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$1,000 Award to Ohio Prisoner for Violation of Public Records Act

The Ohio Supreme Court concluded that an official at Toledo Correctional Institution (TCI) violated the Ohio Public Records Act by failing to identify all records requested by a prisoner. In addition to ordering relief for the prisoner to obtain the records, the court awarded the prisoner $1,000 in statutory damages.

Prisoner Mark Griffin Sr., filed a request on April 21, 2020, pursuant to Ohio’s Public Records Act that sought information about the number of staff and prisoners at TCI who had been exposed to or who had contracted COVID-19. His request was poorly worded, but the records custodian, Sonrisa Sehlmeyer, offered the next day to provide a record containing information about staff and prisoner COVID-19 testing, if Griffin paid ten cents for the two page document. He did not pay the ten cents or state he wanted the document.

Griffin made another request on April 28, 2020, seeking records of prison staff and prisoners who had contracted COVID-19. This time, Sehlmeyer stated the prison had “no public records responsive to [this] request.” Griffin then filed a petition for writ of mandamus that sought an order to compel production of the records he requested. He also sought an award of statutory damages.

The Ohio Supreme Court held the Public Records Act requires the records custodian to provide a copy of the public record to the requester “at cost and within a reasonable period of time.” The court rejected the argument that the April 22 response satisfied the latter request. It noted the records Sehlmeyer offered related to COVID-19 testing rather than staff and prisoners who had contracted the virus.

The court said it was unreasonable for Sehlmeyer to construe Griffin’s second request as a rejection of her previous offer or as another request for nonpublic medical records. Finding she had a clear legal duty to provide the requested documents, the court ordered her to identify all records responsive to the request, inform Griffin of the cost to obtain them, and provide them once he makes payment for copies. The court further found Griffin was entitled to statutory damages of $1,000. See: State ex rel Griffin v. Sehlmeyer, Case 2021 Ohio 1419 (Ohio 2021). 

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Related legal case

State ex rel Griffin v. Sehlmeyer