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.