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Tennis Ball Toxin Suspect's Civil Rights Claim Bounced from Court

By Robyn Hagan Cain on September 27, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Sometimes we think there is no issue too small for appellate court review.

Take, for instance, Fisher v Dodson, an Ohio civil rights claim considered in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

John Fisher found himself in hot water after several witnesses informed Ohio state parks officials that Fisher was throwing tennis balls in a state park lake. The witnesses expressed concern that the tennis balls contained viruses or toxins.

Because that sort of thing happens.

The Ohio Department of Health evacuated the park and investigated the contents of the tennis balls. No surprise, the balls did not contain toxins. Nonetheless, Ohio charged Fisher with inducing a panic and littering, both misdemeanors which were later dismissed.

Fisher, however, claimed that both were bogus charges that the defendants, a motley crew of state parks officials, trumped up to save face.

Fisher brought a civil rights action against the parks officials, offering three potential theories for recovery. First, he alleged that he was prosecuted without probable cause. Second, Fisher claimed that he was maliciously prosecuted, and third, he alleged that the parks officials knowingly made materially false claims against him in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The district court found Fisher's claims were almost as plausible as the tennis-ball-full-of toxins theory, and dismissed his claim. Fisher appealed, but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

So where did Fisher go wrong?

The Sixth Circuit said that Fisher did not present a plausible claim based on sufficient factual allegations. The appellate court noted that the district court had accurately concluded that the conclusory nature of Fisher's complaint made it difficult to identify the federal causes of action that Fisher was asserting.

The sole harm that Fisher proffered was that the defendants forced him to defend himself in court absent probable cause, which wasn't enough to sustain a federal civil rights action.

Do you agree with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, or do you think the parks officials should be subject to civil penalties for the ridiculous charges against Fisher?

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