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I. The Ohio Public Records Act

When responding to a request for records, an analysis of whether the requested records may be released, must be released or cannot be released begins with an analysis of pertinent law contained in RC Chapter 149. RC §149.011(G) sets out the definition of "records" subject to public records laws. This definition includes:

"any document, device, or item, regardless of physical form or characteristic, created or received by or coming under the jurisdiction of any public office of the state or its political subdivisions, which serves to document the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the office."

[Two cases analyzing what is and is not a "record":

State ex rel. Dispatch Printing Co. vs. Johnson 106 Ohio St. 3d 160 (2005), held that home addresses of state employees are not records under RC §149.011(G) and RC §149.43, because they do not document the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the office.

State ex rel. Cranford vs. City of Cleveland, 2004 Ohio 633 (affirmed by 103 Ohio St. 3d 196), held that personal notes are not records, if kept solely for personal convenience. Case Facts: Notes were taken by an employee during a dismissal hearing and were the employee's personal notes. Therefore, the court held that the city and employees had no duty to comply with a request to provide the notes.]

RC §149.43 is known as the "Public Records Act" and is the general records law governing the status of state and local government records when requested by a third party. The statute previously contained language applying its guidelines only to records required to be kept by any public office. The “required to be kept” language was removed from the statute by the legislature which means that this statute applies to virtually any record kept by any state or local governmental agency, in any form (but it must be a "record" under the definition contained in RC §149.011(G)).

[Cases that say that public records laws do not apply to private companies, unless certain criteria are met:

Oriana House vs. Ohio Auditor of State, 110 Ohio St. 3d 456 (10/04/06), Ohio Supreme Court ruled that private entities are not subject to public records laws unless there is clear and convincing evidence they are the "functional equivalent of a public office. "A private business does not open its records to public scrutiny merely by performing services on behalf of state or municipal government."

State ex rel. Repository vs. Nova Behavioral Health, 112 Ohio St. 3d 338, private community mental health agency contracting with county MH Board was determined not to be functional equivalent of a public office, and therefore not subject to the Public Records Act.

State ex rel. Dann vs. Taft, 110 Ohio St. 3d 1 (01/13/06), reports that provide economic or business decisions of companies should be confidential until the company makes a public announcement.]

RC §149.43(B)(2) mandates that all public records held by state or local governmental entities (or their functional equivalent) be organized and maintained "…in a manner that they can be made available for inspection or copying in accordance with…" the statute. Therefore, when new computer systems or storage strategies are formulated for information management purposes, access for purposes of public records laws must be considered. RC §149.43(B)(2) requires that public offices have available a copy of their current records retention schedules, at a location readily available to the public (ODJFS's retention schedules are available on-line from the ODJFS home-page, and can be found under "Employee and Business Services"), and that public offices give requestors the opportunity to revise ambiguous or overly broad records requests.

RC §149.43(B)(1) states that, when a request for records is made to a state or local government entity (or its functional equivalent), all public records that are "responsive to the request shall be promptly prepared and made available for inspection to any person at all reasonable times during regular business hours." The statute gives the state or local agency a reasonable period of time to produce the requested public records. This does not mean at the state or local agency's convenience. A "reasonable period of time" includes the time it takes to locate the record, determine if the requested record is a public record and secure it from where it is stored. If the record is at hand and is clearly a public record, it must be released immediately.

The courts have ruled in most cases that the requestor of records need not identify themselves, put their request in writing or provide a reason for requesting the information. The courts make it very clear that refusing to release records for any of the aforementioned reasons is improper despite any type of state or local agency internal policy. House Bill 9 amendments to RC §149.43(B)(4) and (B)(5) codified the courts' decisions, by expressly stating that public offices cannot require that a requestor of public records disclose his/her identity, nor ask how the requestor intends to use the records, as a condition of providing the public record. However, public offices may ask the requestor to make the request in writing, and to disclose his/her identity, as well as inquire about the intended use of the records, as long as the office first tells the requestor that a written request is not mandatory, and that it will only be used to help the public office identify, locate and deliver the requested public records.

However, if the records requested are exempt from the public records act (see exemptions in RC §149.43(A)(1)), or specifically made confidential or non-public under another federal or state law (e.g. identifying information about recipients of public assistance, child support services and unemployment compensation; personal information of public employees, including social security numbers and driver's license numbers; etc…), then verifying the identity, and possibly intentions, of the requesting party will be essential, in order to comply with federal/state confidentiality laws.

Also, if the request for public records is by a person who is incarcerated due to a criminal conviction or juvenile adjudication and who is the subject of the records, and the requested access is for public records concerning a criminal investigation or prosecution or concerning what would be a criminal investigation or prosecution, access is restricted to circumstances wherein a judge determines that the records sought are necessary to support what appears to be a justiciable claim of the person. (See RC §149.43(B)(8))

RC §149.43(B)(6) says that any state or local agency that receives a public records request is required to give the person requesting the public record the option of receiving a copy of the public record requested "..upon paper, upon the same medium upon which the public office or person responsible for the public record keeps it, or upon any other medium upon which the public office or person responsible for the public record determines that it reasonably can be duplicated as an integral part of the normal operations of the public office or person responsible for the public record." However, (B)(6) also allows a public office to require the requesting party to "pay in advance the cost involved in providing the copy of the public record in accordance with the choice made by the person seeking the copy..." The term "cost" is not defined in the statute. The courts have found that $.25 per paper copy or less is acceptable. However, it is ODJFS policy to charge $.05 per paper copy. Other acceptable costs, which a public office can require the requestor to pay in advance, include but are not limited to actual mailing costs for copies, actual cost of computer discs, or actual costs for computer time. The courts do not allow costs to include the hourly wages of employees who secure or copy the information pursuant to the request. If the request reasonably requires the use of a contractor, that cost can be charged to the requestor. This type of cost should be agreed upon between the parties before charged. The courts allow delay in providing requested records if the agency requires payment prior to release. ODJFS may allow waiver of costs for release of records. Whether to waive costs should be decided on a case-by-case basis by the area providing the records.

State and local agencies, upon request, must mail or transmit by any other means (RC §149.43(B)(7)) public records to requestors. However, the state or local agency can limit the number of records mailed to ten per month if the requestor is requesting the records for commercial purposes (commercial purposes do not include reporting or gathering news, reporting or gathering information to assist citizen oversight or understanding of the operation or activities of government, or nonprofit educational research), and, as stated above, the public office may require the requestor to pay in advance the cost of postage and supplies used in the mailing, delivery or transmission.

RC §149.43 (B)(3) states that if a request is denied, in whole or in part, a public office must provide the requestor with an explanation, including the legal authority for the denial. Requestors must either be notified of any redactions of exempt or confidential information from an otherwise public record, or the redactions must be made "plainly visible", pursuant to RC §149.43 (B)(1). To make redactions "plainly visible", redactions should be made using black marker, block electronic redaction or some other method that allows the requesting party to see where items have been redacted, but not what precisely has been redacted.

Failure to release public records by an agency subject to RC §149.43 could result in a mandamus action being filed by the requestor. Mandamus is a special legal writ which can be filed in the state common pleas, appellate or supreme court. The writ asks the court to order the agency to do something that the agency is required to do by law. If a requestor prevails in the mandamus action requiring the agency to release the records at issue, the court may also require the agency to pay attorney fees, court costs and statutory damages of $100.00 per day for each day after the filing of the mandamus action that the records are not provided, up to a maximum of $1,000.00 (these provisions can be found in RC §149.43 (C), a summary of which is provided immediately below). This could result in thousands of dollars in costs borne by the agency. A mandamus action also requires large investments of time and representation for the agency by its own legal counsel. It is, therefore, important for ODJFS staff to consult with the ODJFS Office of Legal Services whenever there is doubt as to whether a record is a public record or falls within one of the exceptions. County agency employees should consult with their county prosecuting attorney or in-house counsel regarding legal decisions on public records or confidentiality.

RC §149.43 (C) permits aggrieved parties who are improperly denied public records, to collect court costs and statutory damages, in addition to attorney's fees. The amount of statutory damages is fixed at $100.00 a day for each business day, beginning from the date the mandamus action is filed, and continuing until either the improperly denied public record is produced, or ten business days, whichever comes first. So, the maximum statutory penalty is $1,000. This provision re-emphasizes the importance of responding to records requests in a timely manner, which may require stream-lining and restructuring of records responsibilities in some public offices.

Under RC §149.43 (C), the court may reduce or not award both statutory damages and attorney's fees, if the court determines BOTH of the following: "(a) That, based on the ordinary application of statutory law and case law as it existed at the time of the conduct or threatened conduct [meaning the time the records were denied or delayed]…a well-informed public office or person responsible for public records reasonably would believe that the conduct or threatened conduct …did not constitute a failure to comply with an obligation in accordance with division (B) of" RC §149.43; and "(b) That a well-informed public office or person responsible for the requested public records reasonably would believe that the conduct or threatened conduct …would serve the public policy that underlies the authority that is asserted as permitting that conduct or threatened conduct."

Mandamus-related court costs may be awarded to the requestor if either the public office fails to respond affirmatively or negatively to the records request within a reasonable time-frame, OR the public office promises the records to the requestor, but fails to fulfill that promise within the specified period of time. Court costs and attorney's fees are meant to be remedial and not punitive.

RC §149.43 (E) requires that all elected officials or their appropriate designees attend public records training approved by the attorney general, and that all public offices (1) adopt a public records policy as guidance for responding to public records requests (see Internal Policy and Procedure (IPP) 8101 in Appendix A), and (2) distribute that policy to the individual in that public office that is designated as the "records custodian or records manager or [who] otherwise has custody of the records of that office". The public records policy adopted may not place any limits on the number of public records that the office will make available to a single person, or during a fixed period of time, and may not establish a fixed period of time before it will respond to a request for inspection or copying of public records, unless the period is less than 8 hours. RC §109.43 requires that the attorney general's (AG's) office provide elected officials or their appropriate designees three hours of accredited training for each term of office, to (1) enhance the official's knowledge of the duty to provide access to public records, and (2) provide officials guidance in developing and updating their offices' public records policies. If the training is provided by the AG, it must be at no charge to the official or designee. If the training is provided by a public or private contractor for the AG, the AG can establish a reasonable registration fee, for which the official or designee can pay with public office funds. Any public records training attended can help public officials meet the requirements of RC §149.43(E).

Listed Exemptions to Ohio's Public Records Act

Upon receiving a request for records and in deciding whether to release a record, the person receiving the request must first determine whether the record being requested is a public record. RC §149.43(A)(1) defines a public record as:

...records kept by any public office, including, but not limited to, state, county, city, village, township, and school district units, and records pertaining to the delivery of educational services by an alternative school in this state kept by the nonprofit or for profit entity operating the alternative school pursuant to section3313.533of the Revised Code. "Public record" does not mean any of the following.

The statute then sets out thirty-one specific exceptions and one general exception. Thus, although the starting premise is that all records held by any public office are "public records" that must be released to anyone upon request, part or all of a record may actually be withheld or redacted if it fits within one of the exceptions set out in the statute. The exceptions are listed in RC §149.43(A)(1) as follows:

a.       Medical records - See RC §149.43(A)(3) for definition of "Medical Record": any document or combination of documents, except births, deaths, and the fact of admission to or discharge from a hospital, that pertains to the medical history, diagnosis, prognosis, or medical condition of a patient and that is generated and maintained in the process of medical treatment.

b.       Records Pertaining to Probation and Parole Proceedings or to proceedings related to the imposition of community control sanctions (as defined under RC §2929.01) and post release control sanctions (as defined under RC §2967.01).

c.       Records pertaining to actions under sections 2151.85 and 2919.121(C) of the Revised Code and to appeals of actions arising under those sections. Both sections make reference to Juvenile Abortion Permission Records.

d.       Records Pertaining to Adoption Proceedings, including the contents of an adoption file maintained by the department of health under RC §§ 3705.12 to 3705.124 (effective 03/20/15).

e.       Information in a Record Contained in the Putative Father Registry - established by RC §3107.062, regardless of whether the information is held by the Department of Job and Family Services or, pursuant to RC §3111.69, the division of child support in the department or a Child Support Enforcement Agency.

f.        Adoption Records - Records listed in RC §3107.42(A) or specified in RC §3107.52(A).

g.       Trial Preparation Records - Any record that contains information that is specifically compiled in reasonable anticipation of, or in defense of, a civil or criminal action or proceeding, including the independent thought processes and personal trial preparation of an attorney.

h.       Confidential Law Enforcement Investigatory Records - any record that pertains to a law enforcement matter of a criminal, quasi criminal, civil, or administrative nature, but only to the extent that the release of the record would create a high probability of disclosure of (1) the identity of a suspect who has not been charged with the offense to which the record pertains; (2) an information source or witness to whom confidentiality has been reasonably promised; (3) information which would tend to disclose the identity of a source or witness if confidentiality was reasonably promised; (4) specific confidential investigatory techniques or procedures or specific investigatory work product; or (5) information that would endanger the life or physical safety of law enforcement personnel, a crime victim, a witness, or a confidential information source.

i.        Records containing information that is confidential under RC §2710.03 (Mediation Communications) and RC §4112.05(B)(2) (Ohio Civil Rights Commission Investigations).

j.        DNA Records Stored in the DNA Database Pursuant to RC §109.573.

k.       Inmate Records released by the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to the Department of Youth Services or a court of record pursuant to RC §5120.21(E).

l.        Records Maintained by the Department of Youth Services pertaining to children in its custody released by the Department of Youth Services to the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction pursuant to RC §5139.05.

m.      Intellectual Property Records - a record, other than a financial or administrative record, that is produced or collected by or for faculty or staff of a state institution of higher learning in the conduct of or as a result of study or research on an educational, commercial, scientific, artistic, technical, or scholarly issue, regardless of whether the study or research was sponsored by the institution alone or in conjunction with a governmental body or private concern, and that has not been publicly released, published or patented.

n.       Donor Profile Records - all records about donors or potential donors to a public institution of higher education except the names and reported addresses of the actual donors and the date, amount, and conditions of the actual donation.

o.       Records Maintained by the Department of Job and Family Services Pursuant to RC §3121.894 (new hire and rehire reporting for child support by employers).

p.       Residential and Familial Information of a peace officer, parole officer, probation officer, bailiff, prosecuting attorney, assistant prosecuting attorney, correctional employee, community-based correctional facility employee, youth services employee, firefighter, EMT, and BCII investigator -

Information contained in records containing the following are not considered public records: (i) the address of the actual personal residence except for the state or political subdivision in which the individual resides; (ii) information compiled from referral or participation in an employee assistance program; (iii) the social security number, the residential telephone number, any bank account, debit card, charge card, or credit card number, or the emergency telephone number of, or any medical information pertaining to such an individual; (iv) the name of any beneficiary of employment benefits, including, but not limited to, life insurance benefits, provided to the individual by his/her employer; (v) the identity and amount of any charitable or employment benefit deduction made by the individual's employer from the individual's compensation unless the amount of the deduction is required by state or federal law; (vi) the name, residential address, the name of the employer, the social security number, the residential telephone number, any bank account, debit card charge care, or credit card number, or the emergency telephone number of the spouse, a former spouse or any child of the individual, (vii) any record that identifies a person's occupation, other than statements required to include the disclosure of that fact under the campaign finance law.

However, this exception does not apply to journalists (defined as a person engaged in, connected with, or employed by any news medium, including a newspaper, magazine, press association, news agency, or wire service, a radio or television station, or a similar medium, for the purpose of gathering, processing, transmitting, compiling, editing, or disseminating information to the general public) who may access a personal residence address or the employer address of the spouse, former spouse or child if any of them are employed by a public office. The request from the journalist shall be in writing, contain the journalist and his/her employer's name and state that release of the information is in the public interest.

[But see State ex rel. Plain Dealer vs. City of Cleveland, 106 Ohio St. 3d 70 (August 2005), which held that peace officer photos met the exception to public records set forth in RC §149.43(A)(7)(b), and therefore did not have to be released to the public or press. Photos would have identified persons as peace officers.

State ex rel. Carr vs. City of Akron, 112 Ohio St. 3d 351 (December 2006), Ohio Supreme Court held that Federal FOIA is inapplicable to city records, that records related to promotional exams within the fire department fall under exemption of RC §149.43(A)(1)(p), as well as the general prohibition on releasing information in violation of state or federal law listed in RC §149.43(A)(1)(v), which includes trade secrets as defined in RC §1333.61(D).

q.       In the case of a County Hospital Operated Pursuant to RC Chapter 339, or a Municipal Hospital operated pursuant to RC Chapter 749, Information that Constitutes a Trade Secret, as defined in RC §1333.61.

r.        Information pertaining to the recreational activities of a person under the age of eighteen. This means information that is kept in the ordinary course of business by a public office, that pertains to the recreational activities of a person under the age of eighteen years, and that discloses: the address or telephone number of a person under the age of eighteen or the address or telephone number of that person's parent, guardian, custodian, or emergency contact person; the social security number, birth date, or photographic image of a person under the age of eighteen; any medical record, history, or information pertaining to a person under the age of eighteen; any additional information sought or required about a person under the age of eighteen for the purpose of allowing that person to participate in any recreational activity conducted or sponsored by a public office or to use or obtain admission privileges to any recreational facility owned or operated by a public office.

s.       Records provided to, statements made by review board members during meetings of, and all work products of a child fatality review board acting under RC Sections 307.621 to 307.629, and child fatality review data submitted by the child fatality review board to the department of health or a national child death review database, other than the report prepared pursuant toRC §307.626(A).

t.        Records provided to and statements made by the executive director of a public children services agency or a prosecuting attorney acting pursuant to RC § 5153.171 other than the information released under that section.

u.       Test materials, examinations, or evaluation tools used in an examination for licensure as a nursing home administrator that the board of examiners  executives of nursing home administrators long-term services administers under RC § 4751.04 or contracts under that section with a private or government entity to administer.

v.       Records the Release of Which is Prohibited by State or Federal Law - see Parts III, IV, and V of this memorandum (e.g. "Trade Secrets", as analyzed in State ex rel. Besser vs. Ohio State University, 87 Ohio St. 3d 535 (2000), and State ex rel. Carr vs. City of Akron, 112 Ohio St. 3d 351 (2006), see exemption "p" above).

w.      Proprietary information of or relating to any person that is submitted to or compiled by the Ohio venture capital authority created under RC §150.01.

x.       Information reported and evaluations conducted pursuant to RC §3701.072, which pertains to Trauma Center Preparedness. (Sentence was added effective 02/12/04) (Deleted effective 9/29/13 via §101.01 of HB 59 of 130th General Assembly).

yx.     Financial Statements and data any person submits for any purpose to the Ohio housing finance agency or the controlling board in connection with applying for, receiving, or accounting for financial assistance from the agency, and information that identifies any individual who benefits directly or indirectly from financial assistance from the agency.

zy.      ODJFS and county agency records listed inRC §5101.29, which include:

1.       Names and other identifying information regarding children enrolled in or attending a child day-care center or home subject to licensure, certification, or registration under RC Chapter 5104;

2.       Names and other identifying information regarding children placed with an institution or association certified under RC §5103.03;

3.       Names and other identifying information regarding a person who makes an oral or written complaint regarding an institution, association, child day-care center, or home subject to licensure, certification, or registration to the department or other state or county entity responsible for enforcing RC Chapter 5103. or 5104.;

4.       Names, documentation, and other identifying information regarding a foster caregiver or a prospective foster caregiver, including the foster caregiver application for certification under RC §5103.03 and the home study conducted pursuant to RC §5103.0324, except when the foster caregiver's certificate has been revoked, or he/she has been indicted or otherwise charged with any offense described in RC §2151.86(C)(1).

aaz.    Military discharges recorded with a county recorder under RC §317.24(B)(2).

bbaa. Usage information, including names and addresses of specific residential and commercial customers of a municipally owned or operated public utility. (Enacted by 129th General Assembly in House Bill 153).

ccbb. JobsOhio records listed in RC § 187.04(C), including records created by JobsOhio unless designated as public record in contract; records received by JobsOhio from any person or entity that is not subject to section RC § 149.43, unless designated as public record in contract; records received by JobsOhio from a public office that does not treat the records as public; and, the work papers and reports of the independent CPA engaged to perform an annual financial audit of any JobsOhio corporation or non-profit entity, and work papers and reports of the supplemental compliance and control review, unless they are designated as public record via contract.

cc.     Identifying information about any person involved in the manufacture, transportation, distribution, testing or administration of equipment or drugs used in lethal injections for death sentences, as described in RC 2949.221(B) and (C).

dd.     “Personal information”, as defined in RC § 149.45, which includes social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, state identification numbers, state and federal tax identification numbers, financial account numbers, and credit and debit card numbers.

ee.     Identifying information about any victim of domestic violence, human trafficking, or sexual assault who is participating in the Ohio Secretary of State’s address confidentiality program under RC §§111.41 to 111.47.

ff.       Orders for active military service of an individual serving or with previous service in the U.S. armed forces, except that such order becomes a public record fifteen years after the published or effective date of the order.

A record falling within one of these exceptions is not required to be released but may be released at the discretion of the state or local governmental agency that holds the records unless release would violate guidelines or restrictions set out in federal or state statutes, regulations or rules. If a record contains some information that falls within an exception, the state or local governmental agency may or must (depending upon the exception) edit (redact) the excepted information and release the public record portion.

RC §149.433 defines "infrastructure record" and "security record," and excludes them from treatment as public records. This section is useful for protecting data obtained from surveys and audits, when the data is obtained to improve infrastructure/ security.

RC §1306.23: Says that records, the disclosure of which might jeopardize the state’s continued use or security of computer or telecommunications devices, or services associated with electronic signatures, electronic records, or electronic transactions, are not public records.

RC §124.341 & RC §4113.52: Together, these statutes comprise the Ohio Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects state employees from disciplinary action when they report violations of state or federal statutes, rules or regulations, or the misuse of public resources. See also RC §5104.10 for whistleblower protections related to child care.