A Human Resources Bulletin
On April 7, 2011 the Supreme Court of Ohio held that a provision of state law barring a city or other political subdivision from asserting statutory immunity as a defense against an employee’s employment-related civil lawsuit does not affect the statutory immunity of an employee of the political subdivision from matters arising out of the employment relationship between the suing employee and the political subdivision. As such, the defendant employee may be entitled to statutory immunity. Zumwalde v. Madeira and Indian Hill Joint Fire District, et al., Slip Op. No. 2011-Ohio-1603 (April 7, 2011).
Barbara Zumwalde sued the Madeira and Indian Hill Joint Fire District and Chief Stephen Ashbrock, alleging that they retaliated against her for filing a previous discrimination suit and a workers’ compensation claim. Chief Ashbrock asserted statutory immunity from liability as an employee of a political subdivision. Both the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas and the First District Court of Appeals rejected Ashbrock’s immunity defense. Both courts found that an Ohio statute lifting political subdivision immunity in civil actions arising out of an employee’s employment relationship with a political subdivision likewise applied to civil actions against a political subdivision employee.
The Supreme Court disagreed. The Court found the statute in question clearly removed statutory immunity only for the political subdivision and not for its employees. If the General Assembly had intended to include employees of political subdivisions in the exception, the Court held that “it could have easily done so by including the word ‘employee.’”
Accordingly, an individual employee sued on an employment-related claim may still claim statutory immunity from liability, even though the political subdivision cannot. So, while the Indian Hill Joint Fire District could not claim immunity from liability on Zumwalde’s claims, Chief Ashbrock still could.