Watch What You Say; Statements Made After County Terminated Employee, Are NOT Immune from Liability

The old saying, “less is more” could never be truer. On March 9, 2011, Cuyahoga County terminated Marcella King Piazza’s employment as well as the employment of two other county employees.   In a press release, County Executive FitzGerald stated, “Today three people have been terminated from employment with Cuyahoga County due to the reorganization of the Cuyahoga County Board[] of Revision.” About 30 minutes later, The Plain Dealer published an article with the headline, “Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald fires three employees tied to board[] of revision scandal.” The article began, “Three more Cuyahoga County employees have lost their jobs because of the extensive dysfunction and mismanagement uncovered last year at the board[] of revision.”

Upset, Piazza sued the county and The Plain Dealer.  Piazza based her false-light claim against the county on the quoted statement from FitzGerald alleged the statement created a false inference that she was involved in the BOR corruption scandal.  Piazza alleged the statement was made with a reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.

The county moved for summary judgment, arguing it was immune from liability pursuant to R.C. 2744.02(A).  The trial court denied the county’s motion for summary judgment in a two-sentence journal entry.  The Eighth District then affirmed the trial court’s rejection of the county’s assertion of immunity, holding that Piazza’s claim “arose out of her employment relationship with the county, and the county is not immune from liability pursuant to the express exception in R.C. 2744.09(B).”  The Ohio Supreme Court was the next to weigh in.

The county essentially asked the OSC to hold R.C. 2744.09(B) does not apply when a former employee of a political subdivision brings an intentional-tort claim that accrued when she was no longer employed by the political subdivision.  Simply stated, the county argued a former employee is not an “employee” under R.C. 2744.09(B) and that such a claim does not “arise out of the employment relationship.”  Justice French, writing for a 4-3 majority, was not persuaded.  According to the Court, “the test under R.C. 2744.09(B) is one of causal connection, not of timing.”  Because the phrase “arises out of” refers to the existence of a causal connection, the phrase requires only there have been a causal connection between the claim and the employment relationship, whether or not the employment relationship had ended.  With this case, the Ohio Supreme Court has made clear, “R.C. 2744.09(B) does not require that the alleged tortious conduct underlying a claim against a political subdivision have occurred during the plaintiff’s employment by the political subdivision.”  Until the Ohio General Assembly weighs in, public employers must watch their comments – even after the employee is terminated.  Piazza v. Cuyahoga County, 2019-Ohio-2499.