Lawsuit Alleges Mayor, Cincinnati Used 'Sham Legal Process' Against Homeless Camps

U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black ordered May 29 that Mayor John Cranley can be included as a defendant in a lawsuit over removal of downtown tent cities last summer.

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click to enlarge Tent city in OTR - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Tent city in OTR

Residents of a downtown camp removed last summer will be allowed to go forward with a lawsuit alleging that the City of Cincinnati and Mayor John Cranley acted in bad faith in clearing those camps, U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black decided May 29.

Cranley and the city, however, strongly dispute a central claim of the lawsuit -- that the camps were removed using invalid legal manuvers.

The camps popped up last summer as people experiencing homelessness pitched tents and other shelters on Third and Sixth Streets downtown and in Pendleton and Over-the-Rhine, among other locations. The city and county removed the tent cities, and, after Cranley asked Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters to intervene, Hamilton County Judge Robert Ruehlman issued a widening set of restraining orders against the camps, saying they were unsanitary and dangerous.Residents left a final camp on private property in OTR under threat of arrest.

The removals sparked a lawsuit brought by tent city resident Joe Phillips and his attorney Bennett Allen claiming the actions violated tent city inhabitants' constitutional rights. This is the third amendment to that lawsuit.

Black struck down several claims in the requested amendments, including allegations of gross negligence and interference with civil rights. But the judge is allowing to move forward allegations against the city and Cranley that the restraining orders issued by a county judge happened via a "sham legal process."

The judge dismissed complaints against the county, but also ruled that Phillips and his attorney can add another tent city resident, Patrick Chin, and the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition to the suit as plaintiffs. 

Phillips' lawsuit alleges the actions removing the tent cities were not valid because Cranley asked Deters to intervene in the matter, which led to a lawsuit by the county against the city ordering the latter to enforce state laws. Black wrote in his order that, at this preliminary point, the plaintiffs could feasibly prevail on that claim provided the facts they state in their complaint are true.

"Here, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have adequately alleged facts, at this motion to dismiss stage, that demonstrate that the City and Hamilton County did not have adverse legal interests in the state court proceeding," Black writes. "Because the parties were not adverse, there arguably was no justiciable matter before the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas... Plaintiffs have also adequately pleaded (but not yet proven) that the [court order] deprived them of their constitutional rights and that it was intended to be used to make others believe it was lawfully issued. Therefore, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have stated a cognizable claim against Mayor Cranley for use of sham legal process."

Cranley's office says the mayor acted in the best interest of the city and the camp inhabitants.

"The Mayor acted only in good faith to protect the public health and wellbeing of the city, especially those staying in the homeless encampments," Cranley spokesperson Holly Stutz-Smith said via email. Stutz-Smith also pointed to the city's filing rejecting Phillips' claims.

"Plaintiff's allegation that Mayor Cranley asked the County to sue the City is pure speculation and is flatly contradicted by the very evidence Plaintiff provides," the city's response to the amendment request reads. 

Phillips' lawsuit at one point included The City of Cincinnati, Cranley, Cincinnati City Solicitor Paula Boggs-Muething, Hamilton County, Deters and Ruehlman. Complaints against all but the city and the mayor have been dismissed.

Ruehlman's motion to dismiss complaints against him was granted last year. Black wrote that there isn't basis to sue Muething for a sham legal process and that Deters can't be a defendant in the lawsuit due to prosecutorial immunity.

"The Court finds that Plaintiffs have plausibly pleaded that Prosecutor Deters used a sham legal process to deprive Plaintiffs of their constitutional rights," Black wrote. "Moreover, Plaintiffs have even alleged facts that, if true, support the conclusion that Prosecutor Deters acted wrongfully and in bad faith in bringing the nuisance action, knowing that it was not a true adversarial proceeding. Nevertheless, bringing a nuisance action clearly falls within the scope of Prosecutor Deters’ prosecutorial duties. Therefore, Prosecutor Deters is entitled to the protections of absolute immunity." 

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