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Ohio Supreme Court Grants Records but No Damages for Prisoner Making Request

by Jacob Barrett

On June 23, 2022, the Supreme Court of Ohio held that the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) improperly withheld records requested by a former state prisoner. But the prisoner’s failure to properly document his request meant that he wasn’t entitled to damages.

Twice in December 2017 and again in April 2021, Thomas Reese requested multiple records from DRC pursuant to Ohio’s Public Records Act, R.C. § 149.43 and the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). DRC responded to some of Reese’s requests but refused to produce all of the records.

Reese asserted he needed the documents for a legal action pending in state Court of Claims. When DRC refused his request, he said it resulted in a denial of relief in the action. So he filed a petition pro se at the Court for a writ of mandamus, seeking to compel DOC to provide the requested documents, as well as an award of statutory damages — $100 per business day his request wasn’t granted, up to a maximum of $1,000.

The Court began by holding mandamus was the appropriate remedy to compel compliance with R.C. § 149.43. “We construe the Public Records Act liberally”, the Court said, “in favor of broad access, with any doubt resolved in favor of disclosure of public records.”

But despite this commitment, it rejected Reese’s first request because it was made on a template form for the federal FOIA, which “applies only to federal entities,” the Court said.

Reese sent the second December 2017 request to the DRC legal department and the state Attorney General. He did not, however, produce evidence that he also sent it to DRC. So he was “therefore not entitled to relief in mandamus regarding that request,” the Court said.

DRC gave “a partial response” to his third request; however, Reese argued that he was still entitled to the other documents withheld, plus statutory damages for the failure to produce them. The Court agreed that Reese was entitled to some of the withheld records. But part of Reese’s request was for prison video footage “in photo clip form.” DRC responded it didn’t maintain security footage in that format and was unable to convert it. The Court agreed with DRC that it was not required to “create a new record,” citing State ex rel. Kerner v. State Teachers Ret. Bd., 1998-Ohio-242.

The Court also rejected Reese’s argument that he was entitled to investigation reports prepared by “Ohio State Patrolmen” related to a prison assault on Reese. Why not? “Because he has failed to prove that the reports are in DRC’s custody,” the Court said. Similarly, the Court rejected Reese’s argument that he was entitled to production of use-of-force records because he had directed his request to the wrong department.

So what records did Reese get? “R.I.B.” records — from the prison’s Rules Infraction Board — and “pack-up slips” inventorying his personal property. The Court said DRC failed to identify any statutory exemption that covered them.

However, since DRC has a policy — 07-ORD-11 — outlining procedures for prisoners to review their personal medical, mental health, and recovery-service files, the Court rejected Reese’s claim that his medical records were “not available for public release.”

Lastly, the Court held Reese was not entitled to statutory damages for the records withheld — the same ones the Court ordered DRC to release — because of his failure “to prove that delivery was accomplished by one of the methods required to authorize statutory damages.”

Reese filed a petition for reconsideration, but the Court denied it on August 30, 2022. See: State ex rel. Reese v. Ohio Dep’t of Rehab. & Corr. Legal Dep’t, 2022-Ohio-2105; and 193 N.E.3d 585 (2022). 

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