Lawsuit against coroner dismissed

LISBON – A judge has dismissed the second lawsuit by a former Columbiana County Coroner employee accusing their ex-boss of misconduct.

Visiting Judge Richard D. Reinbold ruled Aug. 14 that Susan Bennett had failed to prove the allegations in the lawsuit she filed in May 2012 against county Coroner Dr. William A. Graham Jr., county commissioners and the county auditor.

The lawsuit alleged that Graham created a hostile work environment in retaliation for Bennett raising issues that are protected under the Whistleblower protection law, leaving her no choice but to resign. She was seeking in excess of $50,000 in damages from Graham and the county.

To seek protection under the law, Bennett had to prove state or federal law had been violated, and Reinbold said her lawsuit failed to do that.

“Even when I apply the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff when considering if any of the acts complained of are criminal in nature, there is not a scintilla of evidence that the acts complained of were likely to cause an imminent risk of physical harm to person OR hazard to public health or safety OR were felonies,” which is the legal threshold that needed to be met to prove Bennett’s case, Reinbold concluded.

Bennett worked as the coroner’s secretary/bookkeeper until resigning in February 2012 after claiming Graham retaliated against her for contacting various authorities with her concerns about his decisions on several matters.

Bennett said after she first approached commissioners and the auditor with her concerns in 2011, Graham cut her hours from 64 per pay period to 20, making her ineligible to continue receiving health insurance. She said the retaliation also included denying her access to office computers, deleting her computer files and removing bookkeeping paperwork from the office.

A retired Stark County Common Pleas Court judge, Reinbold said Graham only restricted Bennett’s access to an office computer for a short period, and, as for the deletion of certain files, the computer and the information it contained belonged to the county, not her. Either way, these actions did not violate any law.

Reinbold said the reduction in work hours that resulted in the loss of health insurance could be considered factors under the law, but this factor alone was not enough, given that the coroner’s office was responding to budget cuts and Bennett was the least qualified of the three-person staff.

The judge also addressed the actions taken by Graham that Bennett questioned. The first was the case of a man who died in a traffic accident on state Route 11, and Bennett believed the delay in medical treatment should have been listed on the death certificate as a contributing factor because a helicopter was never contacted to transport the victim, who was instead taken to a local hospital by ambulance.

The lawsuit suggested that Graham was covering for the dispatcher who failed to contact the helicopter service because the dispatching service also dispatches for the coroner’s office for free.

Reinbold said as someone who performed mostly clerical duties, Bennett “is not remotely qualified to render a medical opinion concerning the death of any individuals by her education, training or experience.” He said her investigation was “riddled with hearsay,” and Graham’s decision to exclude the information from the death certificate did not violate any law or pose a risk of hazard to public safety.

He also said Bennett was not qualified to second-guess the coroner’s decision to change the cause of death in the 2007 case of an elderly Salem man. Graham ruled the man’s death was due to natural causes after originally deciding he died from injuries sustained when he fell out of bed at the Salem Community Hospital. Graham said he changed his mind after taking a second look at the medical evidence.

Again, Reinbold said much of the complaint was based on hearsay. Second, Graham did not destroy the original death certificate but instead issued an amended certificate, so there was no attempt to conceal.

“If there is a question as to the cause of death then the civil arena is the appropriate forum,” Reinbold said.

Bennett also questioned what became of a pre-World War II German Luger handgun used in a suicide. The weapon had never been returned to the deceased’s relatives and Graham told his entire staff at one point he would like to have the handgun for his collection and wanted to know how they could go about stealing it, which he said was clearly meant as a joke. An agent from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), which investigated the allegations, found the gun in an evidence locker at the Salem Police Department, where it was never been properly documented as having been returned to police.

“Again, (the allegation) is based mostly on hearsay and there is no allegation, even from the plaintiff, that there was an incident where a person’s safety was at risk …” Reinbold said.

BCI was asked by the county sheriff’s office to investigate all of Bennett’s allegations and cleared Graham of any misconduct.

The other lawsuit against Graham and the county was filed by Brian Fullum, a former coroner’s investigator who claimed he also resigned under duress because of a hostile work environment. His original lawsuit preceded Bennett’s and made essentially the same claims. Fullum’s lawsuit also alleged Graham failed to pay him for all of the hours he worked.

Fullum’s original lawsuit was dismissed by county Common Pleas Court Judge C. Ashley Pike, who ruled that as an elected official, Graham was protected from such lawsuits under the sovereign immunity law.

Fullum immediately filed a new lawsuit, and Reinbold was assigned to preside over this one. The lawsuit was put on hold, however, while the parties await a decision in Fullum’s appeal of Judge Pike’s ruling, which remains pending before the Ohio 7th District Court of Appeals.