Judge Ridge, muni court, Norwalk all being sued

Allegations of "debtors' prison" leads to class-action lawsuit.
Cary Ashby
Mar 14, 2014


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."


J Cooper

When this farce is thrown out the defendants and their lawyer should have to pay all costs including attorney fees for the judge and court. Do the crime, do the time, its called personal responsibility, losers always have the cash for booze and cigarettes but not their fines.

Cliff Cannon

@J Cooper : Amen.


Using the same logic, when a person is falsely accused of a crime and gets found not guilty by a jury, shouldn't the Court or the Police or the City pay for their legal expenses and lost wages for missing work because they had to deal with trumped up charges? Or does your thinking only apply to poor people.


Good point.

J Cooper

No, you clearly don't understand the rules between criminal & civil law.

Cliff Cannon

@ jas : I agree with 'methodman'--- good point.


i love it when people try to pretend that they know what their talking about when its obviously pure crap...if you dont believe what im saying spend the day and search the archives...you will find that everything i have said is the truth.


its called the judicial system...if you agree with it or not everyone can use it...people sometimes forget that the court system is paid for by the people of its society...why should they have to pay back themselves for using the system they not only paid for but voted for...i do agree with 1 thought out of your head,and only 1...if you can party, have an iphone and smoke cigs all month than you can pay your 20 dollar payment...i think you have just missed my whole point of what has been going on...and this is minor im sure of the things that will eventually happen in this county


I agree J, and the ACLU...a joke


Well, as i do agree, it does seem we have a BOAT LOAD of bums, chumps, and low life's in this area..who as you say are always broke, but have there smokes and phones.
But still i do believe the courts thru there power the city thru there "tightness" (meaning so many officials, workers, etc are somehow all related) , do seem to always go after those they feel they can squeeze a dime from. (kinda like the IRS) and push there power around.
By that... i have seen a bunch of auto's driving around town which need to be in junk yards, that never get ticketed..WHY? they appear to have NO MONEY, but the new car with a burnt out tail-lite will get it everytime.
Same goes for a guy or gal, who has done some wrong, whether small crime, some back support, etc. the moment they get a job try and try to turn there life around or even the law hears of the person getting a job, there on him with vengeance.
Seems like our community as with big government. ALWAYS wants to keep someone down so they can't get a leg up. So as to always be "subject" to them....the RULERS.
So i do believe with a the right person investigating.
Many shady things could be dug up.

oh my oh my

stop smoking crack


THERE means anywhere besides HERE.
THEY'RE=they are


WOW.. some of you people! amazing with the grammar lesson.
Feel better now!
Still can not dispute my blog though.


I can and do dispute your blog because it is unintelligible. You lose by default of your inability to type in English.


Typical.. only can call someone names.. Nothing to backup opinion.


What name did I call you? Please point it out.


If they can't pay their fines, how did they come up with money for a lawyer?

former local

They use a public defender.


its called pro bono...their are lawyers out there that want justice even for those who have made mistakes in their lives

Dr. Information

Don't commit the crime. That all have phones that run 100 a month. Drop the phone, pay your fine.


When I lived in Huron county, I drove for 8 years and never been pulled over. My first time getting pulled over was for following to closely and the person in front of me got pulled over for speeding. He seen the trooper coming the other direction and hit his breaks. So I came up close to him but never close enough to be an issue. We both got tickets. Him for speeding and me for following to close. It was a 95 dollar ticket. And if I wanted to go to court it would of added another 105 dollars to it. Granted I die just pay the fine and move on. But I can understand why people will not pay times. It's like they are just looking for anything to pull somebody over and make money. Wonder why people are setting up growing site for M.J.? To pay for stupid tickets.

J Cooper

Check the record of these 4 defendants, they were not for a speeding ticket, they were frequent flyers for numerous criminal charges.


it dont matter what their criminal records are its criminal to pick and choose who you want to pull over...its called harassment


I drive more than the avg. person, close to 25,000 miles a year and drive a lot to and from Norwalk/Sandusky/Willard. I go the speed limit or just slightly over and have never been pulled over randomly. I have had the state patrol and the sheriffs department behind me plenty of times going to Norwalk or Sandusky and back home. Have never once been pulled over for some unforeseen ticket or some made up excuse.

Stop the excuses. When you get pulled over, you are doing something wrong.


I have gotten two tickets in my life. The minute I saw the lights and looked at my speedometer, I knew why they were pulling me over. Not paying attention and my speed crept up. I was also in the audience at municipal court once and saw someone legitimately contest a ticket and win. If you not the correct car lengths away from him - you were following to closely. These folks have frequent arrests and never follow through on payment plans for fines. I think half the time they hope to go to county jail so they don't have to find a couch and worry about get their meals (especially when the weather is very cold and very hot). Maybe there is someone out there with a legitimate complaint about going to jail for fines, but when I read the three names on this lawsuit, I had to laugh. They should pay the Reflector for all the free publicity in the police report and court dockets. Some fancy lawyer contacted them to make a name for himself.


wow so here we are again...the residents of norwalk showing the world just how ignorant you people are....let me give you 2 examples of how unfair this practice is...example #1...there was a senior citizen in town whose lawn was overgrown...he has no family and no friends...you people, his neighbors refuse to help him...the only thing you know how to do is complain about his yard...so because of all your whining and complaining the city shows up to mow his lawn...so they mow the lawn and give the senior citizen a ticket, now lets not forget hes a war veteran who fought for your right to be a whiner...lets also not forget hes on a tight fixed income and cant pay his bills on time...he could not pay the 65 dollar fine and was arrested...after arrest he was given a pay agreement and he missed his payment for the month and the police went to his home and arrested him agin...example #2...young man pulled over for d.u.i and arrested, he does his time and never drinkand drives again...a few days in jail for some people is enough for them to change their ways...he was given a certain amount of time to pay and he made regular payments...he did however miss his last months payment...he showed up to the court to arrange a new pay agreement...he showed up there with no money...his final payment...5 dollars... he had no cash and was arrested for failure to pay...the cops refused him a free phone call and took him to the jail...when he was finally allowed a phone call he could not reach anyone because none of his friends or family could accept collect calls...he spent the night in jail for 5 dollars, not only that but lost his job with the biggest logistics company in our area...so you tell me is this the way we want our citizens treated...is keeping our jails full of poor people really what we want when this town is being overtaken by heroin and heroin dealers...why arent you people complaining about the fact that our police and court systems are not throwing these people in jail and when they do their out in a week so they can work with the police to put another dime bag dealer in jail for a couple days...our county has constantly been throwing minor petty crime people in jail for years and follow these people for years throwing them in jail over and over for a crime they have already sat out their timefor them in the mean time their putting felonious offenders in a cbcf program letting them out in 6 months with clean records...where are your your priorities people...the bottom line is this...IT IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL TO LOCK UP CRIMINALS NO MATTER HOW SEVER OR HOW PETTY THE CRIME IS FOR THE SAME SAID CRIME....its called double jeopardy....so instead of hiding behind your screens get out their and be heard...make sense when your speaking because you all sound like uneducated ignorant fools...its all about whats right...not your opinion...go make a difference...this county is corrupt and this is only the beginning of things to come........

Dr. Information

All I read was excuses.


Y A W N!!!!!!! Wake me when he's done babbling

Good 2 B Me

So you are saying that this big Logistics company in the area is okay with this $5.00 guy going to jail for a few days for a DUI, but not spending a night in jail for $5.00?

Are we supposed to believe that the $5.00 is the reason that he lost that job? If the job was such an amazing job, why did he not have $5.00? Seriously, I make more than $5.00 by doing laundry and cleaning loose change out of the washer and dryer!

As for Double Jeopardy, it is not DJ if the penalty for a crime is enforced. The Criminal did not serve his penalty out, so the court came down on him. If you doubt me, go get a ticket and refuse to pay the fine. See what happens, and be sure to lawyer up so that you can sue the courts for Doube Jeopardy! Maybe you should just warn the Judge not to push it since you know the law!

LMAO at your Arrogant Assumption


first off i didnt say the guy was broke i said he had no money on him...i dont know if you know this but there are thousands of people who dont carry cash on them these days...the bottom line is the courts have to follow procedure the same way we citizens have to follow the law...and congrats on you awesome janitorial job cleaning up after others...and like i keep sayin over and over everyone thinks they know everything dj protects you from but you dont have a clue...go read up on it and then get back with me...