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$3,000 Awarded to Ohio Prisoner for Denied Public Records

by David M. Reutter

The Supreme Court of Ohio issued a writ of mandamus to a state prisoner on December 15, 2022, awarding $3,000 in statutory damages for records he was denied in violation of the state Public Records Act (PRA) by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC).

Kimani Ware, a prisoner at the Trumbull Correctional Institution (TCI), sent a prison kite to staffer Waylon Wine on June 18, 2021, requesting “a copy of the B-Unit staff schedule.”  Wine responded it was posted in Ware’s unit, and no documentation was provided. Then on June 21, 2021, Ware sent two separate public records requests to TCI’s recreation department by prison kite. Another staff member, Tracy Ventura, responded that the recreational schedule was posted “in the blocks” earlier that day, and no documentation was provided.

Ware also sent two kites to Deputy Warden Anthony Davis requesting a copy of the June 17, 2021, memo that was sent to all TCI staff.  Davis responded that Ware needed to contact another staff member, Mr. Booth, and no documentation was disclosed.  Finally, on June 22, 2022, Ware sent a kite to Wine requesting “a copy of the housing unit split range schedules for 14 east in [J]une and [J]uly 2021.” Wine did not provide documentation and replied the record was “posted on the unit information board.”

Ware then filed his writ of mandamus on December 7, 2021. The Ohio Supreme Court began its analysis by stating that PRA, R.C. 149.43, requires a public official to make copies of public records upon request within a reasonable time. A “public record” is a record “kept by a public office.” The Court counted four requests Ware made by way of six messages. But it said not all of them were denied.

 In response to the request for the June 17 memo, Ware failed to establish that Davis was the custodian of the record in question. In fact Davis sent Ware to Booth for the record, and there was no evidence that Ware followed that guidance. Referring a requestor to a different employee or office does not constitute a denial, the Court said. Thus, relief was denied as to that request.

As to the remaining three requests, TCI conceded it received and denied them, but it argued that Ware’s opportunity to see the posted documents satisfied PRA. The Court disagreed. PRA obligates TCI to provide Ware with copies of the requested records, it said, and TCI breached that duty. Mandamus relief to compel disclosure was thus appropriate.

Having granted the writ, the Court turned to the issue of statutory damages. PRA provides for damages “at the rate of $100 for every business day the public office or person responsible for the requested public records has failed to comply with an obligation under R.C. 149.43(B), starting from the date of filing the complaint in mandamus, with a maximum of $1,000.”  Ware reached the maximum, so the Court awarded him $1,000 for each of the three violations, for a total of $3,000. It also awarded him the cost of filing the action.  See: State ex. rel. Ware v. Wine, 2022-Ohio-4472.