October 31, 2016
We have many dedicated and professional public servants, both elected officials and bureaucrats. But we also have some who are not so dedicated and not so professional, and even the best can get intoxicated by their power, respond to the mob, or fail to understand the constitutional and statutory limitations on their authority.
Fortunately, in this nation, we have a system of checks and balances, and when an elected official steps over the bounds of his authority, we have the courts to check that abuse of power.
At the Finney Law Firm, we take pride in representing our clients and communities by, when necessary, standing a haughty elected official or appointed bureaucrat before a Judge and making them account for their excesses. The only thing more satisfying than that is both winning and shifting the fees to the government that forced the action to begin with, for which Ohio law allows.
Under Ohio law, both (i) standing is conferred and (ii) an award of attorney’s fees to a prevailing plaintiff is granted for ultra vires acts (acts beyond their power) by government officials. This is achieved through taxpayer actions.
“Standing” is a threshold issue in all litigation. To have standing, an individual must generally have an actual and concrete injury, caused by the conduct of which the individual complains and capable of being redressed by the court. Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992). Because the status of taxpayer is shared by so many, it can sometimes be difficult to establish standing; however, Ohio law has alleviated that problem with statutes such as R.C. 733.59 (for cities/municipalities) and R.C. 309.13 (for counties).
The Ohio taxpayer statutes provide that an individual may request in writing that the city solicitor, village director, or county prosecutor (whichever is applicable), if there is one, initiate an action to hold government actors accountable for their ultra vires acts. If there is no such solicitor, director, or prosecutor to initiate the action or if they fail to do so upon a taxpayer’s written request, the taxpayer may initiate the suit himself. The action is then brought in his own name on behalf of the municipal corporation or the state, whatever the case may be. This, in essence, confers standing upon any taxpayer seeking to put a stop to such injustices, regardless of their arguably generalized injury.
In so doing, the taxpayer “volunteers to enforce a right of action on behalf of and for the benefit of the public.” State ex rel. Nimon v. Springdale, 6 Ohio St. 2d 1, ¶ 2 of the syllabus (1966). The only other requirement is that the taxpayer must give a “security” for the cost of the proceeding, presumably to discourage meritless actions. However, the Ohio First District Court of Appeals, has found that the filing fees satisfy this requirement, although other courts have disagreed and required something more. McQueen v. Dohoney, 1st Dist. Hamilton No. C-130196, 2013-Ohio-2424, at ¶ 21 (June 12, 2013); But see, Bowshier v. Vill. of N. Hampton, 2d Dist. Clark No. 2001 CA 63, 2002-Ohio-2273, at ¶ 27 (May 10, 2002); National Elec. Contrs. Ass’n v. City of Mentor, 108 Ohio App. 3d 373, 381 (11th Dist. 1995).
An added benefit for the taxpayers who bring these actions, as well as their attorneys, is that they are entitled to attorney’s fees upon showing that the action resulted in public benefit. State ex rel. White v. Cleveland, 34 Ohio St. 2d 37, ¶ 3 of the syllabus (1973); See also R.C. 733.61 (“If the court hearing a case under section 733.59 of the Revised Code is satisfied that the taxpayer had good cause to believe that his allegations were well founded, or if they are sufficient in law, it shall make such order as the equity of the case demands. In such case the taxpayer shall be allowed his costs, and, if judgment is finally ordered in his favor, he may be allowed, as part of the costs, a reasonable compensation for his attorney.”); R.C. 309.13 likewise provides for reasonable attorney’s fees. One of Finney Law Firm’s own cases established that “[t]he public benefit need not be monetary in character. That benefit may be of a more intangible character, such as the prevention of illegal government activity.” City Of Cincinnati ex rel. Smitherman v. City of Cincinnati, 188 Ohio App. 3d 171, 178 (2010), citing Billington v. Cotner, 37 Ohio St.2d 17, 19, 305 N.E.2d 805 (1974). However, to get attorney’s fees, the taxpayer must produce a contract (fee agreement) showing that he has actually incurred attorney’s fees. Harris v. Carney, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 34733, 1976 Ohio App. LEXIS 8334, *6 (Apr. 8, 1976).
For more information on taxpayer actions, attorney’s fees in such actions, and other fee-shifting provisions, Attorney Chris Finney will be presenting at an NBI seminar in Cincinnati, Ohio titled Local Government Law From Start to Finish on Friday, December 16, 2016.