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Ohio Supreme Court Partially Reinstates Prisoner’s Pro Se Public Records Request, Sets Damages for Denial at $1,000

by Matt Clarke

On December 23, 2021, the Supreme Court of Ohio held that a state court of appeals erred when it denied a state prisoner’s motion for statutory damages against the Cleveland Police Forensic Laboratory (CPFL) for improperly withholding public records he requested. The Court then set the damage award at the statutory maximum of $1,000.

In June 2018, Ohio prisoner L’Ddaryl D. Ellis sent a request to CPFL by certified mail for records that included: (1) all investigative, laboratory, and hospital reports and statements of police, victims, and witnesses, without reference to a specific case; (2) the results of any ballistics test of a “Sky 9mm caliber pistol, Model CPX-1, with serial #018313”; and (3) copies of all records-retention schedules, records-retention policies and public-records policies.

CPFL did not respond to his request. So two months later, Ellis filed a pro se mandamus action in the state court of appeals. That court granted CPFL’s motion for summary judgment for the first two requests, finding the first was “overly broad” and the second required permission from Ellis’s sentencing judge, pursuant to Ohio Revised Code (ORC) 149.43(b)(8), since it related to an ongoing criminal investigation. The appeals court also said the request was barred by res judicata, since a previous request for the records had been denied by the Court of Claims.

But the appeals court held that the records sought in the third part of the request were not exempt and should have been produced. It granted a writ of mandamus ordering CPFL to hand them over. Meanwhile Ellis filed a motion for statutory damages for their earlier denial under ORC 149.43(C)(2). He also appealed the two other denials to the Ohio Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s decision and remanded the case for consideration of Ellis’ motion for damages. See: State ex rel. Ellis v. Cleveland Police Forensic Lab., 157 Ohio St. 3d 483 (2019).

On remand, the court of appeals denied the prisoner’s motion, saying that CPFL’s denial of the records, though reversible, was not unreasonable, since the request was part of a larger one that was mostly—and properly—denied. Ellis appealed again.

Back at the Ohio Supreme Court, it was first noted that “a person requesting public records, provided he has used a qualifying method of transmission, ‘shall be entitled to recover’ an award of statutory damages ‘if a court determines that the public office or the person responsible for public records failed to comply with an obligation in accordance with’” ORC 149.43(B), the Court said, quoting the statutory language.

Noting that the language is mandatory, requiring $100 for each day the records were not produced up to a maximum of $1,000, the Court said it was authorized to use its discretion to reduce the amount of the award, subject to review for abuse of discretion. However, totally denying any award was subject to de novo review.

So that’s what the Court performed, ruling again that the first two parts of the request were invalid for the reasons stated by the court of appeals. However, it did not excuse CPFL from disclosing the documents requested in the third part of the request, holding that ORC 149.43(B)(8) “does not create a blanket rule that an office or official may disregard an entire request when a portion thereof is subject to prerelease approval by a judge.”

Thus, the Court affirmed that CPFL’s failure to produce those documents was improper, adding that Ellis was entitled to statutory damages. Given the amount of time the records were withheld, the proper amount was determined to be the statutory maximum, $1,000. See: State ex rel. Ellis v. Cleveland Police Forensic Lab., 2021-Ohio-4487. 

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Related legal cases

State ex rel. Ellis v. Cleveland Police Forensic Lab.

State ex rel. Ellis v. Cleveland Police Forensic Lab.