A U.S. District Court judge in the Southern District of Ohio, Eastern Division granted summary judgment to Brown County Prosecutor Jessica Little in a court case involving five former employees of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Judge Gregory L. Frost concluded in his decision on June 4 that “Little is absolutely immune from liability for any of the alleged misconduct” from the plaintiffs in the $2 million lawsuit against her, the office of the Brown County Prosecutor, and other members of the Ohio Inspector General’s office and ODNR.
“In this case five current and former ODNR employees alleged that Prosecutor Little fabricated evidence and subjected them to a malicious prosecution among other meritless claims,” a statement from the Brown County Prosecutor’s Office read. “Prosecutor Little complied with all professional obligations relative to Plaintiffs. Accordingly, she vigorously defended herself against their meritless claims. Prosecutor Little presented evidence that she acted within the scope of her prosecutorial duties at all times.
“As a result, Prosecutor Little was granted summary judgment by United States District Court Judge Gregory L. Frost. This decision illustrates Prosecutor Little’s unwavering commitment to fulfilling her prosecutorial duties in the service of Brown County and the State of Ohio.”
The plaintiffs in the case, Randy Miller, James Lehman, Michele Ward-Tackett, David Graham, and Todd Haines. Graham was the ODNR Division of Wildlife Chief, Miller was the Assistant Chief, Ward-Tackett was a Human Resource Manager, Lehman was a Law Enforcement Executive Administrator, and Haines was a District Manager.
The case revolves around an incident in 2006 when former Brown County DOW wildlife officer Alan Wright helped a friend, who was a wildlife officer in South Carolina, obtain an in-state hunting license by listing Wright’s address as the friend’s home address. That enabled the friend to only have to pay $19 instead of the non-resident fee of $125.
The Ohio Office of the Inspector General found out about the misconduct in 2009 and ordered the then-head of ODNR Sean Logan to conduct an investigation. Logan reported back that an investigation had already been completed. Instead of reporting the misconduct to the ODNR director and the ODNR’s legal counsel, the five plaintiffs decided to handle the possible crime internally, issuing Wright a “verbal reprimand.”
The OIG ordered a new investigation, and in March 2010, they filed a report, coming to the conclusion that not only did Wright commit a crime but that the five plaintiffs did not follow ODNR policies to report the crime.
One month later, a Brown County grand jury indicted each of the five plaintiffs on one count of obstruction of justice and one count complicity in obstructing justice, both fifth-degree felonies.
The indictment caused the quintet to be placed on indefinite administrative leave, even though they were innocent until proven guilty.
The case against the plaintiffs was eventually dismissed after the plaintiffs moved to suppress their statements they made to then-OIG deputy director Ron Nichols. The Brown County Court of Common Pleas ruled in their favor, but an appeals court overturned that decision. But then an appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court in 2013 ruled again in the plaintiff’s favor, leading to Little to dismiss the case. The five plaintiffs originally pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Despite the decision, Graham was fired, Miller and Lehman were forced to resign, and Ward-Tackett and Haines were re-assigned.
In response, the plaintiffs filed a counter-law suit against Little, the BCPO, the OIG, Inspector General Randall Meyer, ODNR Director James Zehringer, the ODNR, Nichols, Sean Logan, Thomas Charles, and Anthony J. Celebrezze III. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court Southern District of Ohio in Columbus asks for $2 million in punitive and compensatory damages for losing their jobs.
The plaintiffs allege, in later motions, that Nichols and Charles “manufactured evidence against them” in the investigative report from the OIG and that Little was a participant in the manufacturing.
The plaintiffs claim also that Charles, Nichols, and Little violated the plaintiff’s fourth amendment right to “be free from malicious prosecution,” and that the trio committed conspiracy to violate the plaintiff’s fourth amendment rights.
In his decision on June 4, Judge Frost established that prosecutors have “absolute immunity from liability under § 1983 when he or she “acts within the scope of [his or her] duties in initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution.” Adams v. Hanson, 656 F.3d 397, 401 (6th Cir. 2011) (citing Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 410 (1976)).
As such, the burden is on the plaintiffs to prove that Little did commit misconduct, and Judge Frost did not believe that the plaintiff’s claims were enough to meet that burden.
Judge Frost notes how the plaintiff’s assertion of Little’s alleged malfeasance did not create a “material question of fact,” which is necessary to determine wrongdoing.