July 25, 2012
Public Records Requests

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

On December 1, 2010, Gerald O. Strothers Jr. sent a certified letter to Gary Norton Jr., the mayor of East Cleveland.  Strothers requested that Norton allow him “to review, inspect and or copy certain public records” relating to the East Cleveland jail from 2009 to the present.

Such a request isn’t out of the ordinary. Ohio’s public records law requires officials to make public documents available for review upon request. But Strothers made a rather broad request.

The records he asked for included copies of the contracts to provide food and laundry service for prisoners, all financial records containing data about the jail, documents related to all purchases of jail bedding, and bids for plumbing work in the jail.

It didn’t stop there. He wanted certification for medical care providers, documents pertaining to the jail’s policy pertaining to prisoners’ use of telephones, showers and exercise programs, inspection reports and written jail policies pertaining to prisoner treatment.

In his letter, Strothers acknowledged the breadth of his request: “I realize that this is a large request for documents but it is my intention to review the requested records within a reasonable amount of time and perhaps help our fair city avoid any future mistreatment of prisoners in the city jail facility.”

The mayor’s office got the letter on December 2. On December 7, at a city council meeting, Strothers reiterated his request. Then, two days later – and only a week after Mayor Norton received the letter – Strothers filed a petition with the court of appeals for a writ to compel Norton to provide access to the requested records.

On December 21, Mayor Norton provided copies of some of the requested records. That same day, Strothers submitted a written request for records pertaining to the city’s traffic cameras, including the revenue generated by each.

By January 25 Mayor Norton had provided Strothers with access to the remaining records listed in his initial request.  Some of them were sent by certified mail, but they were returned because Strothers did not sign for them.

In a subsequent telephone conversation, Strothers told Brenda L. Blanks – the executive assistant who had made the copies – that he never requested that she actually send him copies of the records. Instead, he wanted to come to the office to review the records and scan the ones he wanted into his personal computer.

Blanks told Strothers that he could make an appointment during regular business hours to review the records. But Strothers never did.

In response to Strothers’s petition, the court of appeals ordered both parties to file an inventory listing the records requested, and the ones made available. Attached to the inventory was Brenda Blanks’s affidavit specifying that all the requested records had been made available.

The court of appeals ultimately denied the writ, but it awarded Strothers $1,000 in statutory damages. After that, both Norton and Strothers brought appeals before us – the Supreme Court of Ohio.

In his appeal, Strothers asserted that the court of appeals erred in denying the requested writ. Strothers argued that the court committed error by ruling that 45 days was a reasonable amount of time for the mayor to make records available.

But we concluded that the court of appeals had correctly ruled that Mayor Norton’s evidence, which included Blanks’s affidavit and attached exhibits, established that Strothers had been given access to all of the requested records, which rendered his claim moot. Therefore, by a seven-to-zero vote, we affirmed the court of appeals’ judgment denying Strothers’s writ.

In Mayor Norton’s appeal, he asserted that the court of appeals erred in awarding Strothers $1,000 in statutory damages. Norton argued that Strothers lacked standing to even initiate his court action because he was not an aggrieved party – according to the provisions of the public records law – since his request for public records was, according to Mayor Norton, “merely a pretext to obtain statutory damages.”

But, in a similar case that we decided just last year, we emphasized that the broad language used in the Public Records Act manifests the Ohio General Assembly’s intent to jealously protect the right of the people to access public records. In the opinion for that case, we wrote, “We are acutely aware of the importance of the right provided by the act and the vulnerability of that right when the records are in the hands of public officials who are reluctant to release them.

“For this reason, we stress that public offices are obligated to honor public-record requests regardless of the requester’s reasons for or objectives in requesting the records. Allowing the genuineness of a person’s request to be within the purview of the public office would invite recalcitrance and would not promote the purpose of the act.”

Therefore, Strothers’s possible motive in requesting the public records did not deprive him of his standing to sue under the public records law. Nevertheless, we concluded that Mayor Norton’s claim – that the court of appeals abused its discretion in granting statutory damages to Strothers – had merit.

An award of statutory damages is premised on a violation of the public records law. There are two primary means for providing access to public records. One is to make them available for inspection at all reasonable times during regular business hours. The second is to make copies available at cost and within a reasonable period of time.

In this case, Strothers filed a big request, and then requested more records while the mayor’s office was trying to respond to the first one. A week after his initial request, Strothers filed his court action, but Norton provided the records by January 25. Strothers declined to accept delivery of some of the requested records, and he failed to contact the city to set an appropriate time to review the records.

Under these circumstances, we agreed that Norton provided the records within a reasonable period of time.  Therefore – by a seven-to-zero vote – we reversed that portion of the court of appeals’ judgment that granted $1,000 in damages to Strothers.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is Strothers v. Norton, 131 Ohio St.3d 359, 2012-Ohio-1007. Case No. 2011-1483. Decided March 15, 2012. Opinion Per Curiam.