA argues that the Eighth District’s ruling will subject political subdivisions to frivolous intentional tort lawsuits and undermine the purposes of sovereign immunity (namely, protecting public funds).

      In response, Sampson argues that the Eighth District merely applied the plain meaning of the sovereign immunity statutes to arrive at its conclusion, and did not undermine any bright line rules of sovereign immunity. He asserts that these intentional torts did arise out of his employment relationship with CMHA.  He cites cases from at least half of the appellate districts in Ohio that have allowed employees to sue their political subdivision employers for intentional torts under 2744.09(B). He also argues that it is incorrect to rely on workers’ compensation precedent in this area of the law.

Student Contributor: Greg Kendall

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