Court Finds Public Records Request Overly Broad and Ambiguous
In a dispute filed against a Columbus area school district, the Ohio Court of Claims found one part of a four-part public records request overly broad and ambiguous. The other three parts were dismissed as moot.
Upper Arlington Schools received a public records request in September 2017 asking, in part, for “any pictures, video surveillance, written correspondence, notes from phone conversations, emails, texts, records of calls made involving the investigations launched by the school.” The treasurer replied to the requester, Matthew Frank, that the request was overly broad and ambiguous and that any responsive records were enclosed. Frank then filed a complaint in the court of claims, in accordance with Ohio’s new process to challenge the denial of a public records request. A Special Master with the Ohio Court of Claims made a determination based on the merits of the case.
With regard to the assertion that the public records request was overly broad and ambiguous, the court noted, “In making a request, ‘it is the responsibility of the person who wishes to inspect and/or copy records to identify with reasonable clarity the records at issue.’” State ex rel. Zidonis v. Columbus State Cmty. College, 133 Ohio St.3d 122, 2012-Ohio-4228, 976 N.E.2d 861. Frank’s request was not time-limited, and a request for an entire category of records is improper. The court found Frank’s request overly broad, noting that it would require an “unbounded search” through many different categories of school records.
Furthermore, the court noted, “A records request is also unenforceable if it is too vague or indefinite to be properly acted on by the records holder.” A court cannot order compliance with a request if it is vague and unclear. Therefore, the court found Frank’s request improperly ambiguous.
Finally – and importantly – “a public office is not obliged to ‘seek out and retrieve those records which would contain the information of interest to the requester.’” Because Upper Arlington Schools does not maintain its records in such a way that Frank requested, it would be required to seek out and retrieve the responsive records. Based on this, the court found Frank’s request improper because it required the school district to “conduct research to seek out and retrieve” responsive records.
The court’s report and recommendation does note one fault of the school district. When a public office denies a public records request as overly broad and ambiguous, it must inform the requester of the manner in which the records are maintained and accessed, and provide the requester with an opportunity to revise the request accordingly. In this case, the school district failed to communicate this information to Frank. Although the court found that this violates the Ohio Revised Code, it did not order Upper Arlington to inform Frank of the way the district maintains its records, simply because Frank did not make this request of the court.
– Frank v. Upper Arlington Schools, 2018-Ohio-1554.