Court Upholds Denial of Public Records Request as Overly Broad

Ohio’s Sixth District Court of Appeals, in a case arising in Erie County, Ohio, upheld the denial of public records requests for all emails from certain elected county officials to other county employees over the span of a month. The requester asked for the following:

all emails sent and received by Wilson and one of her employees from September 3 to October 3, 2017; all emails sent and received by Sigsworth and one of his employees from September 3 to October 3, 2017; all emails sent and received by Binette from September 3 to October 3, 2017; the personnel files for Baxter and two of his employees; all emails sent and received by Tone from September 3 to October 3, 2017; and all emails sent and received by Baxter and 12 of his employees from October 13 to November 13, 2017.

The court addressed each of the requests in turn. The court found that all of the requests for emails were overly broad because the Public Records Act does not entitle anyone to a complete duplication of the files of a public office. Even though the Public Records Act is to be construed liberally and in favor of the person making the request, the duty of the person requesting records is to clearly identify the particular records they are seeking. This is so even when, as in this case, the time period for the records (one month) is relatively short.

People who are seeking public records often take an approach that is similar to litigation discovery – broadly requesting “any and all” documents related to a topic or “all communications” with a person or group of people. This is the wrong approach, as the Public Records Act requires identification of the specific records being sought with “reasonable clarity.”

The request for the personnel files was ultimately fulfilled and was noted by the court as a moot issue.

While this case certainly advances one’s understanding of an overly broad request, keep in mind that no bright-line rule exists. The content and context of each request must be considered. A request is not automatically invalid because it seeks an entire month’s worth of records or even records going back several years. Here the requester was denied based on not the time period of the records but rather the broadness of the request, which made it difficult for the public office to identify with reasonable clarity the records that were being sought. The personnel file, on the other hand, is a specific, identified item and in most cases would not be considered an overly broad request.

State ex rel. Bristow v. Wilson, 2018-Ohio-1973.

Ohio Attorney General Issues Opinion on Property Valuation Settlements

The Ohio attorney general recently published an opinion that addressed several questions regarding property valuation settlements when property owners and boards of education contest an auditor’s value (O.A.G. No. 2018-011).

A party such as a board of education or a property owner who contests an auditor’s property valuation will begin by filing a complaint with the board of revision. A party who disagrees with the requested valuation may file a counter-complaint. While the complaint is pending before the board of revision, the complaining parties may enter into a settlement agreement, either dismissing the complaint or stipulating to an agreed property valuation, both of which options may be accompanied with a payment from the property owner to the board of education.

The attorney general’s opinion answered four questions raised by the Stark County prosecuting attorney, all of which used the same hypothetical property valuations:

  • The county auditor values a property at $400,000.
  • The local board of education files a complaint to increase the property valuation to $550,000.
  • The property owner files a counter-complaint to reduce the valuation to $350,000.

Scenario 1

In the scenario in the first two questions, the board of education dismisses the complaint in exchange for a one-time payment of $5,000. In their simplest form, the questions arising from this scenario are as follows:

  1. Is this scenario permissible?
  2. If so, may a board of revision require disclosure or approval of the settlement agreement as a condition for the board of education to dismiss the complaint?

The short answer to question 1 is yes, this is permissible. The attorney general explained that a board of education may voluntarily dismiss a pending complaint. Furthermore, a board of education has the authority to enter into a settlement agreement. This includes the terms of the settlement – in this scenario, receiving a payment in exchange for dismissing the complaint.

In answer to question 2, the attorney general noted that a board of revision has no authority to require a party to disclose the settlement agreement, nor to require the board of revision’s approval of the settlement agreement, as a condition for the board of education to dismiss the complaint.

Scenario 2

In the scenario in the final two questions, the board of education and the property owner agree to a property value of $450,000, which is halfway between the differing valuations of the board of education ($550,000) and the property owner ($350,000). Provided the board of revision agrees to the stipulated value, the property owner will then pay the board of education a one-time payment of $2,500. The questions arising from this scenario are as follows:

  1. Is this scenario permissible?
  2. If so, prior to the board of revision’s approving the stipulated value, may a board of revision require disclosure of the payment arrangement and consider that arrangement when determining whether to approve or reject the stipulated value?

Again, the short answer to question 3 is yes. A board of education may agree to accept payment from a property owner in exchange for stipulating to a certain property value. Stipulations are common tools that litigating parties employ. However, only the county auditor and board of revision have the authority to determine a property’s valuation. Therefore, although a board of education and a property owner may stipulate to a particular valuation, the board of revision must approve the valuation.

Question 4 is whether the board of revision may require disclosure of the payment arrangement and consider that arrangement when deciding whether to approve the stipulated property value. To determine the property value, the auditor considers not only the land and the improvements to the land, but also the present use of the land and the best probable use of the land. These factors include such things as supply and demand, financing, time and cost of development, and many others – all of which are physical and geographic characteristics. These considerations do not include any agreed payment amount between a board of education and a property owner. Therefore, a board of revision may neither require the disclosure of any such payment nor consider such payment in making a decision on the stipulated property valuation.

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Clients of Ennis Britton receive our School Law Review newsletter, in which we address what this OAG opinion means for school districts in Ohio.

Court’s Decision Overturned in Gender Discrimination Case

Ohio’s Tenth District Court of Appeals recently overturned a decision of the Ohio Court of Claims in a case alleging gender discrimination. The Court of Claims had rendered summary judgment in favor of the employer, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), but the Court of Appeals found that the trial court overstepped its authority in making that decision. The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the Court of Claims, presumably for either trial or settlement.

The plaintiff, a truck driver named Anne Eschborn, was the only female employee at her assigned post. She was terminated from employment and was told the reason was lack of work. However, she later received a letter stating that she had been terminated for poor performance, for using foul language, and for sexual harassment. She admitted to using foul language in a few instances at work and that these were sexual in nature.

At the outset, the appellate court noted the legal standard in discrimination cases in Ohio. The analysis, often cited as the “McDonnell Douglas burden shifting,” goes as follows: If a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of discrimination, the burden shifts to the employer to prove that the employer had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. If the employer does so, the burden of proof shifts back to the plaintiff, who then must prove that the employer’s reasons are merely a pretext for discrimination.

A plaintiff can establish a prima facie case either directly or indirectly. Directly, a plaintiff may present evidence of any nature to show that the adverse employment action taken by the employer was more likely than not motivated by discriminatory intent. Indirectly, a plaintiff may show that “(1) he or she was a member of a statutorily protected class; (2) he or she was subjected to an adverse employment action; (3) he or she was qualified for the position; and (4) he or she was replaced by, or that the removal permitted the retention of, a person not belonging to the protected class.”

The Court of Claims found that Eschborn failed to present a prima facie case of discrimination. The Court of Claims determined that Eschborn could satisfy the first three elements of her prima facie case but could not satisfy the last element because the evidence was insufficient to support the conclusion that a person outside of the protected class replaced her or that other comparable, nonprotected persons were treated more favorably.

The evidence showed that ODOT assigned another employee to the post that Eschborn occupied prior to her termination. The trial court held that the evidence merely established a redistribution of work, not a replacement (with someone outside of the protected class). Therefore, the Court of Claims granted summary judgment to ODOT.

Summary judgment is a device used to terminate litigation before trial. It is granted sparingly because of the difficult burden of proof. In order to be granted summary judgment, a party must show that no dispute exists regarding all of the facts and evidence in the record, and that reasonable minds could come to only one conclusion, against the other party.

Generally, in a civil trial, the jury decides what the facts are, and the judge applies the law to those facts. The Court of Claims does not use juries, and so judges are the triers of fact. In this case, the plaintiff argued that the judge was making factual determinations that should have been left to a trier of fact.

Here, the issue is that no trial took place at which the judge could weigh the evidence presented to make a factual determination. Reasonable minds could differ on the meaning of the evidence about the replacement. Therefore, the two parties were in dispute of the facts, which is a genuine issue for a trial. If any genuine issues exist for the trier of fact to consider, a court cannot grant summary judgment. The Court of Appeals therefore agreed with the plaintiff, finding that the trial court had overstepped its authority in granting summary judgment. The Court of Appeals also pointed to evidence in the record that similar male employees were not disciplined for using foul language.

While this case is certainly better for law students studying summary judgment than for school administrators, the case facts contain some practical lessons regarding employment law, discrimination, and harassment. First, without the shifting explanations for termination, the employee’s claim of discrimination would likely not have been made. Employers must be clear in their communications to employees, especially communications of a disciplinary nature. Make sure that department heads and supervisors are on the same page regarding an employment matter before moving forward. Second, employers should keep in mind that discipline must be uniform among employees to prevent claims of better treatment of persons outside of a protected class. It is difficult for an employer to credibly state that foul language was a basis for termination, and not a pretext for discrimination, when other similar employees are not disciplined for similar behavior.

Eschborn v. Dept. of Transp., 2018-Ohio-1808.