Ohio Supreme Court to decide if Cleveland has to pay $13.2 million to wrongfully convicted man
CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Ohio Supreme Court said Wednesday that it would hear a case and review whether the city of Cleveland has to pay a $13.2 million verdict to a wrongfully convicted man.
The case is significant to tens of thousands of Ohio employees who work for local, county and municipal governments, according to a court filing filed by an attorney for plaintiff David Ayers. It also is important for people who sue local police or other government bodies for wrongdoing, the court filing says.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to take up the case, with Justices Pat DeWine, Sharon Kennedy and Terence O’Donnell dissenting.
The question stems from a lawsuit filed by Ayers, a former Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority security officer who spent 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
Jurors decided in March 2013 that former Cleveland police detectives Denise Kovach and Michael Cipo were liable for Ayers’ wrongful murder conviction. They awarded Ayers $13.2 million.
The city of Cleveland was originally named in Ayers’ lawsuit but was dismissed before trial. However, city attorneys represented both officers at the civil trial.
The city has tried to avoid footing the $13.2 million bill. It hired an attorney to help Cipo and Kovach file for bankruptcy.
Cipo died in 2013 but the an attorney filed for bankruptcy on Kovach’s behalf. A bankruptcy judge later discharged the judgment, along with Kovach’s other debts.
Ayers then sued the city to force it to pay. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Robert McClelland ruled in October 2016 that the city must pay, but the 8th Ohio District Court of Appeals reversed him in a 2-1 ruling.
The appeals court said it is the duty of the employee who was sued, not the person who sued, to ask the city to pay a judgment.
The Ohio Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether a plaintiff can ask a government to indemnify an employee, or if that right is solely with the government employee being sued.
Ruth Brown, a Chicago attorney representing Ayers, wrote in an Aug. 9 court filing that letting the appeals court’s decision to stand will mean that Ayers “will remain destitute as he faces the challenges that come with life after a decade of wrongful incarceration.”
It also would lead to more litigation, as employees seeking indemnification for other judgments would have to hire attorneys and sue the city, or the plaintiffs would file additional lawsuits to obtain their money.
“Taxpayers will foot the bill for unnecessary judicial resources and litigation expenses on one (or both) sides of the case,” Brown wrote. She added in an interview that requiring an employee to ask for indemnification is a disservice to the employee, as it can make their work environment worse.
She said governments almost always indemnify employees subjected to litigation.
Spokesman Dan Williams said the city does not comment on pending litigation.
Ayers, now 61, was arrested in 1999 in the beating death of Dorothy Brown, 76, who lived in a housing authority high-rise in Cleveland. He was convicted at trial based primarily on the testimony of a jailhouse informant and was sentenced to life in prison.
Ayers denied confessing to the murder or even talking to the informant. He filed numerous appeals until he finally prevailed in 2011, when DNA tests proved that a single pubic hair found in Dorothy Brown’s mouth did not come from him.
Ayers’ lawyers argued in the civil trial that anti-gay sentiments caused the two detectives to frame their client, who is gay, despite evidence that Dorothy Brown was also sexually assaulted.
Dorothy Brown’s body was found naked from the waist down, and her top pulled up, exposing her chest.
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