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Ohio Court of Appeals Upholds Sanctions for Attorney’s Frivolous Conduct

On August 28, 2017, the Ohio Court of Appeals for the Eleventh District upheld a trial court’s order imposing frivolous conduct sanctions in the amount of $22,926.72 on a plaintiff’s attorney and his law firm in the case of Keith-Harper v. Lake Hosp. Sys., Inc., --- N.E.3d ----, 2017-Ohio-7361 (11th Dist. Lake).

The plaintiff, Linda Keith-Harper, filed a complaint asserting seven causes of action against Defendants, alleging that they had engaged in unlawful age discrimination, wrongful termination based on age discrimination, disability discrimination based on Keith-Harper's knee replacement, wrongful termination based on disability discrimination, unlawful FMLA retaliation, workers’ compensation retaliation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

After the Court of Common Pleas for Lake County granted summary judgment on all of Keith-Harper’s claims, Defendants moved for an order imposing sanctions under Ohio’s frivolous conduct statute, R.C. 2323.51. Unlike a typical motion for sanctions, which may argue that a party’s allegations were frivolous from the onset, Defendants argued that Keith-Harper’s claims were rendered frivolous by the evidence adduced during the discovery process. Despite this evidence, Defendants had to incur additional fees and costs to litigate the case even after it was clear that Keith-Harper’s claims lacked any objective merit.

Granting Defendants’ motion for sanctions, the trial court agreed that by the time discovery had closed, “it was clear that there was no evidence that the plaintiff had requested or taken FMLA […] that she was disabled or perceived as disabled, […] that she was terminated for claiming workers’ compensation benefits that ended ten months earlier,” or that “she was directly targeted because of her age,” as “[t]he evidence showing she was terminated for just cause [was] overwhelming.” Because Keith-Harper’s attorneys failed to withdraw these claims after it became clear that they were not viable, the trial court awarded Defendants $22,926.72 for legal fees and costs incurred following the close of discovery. This sanction was imposed on Keith-Harper’s individual attorney and his law firm.

On appeal, Keith-Harper’s attorneys argued, among other things, that their conduct was not “frivolous” as a matter of law and that even if it was, the trial court erred by imposing joint and several liability against their law firm.

Affirming the trial court’s decision in a divided opinion, the Eleventh District adopted a deferential standard of review and drew several important distinctions between R.C. 2323.51 and its more well-known counterpart, Civ. R. 11. As an initial matter, the Court of Appeals recognized that unlike Civ. R. 11, which requires a finding of subjective bad faith before sanctions can be imposed, R.C. 2323.51 judges frivolous conduct under an objective standard “without inquiry as to what the individual knew or believed.” Recognizing that the statute provides several grounds for determining the frivolity of a claim or defense, the Court of Appeals also held that where a trial court finds that claims or defenses are factually frivolous (as opposed to legally frivolous) its determination that frivolous conduct took place will be affirmed so long as that decision is supported by competent, credible evidence. A decision that a claim is legally frivolous, on the other hand, is reviewed de novo. If the trial court makes a finding of frivolous conduct and proceeds to order an award of monetary sanctions, that decision is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Because it found that the trial court’s detailed decision outlining the factual frivolity of Keith-Harper’s claims was supported by competent, credible evidence, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s finding of frivolous conduct. 

The Court of Appeals likewise rejected the argument that it was error to award sanctions under R.C. 2323.51 against a law firm. Citing to the statutory language that permits an award of sanctions against “a party, the party’s counsel of record, or both” the Court reasoned that unlike Civ. R. 11, which was drafted to impose responsibilities and sanctions on individual attorneys who have signed a pleading, R.C. 2323.51 was drafted more broadly to “afford an avenue of relief to a party adversely affected by frivolous conduct.” Acknowledging that several Ohio appellate courts have construed “counsel of record” to include an attorney’s firm as well as an individual lawyer, the Eleventh District affirmed the trial court’s decision to impose joint and several liability on Keith-Harper’s attorneys’ law firm.

The Eleventh District’s decision in Keith-Harper highlights an attorney’s obligation to reevaluate the merits of an asserted claim at each and every stage of litigation, and to pursue only those claims that have objective factual and legal merit. A party’s or her attorney’s failure to do so may result in a violation of R.C. 2323.51 and significant exposure to compensate an opponent for legal fees and costs.

Brennan, Manna & Diamond, LLC represented the Defendants in the trial and appellate courts, with BMD attorneys Christopher Congeni and Daniel Rudary briefing the case at the court of appeals and BMD attorney Daniel Rudary presenting oral argument in defense of the trial court’s sanctions award.

New York, Kansas, Massachusetts, and Delaware Become the latest States to Adopt Full Practice Authority for Nurse Practitioners

While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly created many obstacles and hardships, it also created many opportunities to try doing things differently. This can be seen in the instant rise of remote work opportunities, telehealth visits, and virtual meetings. Many States took the challenges of the pandemic and turned them into an opportunity to adjust the regulations governing licensed professionals, including for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).

Explosive Growth in Pot of Gold Opportunity for Bank (and Other) Cannabis Lenders Driving Erosion of the Barriers

Our original article on bank lending to the cannabis industry anticipated that the convergence of interest between banks and the cannabis industry would draw more and larger banks to the industry. Banks were awash in liquidity with limited deployment options, while bankable cannabis businesses had rapidly growing needs for more and lower cost credit. Since then, the pot of gold opportunity for banks to lend into the cannabis industry has grown exponentially due to a combination of market constraints on equity causing a dramatic shift to debt and the ever-increasing capital needs of one of the country’s fastest growing industries. At the same time, hurdles to entry of new banks are being systematically cleared as the yellow brick road to the cannabis industry’s access to the financial markets is being paved, brick by brick, by the progressively increasing number and size of banks that are now entering the market.

2021 EEOC Charge Statistics: Retaliation & Impact of Remote Work

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released its detailed information on workplace discrimination charges it received in 2021. Unsurprisingly, for the second year in a row, the total number of charges decreased as COVID-19 either shut down workplaces or disconnected employees from each other. In 2021, the agency received a total of approximately 61,000 workplace discrimination charges - the fewest in 25 years by a wide margin. For reference, the agency received over 67,000 charges in 2020, and averaged almost 90,000 charges per year over the previous 10 years.

Ohio’s Managed Care Overhaul Delayed – New Implementation Timeline

At the direction of Governor Mike DeWine, the Ohio Department of Medicaid (ODM) launched the Medicaid Managed Care Procurement process in 2019. ODM’s stated vision for the procurement was to focus on people and not just the business of managed care. This is the first structural change to Ohio’s managed care system since the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services' (CMS) approval of Ohio’s Medicaid program in 2005. Initially, all of the new managed care programs were supposed to be implemented starting on July 1, 2022. However, ODM Director Maureen Corcoran recently confirmed that this date will be pushed back for several managed care-related programs.

Laboratory Specimen Collection Arrangements with Contract Hospitals - OIG Advisory Opinion 22-09

On April 28, 2022, the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) published an Advisory Opinion[1] in which it evaluated a proposed arrangement where a network of clinical laboratories (the “Requestor”) would compensate hospitals (each a “Contract Hospital”) for specimen collection, processing, and handling services (“Collection Services”) for laboratory tests furnished by the Requestor (the “Proposed Arrangement”). The OIG concluded that the Proposed Arrangement would generate prohibited remuneration under the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (“AKS”) if the requisite intent were present. This is due to both the possibility that the proposed per-patient-encounter fee would be used to induce or reward referrals to Requestor and the associated risk of improperly steering patients to Requestor.