It’s a generally understood concept that case law interpreting the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure applies equally to the Ohio Rules of Civil Procedure—except in one main area: motions to dismiss. In Maternal Grandmother v. Hamilton Cty. Dept. of Job & Family Servs., the Ohio Supreme Court was tasked with addressing one question: Had a grandmother of an abused and neglected child sufficiently pleaded her claim against the Hamilton County agency tasked with the grandchild’s wellbeing to overcome statutory immunity? The case had been dismissed (and affirmed on appeal). On Nov. 23, 2021, the Supreme Court reversed.
The Supreme Court’s majority opinion has implications for those interested in statutory immunity issues. However, the concurrence is more interesting—Justice DeWine takes another route to victory for the grandmother.
A tragedy results in a lawsuit
G.B. passed away at the age of two, while under the supervision of Hamilton County Job & Family Services (HCJFS), and individual HCJFS caseworkers. G.B.’s grandmother filed suit, and the trial court dismissed the claims under the statutory immunity under R.C. 2744.03(A)(6).
The First District concurred, finding that the grandmother’s complaint only alleged in conclusory fashion that the governmental immunity statute did not apply because the caseworkers’ conduct amounted to “bad faith” or “wanton or reckless” conduct.
The majority opinion reinforces Ohio’s status as a notice pleading state
The First District’s decision was unanimously reversed as to the individual caseworkers. The majority opinion framed the question of whether the “wanton or reckless” conduct requirement resulted in a “heightened pleading standard.” Justice Fischer, writing for the majority, concluded that it did not.
The court held “when a complaint invokes an exception to a governmental employee’s immunity…notice pleading suffices and the plaintiff may not be held to a heightened pleading standard or expected to plead the factual circumstances surrounding an allegation of wanton or reckless behavior with particularity.”
The majority opinion examined the allegations of the complaint and concluded that the complaint did “all that was required at the pleading stage by putting the case workers on notice” that their immunity may be abrogated.
The concurrence takes a different view
Justice DeWine drafted a concurrence (joined by Justice Kennedy) that asserts the “heightened pleading” standard was never argued or decided below, but the appellant’s proposition of law framed the question that way and therefore induced the majority’s analysis.
He begins by noting the prior U.S. Supreme Court precedent holding that a motion to dismiss should only be granted if the “plaintiff can prove no set of facts” entitling the plaintiff to relief.
The concurrence acknowledges that the U.S. Supreme Court backed away from the “no set of facts” standard in 2007 in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly. In Twombly, the U.S. Supreme Court backed away from the “no set of facts” framework, and instead required plaintiffs to plead more than a “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court refined the standard even further in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, holding a complaint must supply enough facts “to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” As Justice DeWine explained, in the years since Twombly and Iqbal were decided, this court has never addressed the question whether we should apply a similar plausibility standard for complaints. There are good reasons that we might want to do so, but because this case does not squarely present the issue, our consideration must await another day.”
Justice DeWine noted that the Ohio Supreme Court had long followed the principle that “labels and bare legal conclusions in a complaint are insufficient” and analyzed the complaint in this case under that standard.
The concurrence ultimately holds that the limited facts detailed in the complaint were sufficient to state a claim for relief.
What’s the takeaway?
The first role of any appellate counsel is to determine the date the notice of appeal must be filed by. The second is to determine the standard of review.
The trial litigator has a similar initial imperative: understand the likelihood of dismissal on the pleadings.
In the motion-to-dismiss context, the Supreme Court is signaling a willingness to engage on the issue, but whether examining it under the “notice pleading” standard or the “more than bare legal conclusions” standard, it is clear that plaintiffs’ counsel need to be able to articulate a minimal factual basis underpinning the legal claims, or defense counsel should be ready to seek dismissal.
Regardless, there are instances where the interpretation of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure have not been fully adopted by the Ohio Supreme Court—it’s worth being aware of them, and the Maternal Grandmother decision implicates one such instance.