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Ohio Supreme Court Orders Records Produced for State Prisoner

by David M. Reutter

On November 7, 2023, the Supreme Court of Ohio rebuffed a request from the office of state Attorney General Dave Yost (R) to reconsider a grant of a state prisoner’s mandamus action. That left to stand the Court’s earlier order issued on August 31, 2023, requiring Grafton Correctional Institution (GCI) Warden James Wesson to comply with the records request made by the prisoner, Harry M. Barr.

Barr submitted an electronic “kite” to Wesson’s office on December 5, 2022, seeking three different public records: (1) the “GCI record-retention schedule,” (2) a list of all GCI employees, and (3) a copy of a “mental health kite” that Barr had sent dated April 21, 2022, with reference number GCI0422002492. When the request was ignored, Barr filed a petition with the Court seeking a writ of mandamus ordering Wesson to provide the requested records and an award of statutory damages under Ohio’s Public Records Act, R.C. 149.43(C)(2).

According to Barr’s complaint, Wesson failed to respond at all to his kite. But Wesson disputed that, filing an affidavit in answer to the petition that Barr had been provided with a list of GCI employees. Wesson further testified that he did not provide a “GCI record-retention schedule” because no such schedule existed; rather, he said that GCI follows the record-retention schedule of the state Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) and does not have its own, institution-specific schedule.

Barr did not dispute these assertions. But Wesson also attached to his affidavit a memorandum dated December 23, 2022, informing Barr that GCI records did not include the mental-health kite that Barr sought in his public-records request. Barr contended the memo was fraudulent, but the Court dismissed that notion. It then turned to the merits of the case.

The Court noted that Barr submitted into evidence a copy of a “kite log” printed on August 30, 2022, which had been obtained via a separate public-records request. That showed he transmitted a kite with reference number GCI0422002492 on April 21, 2022. “At the very least,” the Court declared, this showed “that the kite existed in GCI’s records a little more than three months before Barr sent his public-records request.” So the Court granted a “limited writ of mandamus,” ordering Wesson to produce a copy of the kite or show cause why he could not.

Absent that, the Court said that Barr would be eligible for statutory damages because of Wesson’s failure to produce the record; under R.C. 149.43(B), those damages accrue at $100 per business day from the time Barr filed his action, up to a maximum $1,000. If Wesson provided the document he first claimed not to have, a violation of the Public Records Act would be established and Barr would be entitled to damages. Or Wesson might respond to the show-cause order with proof that he did not have the kite when Barr made his request; in that case no violation would exist and no damages would be owed. Thus a determination on statutory damages was deferred until Wesson complied with the limited writ. See: State ex rel. Barr v. Wesson, 2023-Ohio-3028; and 2023-Ohio-3952.  

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Related legal cases

State ex rel. Barr v. Wesson

State ex rel. Barr v. Wesson