Laws regarding public records are under scrutiny across the United States, including in Ohio. Advanced technology has brought myriad ways to communicate information to U.S. citizens, who continue to demand increased transparency. Public-records law continues to develop and change in the form of both legislation and court decisions. Below are a few recent Ohio bills and cases dealing with public records that have an effect on school districts throughout the state.
House Bill 585: Body Cameras
The Ohio House introduced HB 585 on July 11, proposing that the record of body cameras worn by law enforcement officers be considered generally a public record if the officer is performing official duties. (This bill does not include any regulations on police dash cams.) The bill will specify circumstances in which a nonpublic record would become a public record, and circumstances in which recordings would not be public records. Personal or nonrelevant information, and generally, recordings of minors or victims, would be redacted. The bill would also require a local records commission to maintain records from a body camera for a minimum of one year unless the law enforcement agency is subject to a records retention schedule that establishes a longer period of time.
Senate Bill 321
This bill, which was signed into law in June, becomes effective in late September. This new law provides a procedure for someone who has been denied access to public records, in the form of mediation or filing with the court of claims.
The bill also contains a provision that a public office which places all of its public records online may limit the number of records a person may request to receive digitally to 10 per month. The requirements and limitations are as follows:
1. All records must be online and accessible to the public except for during outages that are not within the control of the public office.
2. Records that are not online cannot be subject to the limit.
3. The limit also does not apply if the person making such requests certifies that the request responses are not being forwarded or used for commercial purposes.
The bill modifies the attorney fee provisions of the statutes. An award of fees is now mandated to be considered remedial and not punitive, and to enforce this, the bill limits fees to those that are incurred prior to the record being turned over plus the fees incurred to produce the proof of the amount and reasonableness of the fees incurred. The court may reduce the award of fees if it determines that the suit was not necessary and the records could have been obtained through less formal means. Finally, a public office may itself be awarded costs and fees if the court determines that the suit to enforce the fulfillment of a public records request is frivolous.
Attorney Billing Statements
In the 2016 case State ex rel. Pietrangelo v. Avon Lake, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that, in certain circumstances, the professional fee summary of an attorney-fee billing statement is exempt from disclosure in a public-records request. In this case, the plaintiff, Pietrangelo, had requested certain public records from the City of Avon Lake, including attorney billing statements. The city complied with the request but redacted the following information from the attorney billing statements based on attorney-client privilege and attorney work product:
• Narrative descriptions of particular legal services rendered
• Exact dates on which such services were rendered
• The particular attorney rendering each service
• The time spent by each particular attorney on a particular day
• The billing rate of each particular attorney
• The total number of hours billed by each particular attorney for the invoiced period
• Total fees attributable to each particular attorney for the invoiced period
Pietrangelo then petitioned the Ninth District Court of Appeals for a writ of mandamus to compel the city to provide unredacted invoices, which the court granted. The Ohio Revised Code notes that “public records” do not include records that are prohibited from release by state or federal law.
In a previous decision, State ex rel. Anderson v. Vermilion (134 Ohio St.3d 120, 2012-Ohio-5320), the Ohio Supreme Court held that itemized statements, including dates of services, hours, rates, and money charged for the services, are not exempt from public-records law and therefore must be disclosed. However, in State ex rel. Dawson v. Bloom-Carroll Local School Dist. (131 Ohio St.3d 10, 2011-Ohio-6009), the same court found that the narrative portions of the statements were confidential but a summary of the invoice, including the attorney’s name, the invoice total, and the matter involved, was sufficient for the public-records request. One of the differences between the two cases, Anderson and Dawson, is that the matter in Dawson was pending litigation but the matter in Anderson was for general informational purposes.
In Pietrangelo v. Avon Lake, the Ohio Supreme Court held that this case resembles the Dawson case and that the records relating to the pending litigation were exempt from disclosure. “If disclosed, Pietrangelo may acquire information that would be useful in his litigation strategy against the city, whereas in Anderson, any harm from disclosure of attorney-client communication was remote or speculative.”
State ex rel. Pietrangelo v. Avon Lake, Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-2974.
The Ohio Supreme Court determined that School Choice Ohio was entitled to records that constitute directory information as defined by the district’s public records policy. However, the organization did not have the right to compel the district to amend its student records policy.
School Choice obtains students’ contact information from Ohio public school districts via public-records requests. In addition to requesting the court to compel the district to disclose the records requested, the organization also attempted to compel the district to amend its policy to expand directory information and to require disclosure to its company by amending the parent notice and opt-out provisions. According to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), “directory information” includes the following student information:
• Name, address, telephone listing, and date and place of birth
• Major field of study
• Participation in officially recognized activities and sports
• Weight and height of members of athletic teams
• Dates of attendance
• Degrees and awards received
• The most recent previous educational agency or institution attended
Pursuant to FERPA, districts must determine which of the items listed above are to be considered directory information. Districts must then provide public notice to parents of what it defines as directory information and give them an opportunity to opt out of directory information being disclosed without prior written consent.
Ohio law defines directory information similarly and places an additional condition on disclosure – that directory information cannot be requested or disclosed for profit-making activities. In fact, whether directory information is being used for profit-making activities is the one time in public records law where the public office is permitted to inquire about the purpose of the request.
Ohio law also provides that a district may not limit the disclosure of directory information to representatives of the armed forces, business, industry, charitable institutions, other employers, and institutions of higher education unless such restriction is uniformly imposed on each of these types of representatives. The court determined that School Choice Ohio is not any of these types of organizations.
However, the court ultimately concluded that even with the limited way in which the district defined its directory information, which was lawful, the organization fit within the definition and was entitled to the records.
What This Decision Means to Your District
Many districts have received the annual requests from this particular organization and from others. This case considered the question of whether the organization is engaged in profit-making activity and answered in the negative. Therefore, districts should continue to disclose records, including directory information, in accordance with the relevant policy. Remember to consult your list of opt-outs whenever directory information is going to be disclosed without prior written consent of the parent. If you are considering changes to your public-records policies, please contact an Ennis Britton attorney for assistance or review.