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    The Sunshine Synopsis

    Below is a compilation of public records and open meeting cases in the Ohio courts.

    PUBLIC RECORDS CASES

    Ohio Appeals Court rules future requests for public records not proper basis for claim
    Reeves v. Chief of Police, 2015-Ohio-3075 (6th Dist., Erie County)
    Decided July 31, 2015

    Mr. Reeves, a federal inmate, filed a complaint against the Chief of Police of the Cedar Point Police Department (the “Department”), seeking monetary and declaratory relief.  The complaint arose out of a public records request that Mr. Reeves had previously made to the Chief, seeking access to all police reports with narratives related to Mr. Reeves from July 5, 2015.  Mr. Reeves alleged that the Department refused to comply with the request, on the grounds that it is not a private entity subject to the Ohio Public Records Act (the “Act”).

    Mr. Reeves made clear he did not file his complaint to “deal with the denial of the public records request” or to compel production of the requested documents (though he did file a separate mandamus action related to such documents, which was dismissed by the Supreme Court in July). Instead, the complaint was intended to “deal with future public record requests” that he might make (emphasis added). Specifically, Mr. Reeves sought a declaratory judgment clarifying that the Police Department is the functional equivalent of a public entity and that it is required to comply with the Act.

    The Court of Appeals dismissed the case, on the basis that Mr. Reeves’ complaint did not allege a present controversy.  Rather, Mr. Reeves asked the court to require the Department to comply with the Act in the future.  Because such relief was for a hypothetical claim, based upon “an undefined request,” any related opinion by the Court would merely be advisory in nature and inappropriate.  In addition, the Court clarified that mandamus is the sole remedy to compel compliance with the Act.  As a result, Mr. Reeves’ complaint was not the proper avenue for seeking the requested relief and it was dismissed as a matter of law. 

    A public records request for a single memo was not overly broad
    State ex rel. Carr v. London Correctional Institution, 2015 Ohio 2363.
    Decided June 18, 2015

    Mr. Carr, an inmate at London Correctional Institution (“LCI”) made several public records requests seeking a memo that a prison chaplain wrote to the mail room.  The memo listed ministries that regularly send religious material to inmates in order to assist the mail staff in screening religious materials for unauthorized material and contraband.

    LCI denied Mr. Carr’s various requests, claiming they were overly broad and ambiguous.  The Supreme Court rejected LCI’s position:

    However, Carr’s request identified a particular record authored by a named individual, specifying to whom it was sent and a time frame during which it was sent.  He provided unrefuted evidence by way of his affidavit that both Chaplain Cahill and an employee of the mailroom were able to verify the existence of the record.  Expecting Justus to simply track down the chaplain or someone in the mailroom to get the document is not “research” within the meaning of the PRA.  Rather, to constitute improper research, a record request must require the government agency to either search through voluminous documents for those that contain certain information or to create a new document by searching for and compiling information from existing records.

    The Court awarded Mr. Carr $1,000 in statutory damages because:

    …no reasonable public employee responsible for public records could have thought that a request for a single document was overbroad or burdensome.  And because Carr’s request identified the author and recipient of the document within the prison and the approximate time the document was transmitted, no reasonable public employee responsible for public records could have thought that the request was ambiguous.

    Official’s handwritten notes used to draft meeting minutes are not public records
    State ex rel. Santefort v. Board of Township Trustees of Wayne Township, 2015 Ohio 2009, 2015 Ohio App. Lexis 1939 (12th Dist. Butler).
    Decided May 26, 2015

    Mr. Santefort made requests for Township records, including the handwritten notes of the Township’s Fiscal Officer that were made during trustee meetings.  Mr. Santefort argued that since the Fiscal Officer was required to prepare the minutes, her notes should be considered draft minutes, which are subject to release, rather than personal notes, which are not.  The court determined that the notes are not subject to release:

    We find Graham’s notes were personal in nature, and we decline relator’s invitation to distinguish her notes based on the duties imposed on her as the township fiscal officer.  From Graham’s testimony, it is clear that the notes were taken for her own convenience to serve as a reminder when compiling the official record and were not created to document organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations and other council activities.  Graham’s handwritten notes were not used by the township as records.  No one at the township had access to Graham’s handwritten notes and the township did not keep a copy.  Furthermore, because Graham relies on her recollection of the township trustee meetings in addition to her handwritten notes, such notes do not contain sufficient facts and information to reflect an accurate record.  While not identical to the official record, to the extent Graham relied on her handwritten notes, relator was provided with the information as it was incorporated into the official minutes of the township’s meetings.

    OPEN MEETINGS CASE

    Stewart v. Lockland School Dist. Bd. of Ed., Slip Opinion 2015-Ohio-3839
    Decided September 24, 2015

    This case arose out of Mr. Stewart’s claim that he was entitled to a public hearing before the Lockland School District terminated him for reporting false student data in his position as data coordinator.

    Following its investigation of Mr. Stewart, the District’s board of education held a meeting in executive session to discuss its findings.  Both Mr. Stewart and his attorney attended the meeting and were given the opportunity to address the board.  After the meeting, the District sent Mr. Stewart written notice that it would be considering his termination at an upcoming special meeting. 

    During the special meeting, the board stated its intention to adjourn into executive session, to which Mr. Stewart’s attorney objected, on the basis that discussion of Mr. Stewart’s employment should occur publicly.  The board rejected this objection and adjourned into executive session.  Mr. Stewart was given the opportunity to make a public presentation against his termination in open session.  The board again returned to executive session following Mr. Stewart’s remarks, but reconvened in open session to pass its resolution terminating Mr. Stewart’s contract.

    The Supreme Court held that Mr. Stewart had no legal basis to support his claim against the District.  Specifically, the Court noted that as a non-teaching employee, Mr. Stewart’s contract with the District was governed by R.C. 3319.081. While tenured teaching employees are entitled to public hearings prior to termination, that entitlement is based upon the language of the applicable statute (R.C. 3319.16). As R.C. 3319.081 contains no reference to a public hearing, the Court held that the statute did not entitle Mr. Stewart to such a hearing, nor “did any other statute,” including Ohio’s Open Meetings Act.   

    Similarly, the Court found that due process did not give Mr. Stewart the right to a public pretermination hearing.  Due process requires employees to be given a “hearing appropriate to the nature of the case” and the Court felt that Mr. Stewart received such process.   Mr. Stewart had received notice of the special meeting, and was given the opportunity to be heard.   Though Mr. Stewart may have been entitled to a hearing in this case, he was not entitled to a public one.  As a result, the District was under no obligation to discuss Mr. Stewart’s employment in open session and therefore acted properly by refusing to do so. 

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    Public Records: Ohio Supreme Court 2014

    Public Records: Ohio Courts of Appeals 2014

    Open Meetings: Ohio Courts 2014