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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Inmate Entitled to $1,000 After Failing to Receive COVID-19 Records

The state must pay $1,000 in damages to an inmate who sought information about positive COVID-19 results at the Toledo Correctional Facility (TCI), the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the custodian of public records at TCI failed to explain a document she had offered and failed to reply to an April 28, 2020, public-records request from inmate Mark Griffin Sr. The official maintained she did not believe she needed to provide a record on that date because Griffin had refused the same document a week earlier.

In a per curiam opinion, the Court majority stated that Sonrisa Sehlmeyer never fully explained the information in the “daily status sheet” she offered to Griffin and that a reasonable person might not have understood that the daily report contained the information he sought.

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Michael P. Donnelly, Melody J. Stewart, and Jennifer Brunner joined the majority opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote that the exchanges between Griffin and Sehlmeyer reveal Sehlmeyer offered to provide Griffin the record with the information he sought, and that TCI complied with the law. The dissenting opinion warned the “unwarranted award of statutory damages” will “reward makers of confusing public-records requests and encourage gamesmanship.” Justices Patrick F. Fischer and R. Patrick DeWine joined the dissent.

Infection Statistics Sought
Griffin sent a written communication known as a “kite” to Sehlmeyer on April 21, 2020, “seeking the actual number of [TCI] staff and inmates that have been exposed to COVID 19 here at [TCI].” Griffin cited the Ohio public records law, R.C. 149.43, and informed Sehlmeyer that federal and state law required the information to be produced.

In her reply the next day, Sehlmeyer told Griffin that he requested “information,” which is not a proper public-records request. She then added: “If you are requesting the daily status sheet on staff and inmate testing within the department, that is available and is 2 pages.” She instructed him to pay 10 cents per page.

On April 23, Griffin replied, stating Sehlmeyer attempted to tell him about COVID-19 testing, implying she was not providing the actual number of staff and inmates who have been exposed to the virus. He explained that he had a serious lung disease and had been refused a COVID-19 test.

Sehlmeyer replied that day, “You asked for information and I told you what was available as a public record.” She then explained the process for determining if he was eligible for a COVID-19 test.

Revised Request Submitted
On April 28, Griffin sent another kite, stating he was making a public-records request to obtain “documented records” of staff and inmates who have contracted COVID-19 at TCI.

Sehlmeyer replied, “Mr. Griffin, we have no public record responsive to your request.”

Griffin sought a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court, seeking to compel Sehlmeyer to provide records that would respond to his April 28 request.

Supreme Court Analyzes Compliance with Records Law
The Court’s opinion stated that while Griffin asked Sehlmeyer to respond to the April 28 request, the parties base their arguments on the exchanges on April 21 and 22. The Court noted that under R.C. 149.43, requests for information that require a public office to create a new record by searching for the information sought by the requestor are improper requests.

The Court concluded it was reasonable of Sehlmeyer to conclude that the data and information Griffin requested was not a proper records request because he wanted the actual number of staff and inmates exposed to the virus and the “findings” about who contracted it.

Sehlmeyer maintained she complied with the request when she offered the daily tracking sheets. In her response to Griffin’s lawsuit, she explained the daily status sheet would have given the then-current number of inmates and staff who had tested positive for COVID-19 at each Ohio prison.

“But Sehlmeyer did not explain the contents of the daily status sheet when she communicated with Griffin in April 2020, and Griffin’s subsequent correspondence suggests that he did not understand that the daily status sheet reported the information he requested,” the opinion noted.

As a result of the lawsuit, Sehlmeyer submitted a copy of the April 21 status sheet and contends that she complied with the request. But, the Court noted, providing the status sheet does not resolve the question of Griffin’s April 28 request. In response to that request, Sehlmeyer stated that TCI had “no public records.”

Sehlmeyer argued that based on Griffin’s rejection of the status sheet, she interpreted his April 28 request for the “documented records” to mean that he wanted staff and inmate medical records, which are not public records.

Context of Communications Analyzed
The Court’s opinion stated Griffin’s April 28 message must be read in context with the prior communications. Sehlmeyer “surmised that the information in the daily status sheet was what Griffin was looking for,” the Court stated. When Griffin rephrased his request for records, it was unreasonable for Sehlmeyer to construe Griffin’s message as a rejection of her offer and a request for nonpublic medical records. Griffin was “trying again to get information about the number of staff and inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19,” the opinion noted.

Sehlmeyer’s contention that she responded to Griffin’s request is “hard to square with her actual response on April 28,” the Court stated. She told Griffin there were no public records, but in response to the lawsuit she stated that her response indicated “no other records exist.” The Court noted she did not tell Griffin “no other records” exist, which might have indicated to him that the daily status sheet is the record that would answer his questions. Rather, she stated the TCI “did not have any responsive records.”

The Court found Sehlmeyer had a duty to provide Griffin with the records he sought on April 28.

Delay Leads to Damages
Under R.C. 149.43(C)(2), if the custodian of public records fails to comply with a request, the requestor may be entitled to $100 in statutory damages per business day that the custodian fails to comply. The award is capped at $1,000. Since Sehlmeyer has not yet responded to the April 28, 2020, request, Griffin is entitled to $1,000, the Court concluded.

Official Complied with Request, Dissent Maintained
In the dissent, Chief Justice O’Connor wrote that the majority was correct in finding the public-records request must be read in context with the prior communications between Griffin and Sehlmeyer. However, the dissent stated, the majority disregarded the context and read Sehlmeyer’s response to the April 28 kite “in isolation.”

The dissent noted Sehlmeyer told Griffin the daily status sheet with inmate and staff testing was available, was two pages, and cost 10 cents per page. On April 23, she told Griffin the daily status sheets were public records containing the information that responded to his April 21 request. Griffin did not request the status sheets on April 21 or April 28 or provide the payment.

“Nonetheless, the majority holds that Sehlmeyer has a ‘clear legal duty to identify the records that are responsive to Griffin’s request and offer to provide them to Griffin at cost,’” the dissent stated. “It appears, then, that this court is simply ordering Sehlmeyer to do what she has already done.”

Following the public records law, Sehlmeyer did inform Griffin “of the manner in which records are maintained by the public office,” the dissent noted. The majority stated Sehlmeyer should have fully explained what the status sheets contained. But that is not the standard the Court has used to interpret compliance with the public records act, the dissent stated.

The dissent also noted that Griffin “is no stranger to public-records requests,” having filed six other mandamus requests with the Court since 2016 to compel production of public records. The dissent would deny the writ and the damages award.

2020-0748. Disciplinary Counsel v. Harris, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-1419.

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.

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