Cirino v. Ohio Bureau of Workers' Comp.

Decision Date05 May 2022
Docket Number110654
Citation2022 Ohio 1495
PartiesMICHAEL CIRINO, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. OHIO BUREAU OF WORKERS' COMPENSATION, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtOhio Court of Appeals

Civil Appeal from the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Case No CV-21-944521


Bashein & Bashein Co., L.P.A., W. Craig Bashein, and John P. Hurst; Flowers & Grube, Paul W. Flowers, Louis E Grube, and Melissa A. Ghrist; and Charles J. Gallo Co., L.P.A., and Charles J. Gallo, for appellant.

David Yost, Attorney General of Ohio, and Sarah E. Thomas, Assistant Attorney General; and Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, Ronald D. Holman, II, Michael J. Zbiegien, Jr., and Stephanie A. Kortokrax, for appellee.



{¶ 1} Plaintiff-appellant Michael Cirino ("Cirino") appeals the judgment of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas that granted a motion to dismiss filed by defendant-appellee Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation ("the BWC" or "the bureau") and dismissed the case with prejudice for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Upon review, we affirm the judgment of the common pleas court.

I. Background

{¶ 2} On February 26, 2021, Cirino filed a class-action complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. The action arises from a debit-card program established by the bureau for the payment of workers' compensation benefits. Cirino alleges that he was "involuntarily and unlawfully assessed service fees, charges, costs or expenses, wrongfully withheld from their statutory payments or awards, which were collected from the accounts set up" for the debit-card program and that the bureau "is committing an ongoing violation of the mandatory duties imposed by R.C. 4121.39(B) and (C)" by "refusing to pay the Named Plaintiff and [class members] 100 percent of their workers' compensation benefits[.]"

{¶ 3} The current lawsuit was brought as "a refiling of the claims for declaratory and injunctive relief that were originally raised in prior actions. The original lawsuit was filed in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas in May 2010, Cirino v. Ohio Bur. of Workers Comp., Cuyahoga C.P. No. CV-10-727380, seeking the return of funds that were alleged to have been "wrongfully collected or withheld" from certain workers' compensation benefits recipients who received payments through the debit-card program established with JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. ("Chase"). In the original lawsuit, the class-action complaint raised claims for statutory violation, restitution/unjust enrichment/equitable disgorgement and injunctive relief, and declaratory relief, and Cirino sought damages for the "wrongfully withheld amounts" in addition to other relief. The court of common pleas denied a motion to dismiss Cirino's suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, and this court affirmed that ruling on appeal in Cirino v. Ohio Bur. of Workers' Comp., 2016-Ohio-8323, 75 N.E.3d 965 (8th Dist.). However, upon a de novo review, the Supreme Court of Ohio reversed this court's decision, vacated all orders issued by the court of common pleas, and remanded the case to the court of common pleas for a dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Cirino v. Ohio Bur. of Workers' Comp., 153 Ohio St.3d 333, 2018-Ohio-2665, 106 N.E.3d 41, ¶ 1, 31 ("Cirino I").

{¶ 4} In Cirino I, the lead plurality opinion considered whether the relief sought by Cirino was equitable in nature, legal in nature, or both. Id. at ¶ 20. The Supreme Court looked beyond how the claims were labeled and determined that regardless of how Cirino characterized his claims, Cirino was seeking legal relief, rather than equitable restitution, in seeking to have the bureau compensate him for the alleged loss he suffered by the fees charged by Chase. Id. at ¶ 25-30.[1] As the lead opinion recognized, "what Cirino is seeking is to have the bureau pay him money to compensate for the loss he suffered when those fees were charged [by Chase], and that is relief in the form of traditional legal damages, which is within the exclusive, original jurisdiction of the Court of Claims." Id. at ¶ 30. The Supreme Court further concluded that "[b]ecause Cirino's claim seeks legal relief, it may be brought only in the Court of Claims." Cirino I at ¶ 31. The Supreme Court also indicated that "Cirino's claims for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief must also be brought in the Court of Claims because they arise out of the same circumstances that gave rise to his claim for legal relief. R.C. 2743.03(A)(2)." Id.

{¶ 5} Three justices in Cirino I concurred in judgment only and agreed "with the lead opinion that Michael Cirino's claim is for legal relief and that jurisdiction rests in the Court of Claims." Cirino I, 153 Ohio St.3d 333, 2018-Ohio- 2665, 106 N.E.3d 41, at ¶ 32-40 (DeWine, J., concurring in judgment only).[2] The concurring-in-judgment-only opinion focused on the locus of the specific funds to which Cirino claimed entitlement and recognized that "the BWC disbursed the funds held for Cirino to the bank" and "the bank deducted the fees that are at issue in this lawsuit." Id. at ¶ 37, 40. As expressed by Justice DeWine:

Almost always, suits that seek a payment of a sum of money are suits for money damages-"the classic form of legal relief (emphasis sic), Mertens v. Hewitt Assocs., 508 U.S. 248, 255, 113 S.Ct. 2063, 124 L.Ed.2d 161 (1993) because "'they seek no more than compensation for loss resulting from the defendant's breach of legal duty.'" Great-West Life & Annuity Ins. Co. v. Knudson, 534 U.S. 204, 210, 122 S.Ct. 708, 151 L.Ed.2d 635 (2002), quoting Bowen v. Massachusetts, 487 U.S. 879, 918-919, 108 S.Ct. 2722, 101 L.Ed.2d 749 (1988) (Scalia, J., dissenting). Only in a narrow set of circumstances-when a plaintiff seeks specifically identifiable funds in the control of the defendant-is a suit for money properly understood as equitable.
In my view, this case is resolved far more cleanly by focusing on the locus of the specific funds to which Cirino claims entitlement. * * *
Here, the BWC disbursed the funds held for Cirino to the bank. After the specific funds to which Cirino claims he was entitled were transferred to Chase, the bank deducted the fees that are at issue in this lawsuit. Thus, any remedy due Cirino would be paid not from particular funds held by the BWC to which Cirino can trace entitlement, but from the BWC's funds generally. * * * [T]he restitution sought is legal relief, not equitable relief. Accordingly, exclusive jurisdiction resides with the Court of Claims.

Cirino I at ¶ 33-40 (DeWine, J., concurring in judgment only).

{¶ 6} After the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas dismissed the action pursuant to the mandate in Cirino I, Cirino filed a class-action complaint in the Court of Claims arising from the identical circumstances as those in Cirino I:

In this case, Cirino again asserts that BWC acted unlawfully in permitting JPMorgan Chase Bank, NA. ("Chase Bank") to charge fees associated with a BWC-authorized "debit card program," which, according to Cirino's claim, resulted in BWC shifting administrative costs to BWC claimants in violation of R.C. 4123.341. (See, generally, Aug. 1, 2018 Compl., Count One.) Cirino also asserts that BWC violated its duties as set forth in R.C. 4123.67 by providing Cirino and other members of a proposed class of similarly situated individuals "with a method or mode of payment that was subject to monthly withholding of transaction fees, charges, costs, or expenses." Id. Cirino seeks legal, declaratory, injunctive, and other equitable relief. Id.

Cirino v. Bur. of Workers' Comp., 2021-Ohio-1382, 171 N.E.3d 840, ¶ 4-5 (10th Dist.) ("Cirino II"). In Cirino II, the Tenth District Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the Court of Claims that granted a motion for partial judgment on the pleadings on all of Cirino's equitable claims and the decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the bureau on all remaining claims. Id. at ¶ 35. The Tenth District first determined that the Court of Claims did not err in granting partial judgment on the pleadings on Cirino's claims for equitable relief:

The core finding of the Supreme Court in Cirino I is that the crux of Cirino's claims, regardless of how they are characterized, is a claim for legal money damages for reimbursement of the cumulative $5.00 teller fees he paid in accessing his BWC benefits. * * * Thus, the Supreme Court has already determined that all of Cirino's claims are legal claims, not equitable claims. It follows, then, that Cirino has failed to state claims for equitable relief, and BWC is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on these claims.

Cirino II at ¶ 17. The Tenth District then determined that the Court of Claims did not err in granting summary judgment on Cirino's remaining claims because Cirino's claims of entitlement to monetary compensation for the BWC's alleged violation of statutory duties set forth in R.C. 4123.341 and 4123.67 failed as a matter of law "because neither of the statutes relied on by Cirino * * * provides a private cause of action * * *." Id. at ¶ 32. As a result, the Tenth District found Cirino's challenge to the finding of the Court of Claims that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims for injunctive and declaratory relief was moot. Id. at ¶ 32-34. No appeal was filed from the Tenth District's decision.

{¶ 7} While the appeal was pending in the Tenth District, Cirino filed the current action in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. In the complaint, Cirino maintains that because this action seeks only declaratory and injunctive relief, the court of common pleas possesses subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant...

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