Merit Decision: Employer Intentional Torts and Sovereign Immunity. Sampson v. Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.

 On February 16 2012, the Supreme Court of Ohio decided the case of Sampson v. Cuyahoga Metr. Hous. Auth., 2012-Ohio-570. In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Cupp, the Court held that the employee of a political subdivision could sue his employer for an intentional tort that arose out of the employment relationship. 

Darrell Sampson was a Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) employee in the maintenance department.  He, along with twelve fellow employees, was accused of misuse of CMHA gas credit cards.  Sampson and the others were all very publicly arrested in front of their fellow employees.. Sampson was indicted on two felony charges, and fired.  After a short return to his former job following an arbitration in his favor, Sampson found his old job intolerable, and quit. He filed several negligence and intentional tort actions against CMHA.

At issue in this appeal are the intentional tort claims (intentional infliction of emotional distress and abuse of process.)  Specifically, the issue is whether CMHA is entitled to immunity from these tort claims.

R.C. 2744.09(B), part of the political subdivision immunity statute, provides that there is no immunity for a political subdivision in a civil action brought by an employee for any matter arising out of the employment relationship. It is undisputed that the CMHA is a political subdivision. What is disputed is the meaning of “arising out of the employment relationship.”

CMHA argued that it is entitled to statutory immunity in this action because intentional torts by definition do not arise out of the employment relationship. In making this argument it relied on precedent from worker’s compensation law that intentional torts by definition do not arise out of the employment relationship. Sampson argued that under the plain language of the statute, the tort claims clearly arise out of the employment relationship and CMHA is not entitled to immunity.

In Blankenship v. Cincinnati Milacron Chems. Inc. the Court held that in addition to  workers’ compensation benefits, employees could pursue a common law action for damages against their employers for an intentional injury, because conceptually an intentional harm completely severs the employment relationship and cannot arise from it. The Court in Sampson rejected out of hand CMHA’s attempt to import this body of worker’s compensation law into political subdivision immunity law, specifically holding that R.C. 2744.09(B) does not incorporate the Blankenship rationale. The Court gave the following reasons for this.  First, there is nothing in the language of the immunity statute here at issue which suggests any intent to incorporate “the Blankenship rationale”.  Second, and more significantly, the underpinnings of the workers’ compensation framework and Chapter 2744 are totally different.  Article II, Section 35 of the Ohio Constitution and the related statutes were part of a compromise where workers are assured of compensation without having to prove fault, and employers are assured of limited liability.  In comparison, Chapter 2744, the Political Subdivision Tort Liability Act, was enacted in response to the judicial abrogation of common-law sovereign immunity, and was designed to preserve the public fisc.

The Court concluded that eliminating “the Blankenship gloss” from the analysis, the phrase “relative to any matter that arises out of the employment relationship” is clear.  There must simply be a causal connection between the subject matter of the tort claim and the employment relationship. Since the case had originally been decided on summary judgment, the Supreme Court, detailing evidence Sampson had provided, found that reasonable minds could conclude that Sampson’s claims , if proven, arose from his employment relationship with CMHA, and that CMHA was not entitled to immunity in this case under R.C. 2744.09(B).

Justice Lanzinger concurred in judgment only.  She agrees that as now defined, an intentional tort arises out of the employment relationship. She also agrees that there are genuine issues of material fact here, but adds that when the case goes to trial, Sampson must prove an intentional tort as defined by R.C. 2745.01—with the intent to injure or with the belief that injury was substantially certain to occur ( which now means with deliberate intent).  She also added this very interesting ¶ 28:

The General Assembly has rejected the artificial theory set forth in Blankenship v. Cincinnati Milacron Chems., Inc., 69 Ohio St.2d 608, 433 N.E.2d 572 (1982), and its progeny that intentional torts arise outside the employment relationship and cannot be received in the course of employment. I believe that in this case we are acknowledging that an intentional tort, as it has been redefined by statute, may indeed arise in the course of employment. The legal fiction that such a tort arises outside of the employment relationship should be put to rest, and language that was invoked initially to broaden workers’ recovery should not now be used to immunize political subdivisions.”

Case Syllabus

1. When an employee of a political-subdivision employer brings a civil action against the political subdivision alleging an intentional tort, that civil action may qualify as a “matter that arises out of the employment relationship” within the meaning of R.C. 2744.09(B).

 2. An employee’s action against a political-subdivision employer arises out of the employment relationship between the employee and the political subdivision within the meaning of R.C. 2744.09(B) if there is a causal connection or a causal relationship between the claims raised by the employee and the employment relationship.

Concluding Observations

It was clear to me during the oral argument that the Court just wasn’t buying the attempt to  engraft the law of employer intentional torts onto the sovereign immunity exception statute, and that’s what I wrote when I called this case for Sampson. A majority of justices on the current court clearly dislike the common law employer intentional tort created by the Blankenship line of cases.  Rather than extend it, the day may come when they kill it entirely.  They came close in Kaminski v. Metal & Wire Prods. Co., 125 Ohio St.3d 250, 2010-Ohio-1027 when the Court upheld the validity of R.C. 2745.01.

 I also made a lucky guess that it wouldn’t be surprising if Justice Cupp wrote about the different historical paths between the employer intentional tort and political subdivision immunity. I had no idea he’d end up as the opinion author — there is no way of knowing that in advance; it’s determined by a dice roll during post argument conference.  I thought he’d write about this, regardless of who wrote the majority opinion, and he did, although on a far lesser scale than he did as the author of Kaminski.

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