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Prisoners Awarded Damages for Denial of Public Records by Ohio Prison Officials

by David M. Reutter

On June 1, 2022, the Supreme Court of Ohio rejected the argument of state prison officials that copies of a prisoner’s “kites” — informal complaints, grievances and appeals — are exempt from disclosure under state public-records law. The Court not only ordered the documents produced but also awarded the prisoner statutory damages. Weeks later, on June 28, 2022, the Court reiterated its opinion and awarded damages to a second prisoner who also sought public-records access to his “kites.”

The first case involved prisoner Alphonso Mobley, Jr. On March 5, 2021, while incarcerated at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, he used the prison’s electronic-kite system to submit a public-records request to the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC), asking for a copy of his “inmate master file.”

A DRC employee responded that he did not know how to obtain a copy. So on March 28, 2021, Mobley sent another public-records request seeking copies of “all kites, informal complaints, grievances, and appeals” he had filed through the electronic-kite system. When that request was denied, Mobley filed suit pro se in state court on June 7, 2021, seeking a writ of mandamus to compel DRC to provide the documents and also to pay him statutory damages and court costs.

Mobley conceded that he was not entitled to grievance-related records; they are exempt from disclosure under the public records law, O.R.C. 149.43. However, he asserted he was entitled to “public portions of his Inmate Master Record/File,” especially “charges and decisions in inmate disciplinary cases,” which would be documented with his kites.

The Court agreed. It noted that “even DRC’s regulations define the ‘public records’ it maintains as including charges and decisions in inmate disciplinary cases.” Additionally, “kites document operations and activities of the prison, namely, the institution’s communications with Mobley.” DRC cited no section of O.R.C. 149.43 that exempts kites as public records, the Court said, and any exempt information they contained can be redacted.

It therefore issued a writ of mandamus compelling DRC to produce documents from Mobley’s file containing charges and decisions in disciplinary proceedings against him, along with all kites pertaining to him. DRC was ordered to pay Mobley’s court costs, as the statute requires. The Court also awarded him the maximum statutory damages of $1,000, noting that Mobley incurred a long delay in receiving the records and had to go to court to get them. See: State ex rel. Mobley v. Ohio Dep’t of Rehab. & Corr., 2022-Ohio-1765.

The second case involved Anthony Suggs. While incarcerated at Mansfield Correctional Institution, he submitted a request via kite under O.R.C. 149.43 on July 31, 2021, seeking copies of earlier kites he had sent asking for law library access. Those documents were needed, Suggs said, to show the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that his untimeliness in a case there was caused by the prison’s failure to respond to his library-access request.

Warden Timothy McConahay responded to the request on August 2, 2021, referring it to an underling. Suggs never received another response. So on August 25, 2021, he also filed a pro se writ of mandamus in the Court. After an alternative writ was issued, the documents were delivered on September 8, 2021.

McConahay then moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Suggs had failed to verify his petition with an affidavit, as required. The Court agreed that was true. But it denied the motion because the objection had not been raised earlier, in the answer to Suggs’ complaint. Moreover, the warden’s admissions in that answer cured the failure to verify.

Because he got his documents, the Court denied Suggs’ mandamus petition as moot. Citing its decision in Mobley’s case, however, the Court said damages are mandatory under O.R.C. 149.43. It therefore awarded Suggs $900, representing $100 for each business day the records were denied. See: State ex rel. Suggs v. McConahay, 2022-Ohio-2147.

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