Visiting judge appointed in coroner lawsuits

LISBON – Judge C. Ashley Pike, in a written ruling filed this week, recused both himself and Judge Scott Washam from presiding in two civil cases filed by two former employees of the Columbiana County Coroner’s Office.

Susan Bennett and Brian K. Fullum have both filed lawsuits in Columbiana County Common Pleas Court regarding their alleged mistreatment after bringing allegations against their former boss.

Pike wrote in his decision this week that he and Washam cannot preside in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety because the case involves alleged conduct by an elected county official. A visiting judge will be assigned.

When contacted, Pike said he was not asked by attorneys from either side to step down. However, a motion was made in recent weeks asking him to make a summary judgment, something he said he just does not feel he can do when it comes to looking at the conduct of another elected official.

“It’s a no-win situation for me,” Pike explained about ruling in the case. “It either looks like I’m protecting or prosecuting another elected official.”

This is the second time the Fullum case has been before the court. The first was dismissed just before it was to go to trial in December after Pike ruled the corner, Dr. William Graham, is an elected official, not a political subdivision. He noted the first complaint was filed against the coroner both professionally and personally, not the coroner’s office. Therefore, Pike wrote Graham is presumptively entitled to protection under statutory immunity.

Fullum refiled the case changing the lawsuit to be against the Columbiana County Coroner’s Office, instead of Dr. Graham himself.

Now it was the Bennett case, filed in May 2012, which had been scheduled to go to trial next week. When asked about the timing of his decision to step down, Pike noted he was not asked to make a summary judgment on the case until recently.

Now all the dates currently set for hearings will be canceled in both cases, while Judge Richard Reinbold Jr., a retired Common Pleas Court judge from Stark County, becomes caught up with the cases.

Pike said Reinbold has been handling several cases in Columbiana County recently, mostly dealing with natural gas related issues. An employee of the county courts is related to someone involved in some of the gas issues and Pike said so many of those lawsuits involve property owners known by the local court officials, it became necessary. Pike had requested Reinbold be available to handle any of those cases where a conflict may arise.

Fullum’s lawsuit claims retaliation, failure to pay overtime compensation and a hostile work environment. Bennett claims she was retaliated against after she brought up allegations of professional misconduct, taking her concerns to the county commissioners. The alleged misconduct, including the alleged change of a cause-of-death ruling in 2007 and the temporary disappearance of a handgun used in a suicide, was investigated by the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation. Dr. Graham was exonerated.