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Judge Ridge, muni court, Norwalk all being sued

Cary Ashby • Mar 16, 2014 at 9:14 PM

Two Huron County residents are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed in Toledo.

The lawsuit is filed against Norwalk Municipal Court, retired Judge John Ridge and the city of Norwalk. Sandusky attorney John Gold, who filed it Oct. 7 in the western division of the U.S. Northern District of Ohio, said the plaintiffs are seeking "injunctive relief" and monetary damages. A class-action lawsuit consolidates similar lawsuits in which the legal and factual issues are identical.

The plaintiffs are Larry Thornsberry, of Norwalk; and Tammy Dewiel, of Collins; Jeremiah Stover, of Sandusky; and Joshua D. Ward, of Huron.

"The first one to come to me was Josh Ward. Jeremiah is an acquaintance," said Gold, who is representing all four people. "They were the two main plaintiffs."

At the heart of the lawsuit is the allegation by the ACLU of Ohio that Ridge and other municipal court judges made an unconstitutional practice of sending people to jail when they owed the court fines and were unable to pay. ACLU officials have referred to the suspected practice as "debtors' prisons."

Ridge retired Dec. 31, 2012, but remained judge in an interim basis until May 2013, when Gov. John Kasich appointed Eric Weisenburger as Ridge's replacement. Weisenburger, who was elected in the fall, has said the court has implemented policies to comply with Ohio Revised Code section 2947.14 -- aka "hearing(s) on (the) ability to pay fines."

Norwalk Law Director Stuart O'Hara discussed the lawsuit Thursday with the Reflector.

"We were served with this sometime around the 10th or 11th of November last year," he said.

"In our opinion -- and the belief of most legal scholars -- the judge has immunity. The city of Norwalk is not liable; it has no control over the court. We have no ability to dictate its operations or activities," O'Hara said.

"The Norwalk Municipal Court is not created by the city of Norwalk. It's a creation of statute," he said, citing chapter 1901 of the ORC. "All municipal courts are created by state statute.

"Our belief is the court is not sui juris. It means it's not an entity that can sue or be sued," O'Hara added.

Gold, the plaintiffs' attorney, said he plans to file an amended complaint to the lawsuit in which the city of Norwalk will be dismissed from the lawsuit.

"It will be filed April 1," he added.

"There really is no claim against the city," said Gold, who believes the Norwalk Police Department only was involved by serving warrants, which is an officer's obligation.

"We're still doing our due diligence," said the attorney, who noted it's easier to include several parties in a lawsuit when it's first filed. "You can always dismiss someone out.

"We're really early in it. We haven't fleshed out all those issues," Gold said.

The plaintiffs' attorney outlined the two general types of relief in the lawsuit: Injunctive and monetary.

About the injunctive relief, Gold said that means the plaintiffs want the court to cease the practice of imprisoning people who haven't had a hearing about their ability to pay their fines.

Gold said most people lump fines and court costs into the same category.

"In actuality, under Ohio law, they (fines and court costs) are treated very differently," said Gold, who added courts can't jail someone for failing to pay court costs because they are a "civil debt."

About the monetary relief being sought by the plaintiffs, Gold said the residents are seeking the loss of funds from employment when they were in jail.

"I believe (Thornsberry) was in jail for a couple of months. That happened for 10 days (and) 20 days at a time," Gold said. "We're not finished computing those days."

O'Hara, Norwalk's attorney, has been practicing law for 35 years. He said "this is the first time" he's seen a municipal court being sued.

About the frequency of judges being sued, O'Hara said: "That rarely happens for monetary relief."

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