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Ohio Supreme Court asked to extend time to sue when secret lies are discovered

Dan Trevas, Court News Ohio,

In 2020, Thomas Weidman, a township trustee in Warren County, found out he was the target of a state auditor’s investigation accusing him of soliciting bribes. The “smoking gun” was an email allegedly written by him 10 years earlier that resurfaced. The email was a fake, and Weidman sued the author for libel.

The case was dismissed after the trial court found the statute of limitations to sue for libel in Ohio ends one year after the false statement is published.

Weidman appealed, arguing it’s unfair to cut off the time to sue before he learned of the email. The appellate court likened it to a patient who discovers a medical device left in them, saying a disparaged person ought to have one year to sue from the time the secret lie is revealed.

The “discovery of the injury” theory applied by the Twelfth District Court of Appeals in Weidman’s case conflicts with rulings from many other state appeals courts, which have found that the one-year-from-publication deadline is a hard and fast rule. The Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral arguments next week on whether the time to sue can be extended when a false statement was “secretive, concealed, or otherwise unknowable.”

In 2011, Cincinnati real estate developer Christopher Hildebrant was brokering a property sale in Sycamore Township in Warren County. Hildebrant alleges that on several occasions, Weidman, a trustee, threatened to block approval of Hildebrant’s projects unless Weidman was paid a bribe.

Hildebrant stood to receive consulting payments from both the property seller and the township from this deal. Hildebrant maintains that when Weidman learned of the seller’s payment, he threatened to block the project unless he got half of the payment. When a representative of the seller learned Hildebrant would get a payment from the township, the representative demanded half of Hildebrant’s payment from the township, Hildebrant alleged.

After the sale, the seller’s representative kept pressuring Hildebrant for the payment. To avoid paying, Hildebrant created an email in December 2011 that appeared to show Weidman demanding a bribe payment from Hildebrant. The email was sent from a fictitious email account under the name to Hildebrant’s account. Hildebrant then forwarded the phony email to the representative and indicated he had no money to pay.

In 2019, eight years after the transmission of the phony email, Hildebrant was representing another client on the development of land in Sycamore Township. The company’s purchase of the land from the township required unanimous approval of the township trustees. Weidman opposed the sale.

To put pressure on the township, Hildebrant showed the fake 2011 email to another trustee and the township administrator. They alerted the state auditor’s office. It was in November 2020, when the auditor’s office presented the email to Weidman, that he told them it wasn’t his email account, and he didn’t write the email. Hildebrant eventually told the auditor’s office he wrote the fictitious email.

When Weidman sued Hildebrant, the Warren County Common Pleas Court found the one-year statute of limitations in R.C. 2305.11(A) governs libel claims and it had expired a decade earlier. The Twelfth District then reversed the decision, which Hildebrant now appeals.

The Ohio Employment Lawyers Association filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Weidman in this case, noting the secret false statements impact many others. The problem is especially harmful for those in the private sector where employees have no automatic right to review their personnel files, the group says. A false complaint filed by a jealous co-worker or an angry customer may never be revealed to an employee, who may only find out about the allegation when trying to switch jobs, the advocates note.

The employment lawyers explain that in the rare instances when an employee learns of the disparaging remark, the lie is revealed by “happenstance,” or when a person with knowledge of the false statement feels empowered to come forward. If the harmful statement isn’t discovered within a year, the worker forever loses the right to seek damages from the maker of the false statements, which is unfair, the group states.

The Supreme Court will hear four cases on May 16, including Weidman v. Hildebrant, and three more on May 17. Oral arguments begin each day at 9 a.m. The arguments will be streamed live online at and broadcast live on the Ohio Channel, where they are archived.

Tuesday, May 16

• An employee of a Cleveland company was injured in a 2013 auto accident while working. The employee received workers’ compensation benefits. He also sued the other driver and received a settlement. The state agency for workers’ compensation demanded about $6,000 out of the settlement as reimbursement for what it paid, including the cost of a review of his medical records. In Thomas v. Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, the state agency argues it can recover the record review cost because the expense was incurred on the worker’s behalf. The employee contends that the agency can’t recover that cost because it wasn’t part of the settlement.

• A Toledo attorney received referrals from a company that assisted homeowners facing foreclosure. The company owner, a nonlawyer, performed legal research and drafted legal documents. The attorney has been found to have improperly shared legal fees with the company. He also failed to update clients about their cases and missed scheduled court hearings. Four of his clients lost their homes, and others had to find different attorneys. The attorney in Disciplinary Counsel v. Shaaban argues he has made changes in how he practices and asks the Court to fully stay the recommended two-year suspension.

• Disciplinary Counsel v. Warner involves a former Marion County judge who is in prison for his conduct after an auto accident. In June 2020, the then-judge and his wife met with friends and were drinking. On the drive home late in the evening, they didn’t yield to an oncoming vehicle, knocking it off the road and into a utility pole. The other driver was seriously injured. The couple left the accident scene in their damaged car without calling emergency responders. They failed to report the accident until about nine hours later. The former judge is facing an indefinite suspension from practicing law. He requests a lesser two-year suspension with credit for his interim suspension, which took effect in March 2021.

Wednesday, May 17

• In 2020, Cuyahoga County prosecutors sought a serious youth offender designation for a 13-year-old accused of aggravated murder and murder. The serious youth offender designation could result in adult prison time, which meant the teen had the right to a speedy trial. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the county suspended jury trials. A juvenile judge continued the teen’s trial indefinitely. When the courts reopened, a new trial judge found the teen had been detained for nine months with no trial date in sight and ruled the minor wouldn’t face adult punishment. When the Court hears In re C.C., it will consider whether the pandemic delay paused the teen’s speedy trial time clock, allowing him to face adult consequences.

• A Toledo apartment complex property manager responded to a December 2020 noise complaint. There was a party, where the property manager found the nephew of a tenant. The tenant had given his nephew permission to visit his apartment, but the nephew had been banned from the complex months earlier by the landlord for breaking into vacant apartments. The nephew was convicted of criminal trespass. In Toledo v. Randolph, the city maintains that the landlord’s duty to ensure quiet enjoyment for other tenants overrides the tenant’s right to invite guests. The nephew counters that he wasn’t causing the noise and there were no other disruptions, such as fights or property damage. Given the circumstances, his arrest was improper, the nephew argues.

• A Stow Municipal Court judge objects to a proposed a two-year suspension. He is charged with coercing people to pay court costs and fines. The Board of Professional Conduct found the judge committed 64 ethics violations while handling 16 cases and recommends the judge also be immediately removed from office without pay. The judge concedes that he mistakenly didn’t follow the law for collecting past fines or costs owed by two defendants. At most he should receive a one-year suspension with six months stayed, and no removal from office, he suggests. In Disciplinary Counsel v. Hoover, the Court will consider whether the judge had the authority to detain defendants or threaten to detain them for failing to pay fines and costs.