March 7, 2012
Appealing a Dismissal

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

On August 30, 1999, Paul Lane went to work for the city of Pickerington, a suburb on the outskirts of Columbus. For the first six years of that time, Paul worked for the city as a construction-inspection supervisor. Then, in November 2005, he was moved into a position as an inspections administrator. According to Paul, he was in the classified civil service during his employment with Pickerington.

Presumably, everything was going well for Paul until November 2, 2009. That’s when the interim city manager – after a hearing – terminated Paul’s employment for disciplinary reasons. In a letter dated November 5, 2009, the interim city manager issued a notice that was hand-delivered to Paul by the city’s personnel director notifying him of his termination for violating a section of the city’s Personnel Policy and Procedures Manual, specifically, Use of Technology.

The details and nature of Paul’s alleged violations are not at issue here. Rather, the case deals with the procedural elements of Paul’s dismissal.

Twelve days after receiving that letter, Paul submitted a request to the city’s personnel director for a hearing before the Pickerington Personnel Appeals Board regarding his termination. A section of the city charter specifies that the Personnel Appeals Board “shall be established to hear appeals whenever any official or employee in the competitive service feels aggrieved by any action of the City Manager or is suspended, reduced, or removed and requests such hearing.”

The Pickerington Law Director sent Paul a letter rejecting his request for a hearing. In the letter, the Law Director said that the position Paul previously held with the city is an exempt position and is therefore considered “unclassified.” The letter concluded by stating that the Personnel Appeals Board “does not have jurisdiction to hear an appeal from an unclassified employee regarding dismissal. Therefore, the City respectfully declines your request for a hearing before the Personnel Appeals Board.”

Several months later, in March 2010, Paul filed a complaint in the court of appeals for a writ to compel Pickerington and its personnel appeals board to conduct a hearing and issue a determination on the merits of his appeal, reinstate him to the position of inspections administrator, and award back pay and corresponding employment benefits.

After reviewing the case, the court of appeals denied Paul the writ. After that, his case came before us – the Supreme Court of Ohio – for a final review.

In order for Paul Lane to be entitled to the writ that he requested, he must establish three things. First, he must establish a clear legal right to the requested relief. Second, he must establish a corresponding legal duty on the part of Pickerington to provide it. And third, he must establish that he lacks an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law.

The court of appeals denied the writ because it determined that Paul had an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law by administrative appeal to the common pleas court from the personnel appeals board’s decision. Ohio law provides that “an employee who is being removed may appeal to the appropriate civil service commission and, if not satisfied, may then appeal to the Court of Common Pleas.”

In reaching its conclusion to deny Paul’s writ, the court of appeals relied on a decision by our court in a case from 1980. In that case, a nonresident employee of the city of Maple Heights appealed to the city’s civil service commission after the city terminated him for his failure to comply with the city charter’s residency requirement.

The civil service commission, through its legal counsel, denied the employee’s request for a hearing because his appeal did not fall within the commission’s jurisdiction. The employee then sought a writ to compel the civil service commission to conduct a hearing to allow him to contest his termination and to direct the mayor and transit director to reinstate him to his former position with back pay.

But the court of appeals in that 1980 case dismissed the action because the employee had an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law. Our court affirmed the dismissal on that basis. The key element of that case is that when the city’s civil service commission denied jurisdiction of the controversy, that denial represented a final order that was appealable.

In that 1980 case, there was no question that the civil service commission itself refused to hear the discharged employee’s appeal and that the commission’s legal counsel merely communicated the commission’s own decision to the employee.

By contrast, in Paul Lane’s case, there is no evidence that the Pickerington Personnel Appeals Board issued a final, appealable order that the board lacked jurisdiction over Paul’s request for a hearing on his termination with the city.

The letter from the law director to Paul didn’t even state that it was being issued on behalf of the board. Instead, the law director represented that “the City” was denying his request, not the board. Nor was there any authority cited by the city that would authorize the law director to issue a decision on behalf of the personnel appeals board.

Therefore, in the absence of a final, appealable order by the Pickerington Personnel Appeals Board on Paul’s request for a hearing, he did not have an adequate remedy by way of administrative appeal to raise his claims. Consequently, we determined that the court of appeals erred in denying the writ on this basis.

Based on the previously stated reasons, our court – by a six-to-one vote – reversed the judgment of the court of appeals denying the writ. We sent the cause back to the court of appeals for further proceedings consistent with our opinion.

This time, when the court of appeals reviews the case, it will determine whether Paul Lane can establish his entitlement to a writ to compel the city of Pickerington and its personnel appeals board to conduct a hearing and make a determination on the merits of an appeal.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is State ex rel. Lane v. Pickerington, 130 Ohio St.3d 225, 2011-Ohio-5454. Case No. 2011-0922. Decided October 27, 2011. Opinion Per Curiam.