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Williams & Petro successfully upholds Village Council’s right to private deliberations following public hearing of job-related disciplinary action, Gross v. Village of Minerva Park (Sept. 12, 2012).

October 5th, 2012

Plaintiff, a Village police officer, appealed job-related disciplinary action to the Minerva Park Village Council under R.C. 373.19(B).  He requested a public hearing pursuant to R.C. 121.22, the Ohio Open Meetings Act (OMA).  In divisions (A), (B), and (C), R.C. 121.22 requires that all prearranged discussion of public business by a majority of the members of a public body be open to the public.  However, R.C. 121.22(G) permits private, executive session meetings to, among other things, consider the discipline of a public employee unless the employee requests a public hearing.  Division (H) of the statute invalidates all formal actions of the public body unless adopted in open session.  Relevant to this case, division (H) specifically invalidates any formal action that results from executive session deliberations not authorized in division (G).

Village Council held Plaintiff’s disciplinary appeal publicly.  Witnesses were examined, exhibits were submitted, and argument was heard in open session.  However, Village Council went into executive session to deliberate over the evidence, the charges, and the decision.  Thereafter, Plaintiff filed suit alleging, among other things, that Village Council’s executive session deliberations violated R.C. 121.22 and thus division (H) invalidated the resulting discipline.

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, in a matter of first impression for this court, disagreed, rejecting the narrow view that the only relevant precedent is one in which the plaintiff is a public employee, requests a public hearing to which he is statutorily entitled, and objects to executive session deliberations.  Relying on analogous decisions from the Ohio Supreme Court and lower appellate courts concerning zoning, elections, and professional licensure issues, the Court recognized that:

a)     R.C. 121.22(G) mandates public hearings only when such hearing are authorized or mandated by another statute;

b)     The R.C. 121.22(G) public hearing right does not require public deliberations; and

c)     When a public body is acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, its action is not a “meeting” within the meaning of R.C. 121.22.

Id. at *18.

Finding that Village Council was obligated to deliberate the evidence and use discretion to reach a decision that could be further appealed to the Common Pleas Court under R.C. Chapter 2506, the Court concluded, [u]nder these circumstances, then, there can be no dispute that Council’s [R.C.] 737.19 hearing was a quasi-judicial proceeding.  [internal citations omitted].  Accordingly, Council’s executive session to privately deliberate Plaintiff’s case following its public adjudicatory hearing was not covered by the OMA, so Plaintiff cannot have a claim for relief under the OMA.

Id. at *19.