114 N.E.3d 152 (Ohio 2018), 2017-0431, State ex rel. Cincinnati Enquirer v. Pike County General Health District

Docket Nº2017-0431
Citation114 N.E.3d 152, 154 Ohio St.3d 297, 2018-Ohio-3721
Opinion JudgePER CURIAM.
Party NameThe STATE EX REL. CINCINNATI ENQUIRER, Appellant, v. PIKE COUNTY GENERAL HEALTH DISTRICT et al.; Pike County Medical Examiner and Coroner, Appellee.
AttorneyGraydon, Head & Ritchey, L.L.P., John C. Greiner, Cincinnati, and Darren W. Ford, for appellant. Michael DeWine, Attorney General, and Sarah E. Pierce, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.
Judge PanelO’Connor, C.J., and O’Donnell, Fischer, and DeGenaro, JJ., concur. Kennedy, J., concurs in judgment only. French and DeWine, JJ., not participating.
Case DateSeptember 19, 2018
CourtSupreme Court of Ohio

Page 152

114 N.E.3d 152 (Ohio 2018)

154 Ohio St.3d 297, 2018-Ohio-3721

The STATE EX REL. CINCINNATI ENQUIRER, Appellant,

v.

PIKE COUNTY GENERAL HEALTH DISTRICT et al.; Pike County Medical Examiner and Coroner, Appellee.

No. 2017-0431

Supreme Court of Ohio

September 19, 2018

Submitted February 27, 2018

Page 153

APPEAL from the Court of Appeals for Pike County, No. 16CA873, 2017-Ohio-1084.

Graydon, Head & Ritchey, L.L.P., John C. Greiner, Cincinnati, and Darren W. Ford, for appellant.

Michael DeWine, Attorney General, and Sarah E. Pierce, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

OPINION

PER CURIAM.

[¶ 1] The Cincinnati Enquirer appeals the judgment of the Fourth District Court of Appeals denying its request for a writ of mandamus and requests this court to schedule oral argument. For the reasons set forth herein, we deny the motion for oral argument and reverse the judgment of the court of appeals.

Page 154

[154 Ohio St.3d 298] Background

[¶ 2] This case arises out of the murders of eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families in Pike County in April 2016. On May 16, 2016, Kevin Grasha, a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, contacted the Pike County General Health District, asking to view the preliminary autopsy and investigative notes and findings relating to the homicides of Christopher Rhoden Sr., Christopher Rhoden Jr., Dana Rhoden, Clarence Rhoden, Hanna Rhoden, Hannah Gilley, Kenneth Rhoden, and Gary Rhoden. Grasha made his request pursuant to R.C. 149.43, the Ohio Public Records Act. Grasha made a second request on May 24.

[¶ 3] On May 25, 2016, the Pike County prosecuting attorney, in his role as counsel for the Pike County General Health District and appellee, Pike County’s medical examiner and coroner ("coroner"), denied the request to view the records.

[¶ 4] During further exchanges, counsel for the Enquirer invoked R.C. 313.10(D), which provides that upon a request in proper form, journalists must be given access to review, but not copy, the preliminary autopsy reports of a county coroner. The prosecuting attorney again denied the Enquirer access to the records.

[¶ 5] Naming the health district and coroner as respondents, in July, the Enquirer filed a complaint for a writ of mandamus asking the Fourth District Court of Appeals to order the respondents to make the records available pursuant to R.C. 149.43(B) and 313.10. The Enquirer also asked for statutory damages and attorney fees.

[¶ 6] In September 2016, the coroner released heavily redacted versions of the preliminary autopsy reports to the public, calling the reports " ‘confidential law enforcement investigatory records’ under R.C. 313.10(A)(2)(e) and R.C. 149.43" (which states that confidential law-enforcement investigatory records are not public records), see R.C. 149.43(A)(1)(h) and (2). In February 2017, the court of appeals ordered the health district and coroner to submit the unredacted preliminary autopsy reports to it under seal for in camera inspection.

[¶ 7] On March 17, 2017, the court of appeals denied the Enquirer’s request for a writ of mandamus. 2017-Ohio-1084, 80 N.E.3d 517. The court of appeals first held that no writ could be issued against the Pike County General Health District, as R.C. 313.10(D) applies only to coroners. Id. at ¶ 36. (The Enquirer has not appealed this aspect of the decision.) After reviewing the unredacted portions of the final autopsy reports, the court of appeals held that they were properly withheld because they constituted confidential law-enforcement investigatory [154 Ohio St.3d 299] records of the eight decedents and therefore were not subject to the journalist exception in R.C. 313.10(D). Id. at ¶ 5, 51, and 57.

[¶ 8] The Enquirer appealed and filed an unopposed motion for oral argument.

The motion for oral argument

[¶ 9] Oral argument in appeals as of right is discretionary. S.Ct.Prac.R. 17.02(A). When deciding whether to hear oral argument, we consider whether the case involves a matter of great public importance, complex issues of law or fact, a substantial constitutional issue, or a conflict among the courts of appeals. State ex rel. BF Goodrich Co., Specialty Chems. Div. v. Indus. Comm., 148 Ohio St.3d 212, 2016-Ohio-7988, 69 N.E.3d 728, ¶ 23. This case does involve a matter of great public importance: whether journalists may review, and presumably report on, preliminary autopsy reports in open homicide cases. But the remaining factors are not present: the case presents no constitutional question or division among the intermediate

Page 155

appellate courts; the relevant facts are few and uncontested; and the legal question in the case is a simple question of statutory interpretation. Oral argument would likely offer little new information for the court’s consideration.

[¶ 10] We therefore deny the request for oral argument.

Legal analysis

[¶ 11] The Enquirer seeks to review certain documents in the custody of the coroner’s office. The records of a county coroner’s office are governed by R.C. 313.10. As the court of appeals correctly recognized, this case does not arise under the Ohio Public Records Act. 2017-Ohio-1084, 80 N.E.3d 517 at ¶ 32 ("we conclude that the Enquirer’s claim is governed by R.C. 313.10 and not R.C. 149.43").

[¶ 12] To be entitled to a writ of mandamus, the Enquirer must establish, by clear and convincing evidence, (1) a clear legal right to the requested relief, (2) a clear legal duty on the part of the coroner to provide it, and (3) the lack of an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law. State ex rel. Love v. O’Donnell, 150 Ohio St.3d 378, 2017-Ohio-5659, 81 N.E.3d 1250, ¶ 3. Mandamus is the appropriate remedy to compel compliance with the Ohio Public Records Act, R.C. 149.43, and a relator need not demonstrate the absence of an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law. State ex rel. Caster v. Columbus, 151 Ohio St.3d 425, 2016-Ohio-8394, 89 N.E.3d 598, ¶ 15-16. Although the demand for records in this case arises under R.C. 313.10, not R.C. 149.43, the same rule applies. See State ex rel. Clay v. Cuyahoga Cty. Med. Examiner’s Office, 152 Ohio St.3d 163, 2017-Ohio-8714, 94 N.E.3d 498, ¶ 33 (in a case involving records of a [154 Ohio St.3d 300] coroner, the parties did not dispute that the requesting party had no adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law).

[¶ 13] The coroners-records statute states: Except as otherwise provided in this section, the records of the coroner who has jurisdiction over...

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