Federal Judge Allows Punitive Damages in Lawsuit Against Trumbull County Commissioners and Sheriff’s Office

Warren, Ohio – Trumbull County commissioners and members of the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office may face individual liability for punitive damages in a lawsuit brought by Commissioner Niki Frenchko, according to U.S. District Judge Philip Calabrese’s recent order. The judge’s ruling stated that if the case goes to trial, a jury could find that Sheriff Paul Monroe, county Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa, former Commissioner Frank Fuda, and two sheriff’s office sergeants conspired to have Frenchko arrested during a commissioners meeting in July 2022.

The lawsuit, filed on Frenchko’s behalf by attorneys David Betras and Matt Miller-Novak, alleges a violation of civil rights following Frenchko’s arrest during the meeting and a separate incident in March 2023 when Monroe knocked over her cellphone while recording another meeting. Frenchko claims that her fellow commissioners, Monroe, and the two sergeants conspired to falsely arrest her.

Betras, Frenchko’s attorney, believes the judge’s opinion indicates that there is enough evidence for a conspiracy finding against the defendants. He stated that if the case goes to trial, punitive damages can be sought against the individual defendants, as they have been stripped of qualified immunity, making it unlikely that any insurance company will cover their actions. Betras emphasized that seeking monetary damages is the way to obtain justice for the alleged abuse of police power by the sheriff.

During the July 2022 meeting, Frenchko spoke out of turn while Commissioner Fuda was reading a letter from Monroe disputing an earlier letter written by Frenchko on behalf of a Trumbull County jail inmate’s mother, criticizing the jail’s care. As sheriff, Monroe is responsible for jail operations. Frenchko aims to prove that the commissioners and Monroe conspired to have her arrested.

The court’s opinion also addressed the defense of qualified immunity, stating that a jury could find that the defendants do not qualify for statutory immunity. The document suggested that the arrest might have been orchestrated by the government itself rather than an ad hoc decision by an individual officer.

The judge’s ruling determined that there was no evidence to support probable cause for Frenchko’s arrest based on her First Amendment right to speak, even though she was repeatedly instructed not to interrupt the commissioners clerk. The court also ruled that Cantalamessa and Fuda could not use the defense of qualified immunity. Frenchko’s legal team, however, did not prove malicious prosecution since one of the sergeants did not initiate the legal process immediately after the arrest.

Frenchko’s attorney, Betras, expressed his desire for accountability and to seek justice for his client, emphasizing that the defendants violated her First and Fourth Amendment rights.

As of now, the county officials’ attorney has not responded to a request for comment on the matter.