This template is for journalists seeking to inspect or copy Ohio public records.1 The term “public records” is defined broadly: “records kept by any public office, including, but not limited to, state, county, city, village, township, and school district units.”2 There are more than 400 exemptions for nondisclosure within Ohio laws. However, Ohio has a policy of open records predating statehood: the Ordinance of 1787, which governed Ohio’s territory when it was known as the Northwest Territories, included a Secretary whose duties included keeping “the public records” of the territory. Ohio’s courts, in 1994, stated Ohio’s common law of public records, “public records are the people’s records, and officials in whose custody they happen to be are merely trustees for the people.” State ex. rel. Warren Newspapers Inc. v. Hutson, 70 Ohio St. 3d 619, 640, N.E.2d 174 (1994).
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office has a subunit, The Public Records Unit (PRU). The PRU conducts Sunshine Laws training for public officials and citizens interested in those laws3, has issued a model Public Records Policy4, and maintains a Sunshine Laws Manual5.
This template contains a simplified process to access public records and includes model complaints to sue for access to public records. Journalists having trouble easily accessing documents under Ohio’s Sunshine Laws are well advised to acquaint themselves with either the Public Records Unit’s publications or The Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press’ 2011 Guide to Ohio6 (but be advised the 2011 Guide does not account for changes to Ohio’s Sunshine Laws taking effect on March 20, 2015, and the Public Records Unit was current only thru 2014 as of this writing).
1. Request the documents from their public official.
Ohio Rev. Code § 149.43(B)(2) directs that the official responsible for public records for a public office implement a method of organization and maintenance, and a process to identify which records are and are not maintained by that office. Journalists interested in inspection and or copying of public records may request those records under Ohio Rev. Code §149.43(B)(1). The statute does not require a specific format of request, but the journalist should direct a written request by certified mail that is reasonably clear and detailed to the public official responsible for the public records. The text of §149.43(B)(1)-(3) directs that the public official shall respond within a reasonable time in one of three ways: (i) by making available copies of the public record for cost7, (ii) by giving the requestor leave to amend a request which the public official cannot fulfill because the request is ambiguous or overly broad, or (iii) by denying the request. Should the request be denied, the denial will include the legal authority upon which the denial is based.
2. Request the documents from the Courts
Ohio Rev. Code §149.43(C) codifies the right of Ohioans to apply to the courts for a writ of mandamus to require access to the public records.8 Journalists may apply to the court of their choosing for the writ: (i) in the superior court which sits in the same jurisdiction within which the public official improperly denied the request by authority of §149.43(C)(1); (ii) in the court of appeals for the appellate district which sits in the same jurisdiction within which the public official improperly denied the request pursuant to its original jurisdiction under Section 3, Article IV of the Ohio Constitution, or (iii) in the Ohio supreme court pursuant to its original jurisdiction under Section 2, Article IV of the Ohio Constitution. The template complaint uses (i).
Damages in the amount of $100/day for each day’s delay in access to the public records are authorized by §149.43(C)(1), up to a maximum of $1000, so long as the original request was made in writing and transmitted by hand or certified mail. These damages are not punitive, they are awarded as compensation for injury, which is presumed by law, arising from lost use of the requested information, and are in addition to other remedies authorized.9 In addition, court costs and attorneys’ fees may be awarded.
1 Public Records: Ohio Revised Code § 149.43 et. seq.; Public Meetings: Ohio Rev. Code § 121.22 et. seq.
2 Ohio Rev. Code § 149.43(A)(1).
7 Cost of copying is limited to “actual cost” of depleted office supplies, and cannot include labor costs. State ex rel.Warren Newspapers Inc. v. Hutson, 70 Ohio St. 3d 619, 640 N.E.2d 174 (1994). See S/O, ex rel. Strothers v. Murphy, 132 Ohio App. 3d 645, 725 N.E.2d 1185 (Cuyahoga App. 1999) (police department required to charge no more than five cents per page for copying public records).
8 The writ of mandamus is an equitable order commanding a person responsible with discharging the duties of public office to immediately discharge, or abstain from discharging, certain of his or her duties to remedy the aggrieved rights of the person praying the court for the writ.
9 Generally, the awarding of monetary damages under remedy at law precludes the awarding of equitable remedies.