Ohio firefighter receives $5K judgement in First Amendment lawsuit against mayor, city
Rocky River Firefighter Scott Solarz alleged that he was subjected to harassment after displaying a sign reading "Fire Fighters and Veterans against 'NO HONOR' Mayor Graven" at his home
OLMSTED FALLS, Ohio — Free speech and political expression are alive in well in Olmsted Falls.
In late August, a $5,000 offer of judgement was agreed to by resident Scott Solarz, who last year filed a lawsuit against Olmsted Falls Mayor James Graven and the city claiming his First Amendment rights were violated.
The lawsuit pertained to the sign “Fire Fighters and Veterans against ‘NO HONOR’ Mayor Graven,” which was posted in front of Solarz’s Ravinia Drive home, as well as at two Usher Road houses in Olmsted Township.
Shortly after the Rocky River firefighter posted the signs, Solarz’s attorney Jared S. Klebanow said this led to a pattern of harassment by Graven, including the mayor emailing Rocky River Fire Chief Aaron Lenart and cc’ing Rocky River Mayor Pam Bobst in hopes of having the signs taken down.
Solarz initially took his sign down, but it reappeared around the time he filed his lawsuit.
“Just because you’re a mayor of the city doesn’t mean you’re immune for your actions,” said Solarz, who has lived in Olmsted Falls since 2016. "He kept saying, ‘I have government immunity’ for any of my actions. The mayor did this all to himself, and I wasn’t going to be bullied by him.
“I would have been more than happy to settle things calmly, but the things he did gave me no choice.”
The entire legal matter in Senior United States District Judge Christopher Boyko’s courtroom cost the city an insurance deductible of $25,000, which Olmsted Falls Law Director Andrew Bemer said included both Solarz’s and the city’s legal expenses, as well as the judgement.
Olmsted Falls Mayor James Graven denied any wrongdoing.
“The law director and the insurance defense attorney (Mazanec, Raskin & Ryder’s John T. McLandrich) believed it was in the best interest of the city to resolve this matter early on,” Graven said. "We could have gone to trial.
“I’ve been a lawyer for 30 years, we would have prevailed because his First Amendment rights were not violated. As a matter of fact, his sign is still up today.”
The acrimony between Solarz and Graven started four years ago over a city inspector dispute related to his new home.
“The most disappointing thing to me is when he showed up to my house on a Friday afternoon when I wasn’t home and my 15-year-old daughter answered the door,” Solarz said.
“The mayor was clearly, visibly irritated by the sign. You don’t do that. The second thing that bothered me the most was the harassment in my workplace.”
Klebanow characterized the results as preserving the American right to protest a matter of public concern without fear of retaliation or reprisal.
“There was no settlement,” Klebanow said. "An offer of judgment, which is the civil equivalent to a surrender, was made by the city of Olmsted Falls.
“As a United States Marine, Scott Solarz fought for our rights in the Persian Gulf, so we fought for his rights under the US Constitution. When Mayor Graven retaliated against a veteran for exercising the rights he fought for, it was time to stand up.”
Olmsted Falls City Council Pro-Tem Lori Jones questioned how the taxpayers ended up paying for Graven’s actions, especially after the city was removed from the case.
Klebanow said on June 23 Boyko dismissed the city from the case, but ruled that the suit filed by the Olmsted Township resident could go forward against Mayor Graven for violating Solarz’s First Amendment rights.
“The city of Olmsted Falls agreed to be re-entered into the case as a defendant — even after being dismissed — in order to permit Mayor Graven to be dismissed from the case without a judgment being entered against him,” Klebanow said.
Bemer disagreed with Klebanow’s version of events, noting the city was erroneously pulled from the case.
“You have to understand the mayor is acting in the scope of his employment,” Bemer said. “He’s entitled to qualified immunity, just as the city. Our insurance lawyer said the judge didn’t make the proper ruling.”
Olmsted Falls City Council President Paul Stibich added, "I don’t know that Mayor Graven’s behavior was wrong, but the insurance company said it was in everybody’s best interest to settle. That’s what we did.
“That’s unfortunate that it cost the city. I wish it never happened, but it did and we take the advice of our professionals and move on.”
That’s not good enough for Councilwoman Jones.
“I’m unhappy because the mayor keeps yapping about money,” Jones said. “He went off the deep end about the (overtime) cost of the Black Lives Matter (protest). I want the public to understand the man wouldn’t accept responsibility, but more than that, it cost us $25,000.”
Graven, who campaigned on the idea of ending the litigiousness associated with former Mayor Ann Marie Donegan’s administration, defended his actions.
“One of my goals when taking office in 2018 was to address the excess expenditures in the general budget, and — in particular — the large amount of attorney fees that were being paid out during the prior administration,” Graven said.
“Legal expenses in the previous administration were $493,221 and during the Graven administration they were $90,279. I believe I have met the goal of holding down the costs and changing the climate of litigation in our city.”
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