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Supreme Court: ‘At Cost’ Provision of Public Records Act Does Not Trump $5 BMV Fee

General Provision Subordinate to Specific Driver Privacy Protection Statute and Administrative Rule

Image of an Ohio license plate with the letters 'BMV' on it

Supreme Court rules Public Records Act does not supersede $5 BMV fee for a copy of the record of a commercial driver license holder.

Image of an Ohio license plate with the letters 'BMV' on it

Supreme Court rules Public Records Act does not supersede $5 BMV fee for a copy of the record of a commercial driver license holder.

The Supreme Court of Ohio ruled 6-0 today that general language in the Ohio Public Records Act requiring government agencies to provide copies of records ‘at cost’ does not bar the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) from enforcing an administrative rule that requires an employer or insurer  to pay a $5 fee for a copy of the record of a commercial driver license holder.

Based on that analysis, the court denied writs of mandamus sought by a Columbus trucking company in two different cases in which the company attempted to use public record requests to obtain unredacted copies of its employees’ driver license records at the BMV’s copying cost of five cents per page.

The two cases, which were consolidated by the court after being separately accepted for review, involved the interplay between the state public records act, the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994 (DPPA), and the Ohio counterpart of the federal statute, R.C. 4501.27. 

The DPPA generally prohibits the disclosure of personal information on file with a motor vehicle records bureau in connection with an individual’s driving record. However, an exception in the statute permits disclosure of such information to an employer or insurer seeking to obtain or verify information about the holder of a commercial driver’s license.  The federal DPPA does not establish a procedure for requesting protected material from the BMV, but Ohio’s statute grants the BMV rule-making authority to carry out its duties.  Pursuant to that authority, the BMV promulgated Ohio Adm.Code 4501:1-12-02, which allows an employer or insurer to obtain an unredacted copy of a person’s record by completing a form (BMV1173) that states the exempt purpose for which the requested information is being sought and by paying a $5 fee for a certified copy of the record.

In the first case addressed in today’s decision, the trucking company, Motor Carrier Service Inc. (MCS), submitted a public records request to the BMV for an unredacted copy of an employee’s driving record at the bureau’s actual copying cost of five cents per page.  The BMV provided a copy of the requested record, but with personal information redacted, explaining that it was barred by the DPPA from providing an unredacted record unless a request was submitted by a statutorily exempted requestor who certified on the specified BMV form that the information was being requested for a statutorily exempted purpose, and who paid the $5 fee required by rule.

MCS sought a writ of mandamus from the Tenth District Court of Appeals ordering the BMV to comply with its demand for an ‘at cost’ copy of the requested record pursuant to the state public records act.  The Tenth District denied the requested writ, and MCS appealed the Court of Appeals’ ruling to the Supreme Court.

In the second case, MCS filed a new public records request with the BMV seeking the unredacted driving record of a different  employee, this time including  a completed BMV 1173 form identifying itself as an exempt employer and indicating that it sought the record for an exempt purpose, but failing to enclose the required $5 fee. The BMV again supplied only a redacted copy of the employee’s record, indicating that an unredacted copy could be provided only when the applicant paid the $5 fee required under by Adm.Code 4501:1-12-02.  MCS responded by filing an original action in mandamus in the Supreme Court. 

In today’s per curiam opinion addressing both cases, the court held that the general provision of the Public Records Act requiring public agencies to provide copies of records under their control ‘at cost’
is subordinate to the specific requirements of the federal and state DPPA statutes, and to the administrative rule adopted by the BMV under the authority of those statutes.

The court wrote:  “A well-settled principle of Ohio law is that when two statutes, one general and one specific, cover the same subject matter, the special provision is to be construed as an exception to the general statute that might otherwise apply.  ...  This rule has also been codified at R.C. 1.51. ... MCS’s argument here appears to be that the provisions of Ohio’s Public Records Act, R.C. 149.43, are immune from that principle. MCS argues that Ohio Adm.Code 4501:1-12-02(D)(2) is invalid because it ‘conflicts with Ohio’s public records statute’ and is ‘wholly inconsistent with the plain language of R.C. 149.43.’”

“Contrary to MCS’s position, the Public Records Act is not immune from R.C. 1.51. The federal and state DPPAs prohibit the BMV from disclosing personal information except under specific circumstances, and the General Assembly is permitted to establish an exception or partial exception to the Public Records Act to accommodate that law.  The General Assembly chose to do that in R.C. 4501.27, and it chose to permit the BMV to promulgate rules that specify a procedure for qualified requesters to obtain information as long as the requester pays a fee and states which exception to the ban on disclosure applies. Under R.C. 1.51, these specific provisions cannot be overcome by the more general provisions of the Public Records Act.  Rather, the opposite is true: the specific prevails over the general.”

“Under (State ex rel.) Slagle (v. Rogers), 2004 and the precedent cited there, a specific statute establishing a fee or a method for determining a fee for a requested public record acts as an exception to the general ‘at cost’ language in R.C. 149.43. Here, the BMV permissibly set up a special procedure for the release of certain records, together with a special provision requiring the payment of a specific fee for that release. Under R.C. 1.51 and Slagle, these are special provisions that supersede the general language of R.C. 149.43. Therefore, MCS cannot get an unredacted copy of the driver’s record without applying for it under Ohio Adm.Code 4501:1-12-02(D)(2) by completing form BMV1173 and by paying the $5 fee.”

The court’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Paul E. Pfeifer, Terrence O’Donnell, Judith Ann Lanzinger, Sharon L. Kennedy, and William M. O’Neill.  Justice Judith L. French, who was a member of the Tenth District panel that considered one of the two mandamus actions addressed in today’s decision, did not participate in the Supreme Court’s deliberations or decision in the case.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

2012-1264 and 2012-1394.  State ex rel. Motor Carrier Serv., Inc. v. Rankin, Slip Opinion No. 2013-Ohio-1505.
Franklin App. No. 10AP-1178, 2012-Ohio-2590.  Judgment affirmed in case No. 2012-1264, and writ denied in case No. 2012-1394.
O’Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, O’Donnell, Lanzinger, Kennedy, and O’Neill, JJ., concur.
French, J., not participating.

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