Former Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife officials Randy L. Miller, David M. Graham, and James E. Lehman have coupled with still Wildlife Division-employed Todd E. Haines and Michele E. Ward-Tackett in seeking judgment against three legally recognized political entities and seven current or former elected or appointed officials.
The five are asking for a federal jury trial before the U.S. District Court's Southern District of Ohio Court.
Each of the five plaintiffs is seeking $200,000 in judgment plus another $200,000 per plaintiff “..for punitive damages, plus interest, costs, attorney fees and all further relief to which Plaintiffs are entitled.”
Named as defendants in the civil suit are the Office of the Brown County (Ohio) Prosecutor, the Ohio Inspector General Office, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, current Brown Couny Prosecutor Jessica A. Little, former ODNR deputy director Anthony J. Celebreeze III, former ODNR director Sean D. Logan, current ODNR Director James Zehringer, and Ohio Inspector General Randell Meyer, Deputy Inspector General Ronald E. Nichols and former Ohio Inspector General Thomas Charles.
The Ohio Inspector General's official launched an investigation in 2010 into the illegal activities while on duty of former state wildlife officer assigned to Brown County, Allan Wright.
Subsequently, the Ohio Inspector General determined the Brown County Five had failed to take appropriate action against Wright thereby opening them to alleged criminal charges, which Little undertook to pursue.
And the ODNR followed up by firing Graham as the Wildlife Division's chief, and placing on paid and unpaid administrative leave at one time or another the plaintiffs as well as reordering the duties of at least two of the plaintiffs.
As their case progressed through the court system the Brown County Five won Round One in the Brown County Common Pleas Court but lost Round Two in the District Court of Appeals.
Ultimately the Ohio State Supreme Court on May 29, 2013, “... unanimously reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and reinstated the decision of the trial court suppressing the statements provided to Defendant Nichols, Plaintiffs' case was dismissed,” the federal civil suit says.
In all, the suit spells out nine claims, their linchpin pretty much relying on the belief that “As a direct and proximate result of (the) Defendants' malicious prosecution of (the) Plaintiffs, Plaintiffs have suffered injury, emotional distress, seizure, imprisonment, and other costs associated with defending the litigation brought as a result of (the) Defendants' actions,” the suit says in the third claim.
The Plaintiffs are all being represented by the Columbus-based law firm of Kemp, Schaeffer and Rowe.
For her part Little says she has retained consul as well, provided through the insurer that represents the Brown County Prosecutor's office.
Unlike criminal litigation that involving civil matters plays by an entirely different set of rules that can include points less demanding to prove.
Among them being that a jury is instructed to weigh its judgment on a “preponderance” of evidence, not the greater and more challenging “beyond a reasonable doubt” body of presented evidence required during a criminal proceeding.
Likewise, governments and government officials are almost always – or even always – wrapped in the cloak of an insurer. And it is this insurer – not the defendant – who determines whether to proceed to trial, appeal a decision to a higher court or to seek a settlement with a plaintiff.
“I have to remember here that I am the client,” Little said. “So I'm just going to let my attorneys handle this, but it is aggravating.”
When asked how the Natural Resources Department will approach the civil lawsuit, what attorney or attorneys it will employ – including whether those persons will come from in-house or from an insurer – and even whether the agency will retain consul for Zehringer, let alone Logan and Celebreeze, the agency was tight-lipped.
Make that, exceptionally tight-lipped.
“(The) ODNR is named in the lawsuit and therefore we cannot comment on the pending litigation,” said department spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle.
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn