Cleveland Reaches $4.85 Million Settlement With Wrongfully Convicted Man After Trying to Avoid Paying $13 Million Jury Verdict

Years after the city of Cleveland used a novel legal maneuver to avoid paying a single dime of a $13 million jury verdict to a man wrongfully convicted based on the work of two city police officers, the city has finally agreed to a settlement of $4.85 with David Ayers.

Ayers spent 11 years in prison for the 1999 beating death of a 76-year-old woman, a crime he was later exonerated of thanks to DNA evidence. A civil suit against two Cleveland detectives who worked the case — Denise Kovach and Michael Cipo — showed the two targeted Ayers despite zero physical evidence tying him to the case.

A jury awarded a $13 million verdict against the officers.

In a typical case where a city employee has been slapped with a civil lawsuit, the Ohio Revised Code dictates the municipality has the "duty to defend" the employee as long as they were "acting both in good faith and not manifestly outside the scope of employment or official responsibilities." So too with indemnification: If the employee meets those two requirements and is found liable for a civil judgment, the law says the city indemnifies — or picks up the tab.

But rather than indemnify per state law in that case, the city of Cleveland paid for the officers to enter bankruptcy — paying not only for their legal representation, but for their filing fee.

Cipo died in 2013, but Kovach's bankruptcy sailed through the courts, listing the $13.2 million judgment as a debt but not indicating that she had the right to indemnification for the amount. And with that, Ayers' hard-fought slice of justice was wiped away.

A Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge ruled in favor of Ayers, arguing the victim in this case had the right to ask that the city indemnify its officers, but an appeals court ruled in favor of the city, a decision that was upheld in March of this year by the Ohio Supreme Court.

A creditor, in this case David Ayers, can't force a state actor to indemnify an employee if the employee doesn't request it, the high court ruled in a 6-1 decision.

As reported today, his lawyers didn't take the ruling as the final word in the case, instead filing a new suit in September.

“Cleveland is the only municipality in the nation that has ever tried to duck its obligations to indemnify a civil rights judgment against an employee by paying for the employee to go personally bankrupt,” the suit said.

In the two months since, the two sides had entered into mediation, which eventually ended with last night's announcement by the city in a small paragraph buried at the end of the daily coronavirus email briefing that it will finally pay up for the injustice done to Ayers: “David Ayers and the City of Cleveland have resolved the lawsuit between Mr. Ayers and the City involving a judgment against two former City police officers for wrongful imprisonment. After working collaboratively in a meritorious mediation process, they have reached a settlement where the City will pay Mr. Ayers $4.85 million.”
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Vince Grzegorek

Vince Grzegorek has been with Scene since 2007 and editor-in-chief since 2012. He previously worked at Discount Drug Mart and Texas Roadhouse.
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