Congress enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”) to “provide emergency assistance and health care response for individuals, families, and businesses affected by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.” The CARES Act has very broad eligibility standards, and a federal court has interpreted those standards to include prisoners. The IRS has accordingly issued checks to all prisoners who meet the act’s general eligibility requirements.
According to guidance issued by Ohio’s chief legal officer, Attorney General David Yost, Ohioans’ checks are fully exempt from attachment by creditors except for child support obligations. Specifically, Attorney General Yost determined that these payments fall under Ohio R.C. 2329.66(A)(12)(d), a state law that exempts from garnishment any “payment in compensation for loss of future earnings of the person or an individual of whom the person is or was a dependent, to the extent reasonably necessary for the support of the debtor and any of the debtor’s dependents.” There is no cap on this exemption; rather, the full amount of the payment is exempt.
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (“ODRC”), however, has instructed its prison wardens to intercept the CARES Act checks mailed to prisoners so that it can garnish them. Contrary to the Attorney General’s guidance, ODRC classifies these checks as subject to Ohio R.C. 2329.66(A)(3) rather than (A)(12)(d). That provision would subject the any amount of the payment over $500 to garnishment. Every check is in the amount of $1200, so this would leave $700 exposed to garnishment. ODRC intends to garnish the checks of prisoners who owe court debts.
The garnishment of prisoners’ relief checks for debts other than child support, when all other Ohioans’ relief checks are treated are fully immune to non-child support garnishments, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Ohio Constitution.
On April 12, 2021 we filed a Complaint in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas on behalf of two men incarcerated at Ohio prisons whose CARES Act checks were intercepted and garnished by ODRC, seeking a declaratory judgment and writ of mandamus against Defendants ODRC, ODRC Director Annette Chambers-Smith, and the wardens of the prisons where Plaintiffs are incarcerated. Simultaneously, we filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction (PI). On May 7, Defendants (ODRC, ODRC Director Annette Chambers-Smith, and the wardens of the facilities where Plaintiffs are incarcerated) filed their opposition to the PI Motion along with a Motion to Dismiss and a Motion to Stay Discovery until the Court rules on the dismissal motion. We opposed the stay motion and motion to dismiss, and filed our reply in support of the PI on May 21. Defendants filed a reply in support of their motion to dismiss on May 28. The Court granted the Motion to Stay Discovery on May 25. The Court granted Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss on June 30.
We filed an expedited appeal to the 10th District Court of Appeals on August 2. We filed our appeal brief on August 27, and the MacArthur Justice Center filed an amicus brief in support on behalf of the Ohio Organizing Collective and Policy Matters Ohio. Appellees’ brief was due September 12, but they requested extensions that moved their deadline to October 30 while we discussed terms for a voluntary dismissal.
On October 13, per our agreement and a proposed entry, the trial court entered a Nunc Pro Tunc Order clarifying that our Complaint was dismissed due to lack of subject matter jurisdiction for failing to join all appropriate parties (specifically, the clerks of court to whom ODRC transferred the funds.) This adjustment clarifies that we may refile the case with the clerks added as additional parties. On October 19, we dismissed the appeal.
We refiled this case on January 24 naming as additional defendants the Clerks of Court for Richland and Hamilton Counties. Answers were filed by the Hamilton County Clerk, Pavan Parikh, on February 14, by ODRC, Director Annette Chambers-Smith, and Warden Foley on March 15, and by Richland County Clerk Linda Frary on March 16. Defendants ODRC, Chambers-Smith, and Foley filed Initial Disclosures on March 21 and parties have begun discovery. On April 26, we amended the Complaint to reflect a new Warden at Marion CI. All Defendants filed Answers to the First Amended Complaint by May 10. The parties held a discovery conference on April 26, and afterwards filed a Rule 26(f)(3) plan with the Court. On June 16, the Defendant Clerks of Court filed a Motion to Deposit Funds, asking to deposit the disputed funds with the Court and be dismissed from the case with prejudice.