Felts v. ODRC S. Ohio Corr. Facility, 2021-00538PQ

CourtCourt of Claims of Ohio
Writing for the CourtJEFF CLARK SPECIAL MASTER
Citation2022 Ohio 966
Decision Date16 February 2022
Docket Number2021-00538PQ
PartiesBRIAN FELTS Requester v. ODRC SOUTHERN OHIO CORRECTIONAL FACILITY Respondent

2022-Ohio-966

BRIAN FELTS Requester
v.

ODRC SOUTHERN OHIO CORRECTIONAL FACILITY Respondent

No. 2021-00538PQ

Court of Claims of Ohio

February 16, 2022


Sent to S.C. Reporter 3/25/22

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

JEFF CLARK SPECIAL MASTER

{¶1} The Ohio Public Records Act (PRA) requires copies of public records to be made available to any person upon request. The state policy underlying the PRA is that open government serves the public interest and our democratic system. State ex rel. Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc. v. Petro, 80 Ohio St.3d 261, 264, 685 N.E.2d 1223 (1997). To that end, the public records statute must be construed liberally in favor of broad access, with any doubt resolved in favor of disclosure of public records. State ex rel. Rogers v. Dept. of Rehab. & Corr ., 155 Ohio St.3d 545, 2018-Ohio-5111, 122 N.E.3d 1208, ¶ 6. This action is filed under R.C. 2743.75, which provides an expeditious and economical procedure to enforce the PRA in the Court of Claims.

{¶2} On August 20, 2021, requester Brian Felts made a public records request to respondent ODRC Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF)[1] for

a copy of the Public EEOC record Signed by Labor Relations Jason Smith through your office on June 6th, 2019 This record contains the settlement between the State of Ohio (SOCF) and I through the EEOC mediation process. This is a settlement of case # DAY76(727618)10312018 and 22A-2019-00567C

(Complaint at 3.) SOCF responded later the same day:

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You have discussed the Public Record request regarding an EEOC settlement with Warden Erdos. Please be informed this record does not exist and therefore we are unable to produce this document.

(Id. at 2.) On September 22, 2021, Felts filed a complaint under R.C. 2743.75 alleging denial of access to public records. Following unsuccessful mediation, SOCF filed a response and motion to dismiss on December 23, 2021. On January 6, 2022, the court issued an order directing Felts to file a reply pleading, and for SOCF to file additional information and documents. On January 12, 2022, SOCF filed a supplemental response. On January 12 and January 21, 2022, Felts submitted various documents that were not captioned and lacked proof of service.

Burden of Proof

{¶3} A requester must establish a public records violation by clear and convincing evidence. Hurt v. Liberty Twp., 2017-Ohio-7820, 97 N.E.3d 1153, ¶ 27-30 (5th Dist.). At the outset, a requester bears the burden of production to plead and prove facts showing he sought identifiable public records from a public office pursuant to R.C. 149.43(B)(1) and that the request was denied. Welsh-Huggins v. Jefferson Cty. Prosecutor's Office, 163 Ohio St.3d 337, 2020-Ohio-5371, 170 N.E.3d 768, ¶ 33.

Non-Existent Records

A "record" is defined for purposes of the Public Records Act as
any document, device, or item, regardless of physical form or characteristic, including an electronic record as defined in section 1306.01 of the Revised Code, created or received by or coming under the jurisdiction of any public office of the state or its political subdivisions, which serves to document the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the office.

R.C. 149.011(G). A document must be one "created or received by or coming under the jurisdiction of any public office" to meet this definition and thus must exist before it can be the subject of a public "records" request. A public office has no duty to provide records that do not already exist or that it does not possess. State ex rel. Alford v. Toledo Corr

2

Inst., 157 Ohio St.3d 525, 2019-Ohio-3847, 138 N.E.3d 1133, ¶ 5; State ex rel. Cordell v. Paden, 156 Ohio St.3d 394, 2019-Ohio-1216, 128 N.E.3d 179, ¶ 8-10.

Requester's Claim

{¶4} Felts seeks a document containing "the settlement" between "the State of Ohio (SOCF)" and Felts in EEOC/OCCR case # DAY76(727618)10312018 and 22A-2019-00567C, "Signed by Labor Relations Jason Smith through your office on June 6th, 2019." (Complaint at 3.) Felts states that settlement occurred "through the EEOC mediation process." (Id.) The request thus identifies the record sought by case number, the type of document, the date of execution, and an SOCF signatory. The request was addressed to "Mr. Greene & Warden Erdos," both of whom are employees of SOCF. (Id. at 2; Response, Greene Aff. at ¶ 1.)

Respondent's Denial

{¶5} Respondent has not expressly denied that a written settlement agreement exists somewhere. SOCF asserts only that the requested document "does not exist in records kept and maintained by the institution." (Emphasis added.) (Response at 2-4, Greene Aff. at ¶ 3, 6-9, Smith Aff. at ¶ 3, 6-9.) However, when SOCF denied the record existed, it remained Felts' burden to show by clear and convincing evidence that the record both existed and was maintained by SOCF. Cordell v. Paden at ¶ 5-10.

Requester's evidence

{¶6} In addition to his description of the record sought, Felt asserts:

EEOC documents show there was a settlement even terms as "Congratulations on your settlement" Paperwork was signed and notarized by Jason Smith LRO. in agreement with settlement.

(Complaint at 1.) Felts stated in correspondence with Greene and Erdos that "the document should be easily obtained in the Labor relations officer records." (Id. at 3.) The Complaint attaches a June 4, 2019 letter from an OCRC investigator congratulating Felts "on achieving a mutual settlement agreement" and attaching a Withdrawal of Charge with Settlement form for him to complete. (Id. at 7.) Also attached to the complaint is the

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subsequently completed REQUEST FOR WITHDRAWAL OF CHARGE DISCRIMINATION form bearing the signature of Jason Smith as a "WITNESS." (Id. at 6.) Also attached is a Letter of Determination containing the Ohio Civil Rights Commission's finding that

Prior to the conclusion of the investigation, Charging Party and Respondent resolved the charge. As a result, Charging Party requested to withdraw the charge. DECISION: The Ohio Civil Rights Commission has entered into its record a finding of WITHDRAWAL OF CHARGE - WITH SETTLEMENT. The matter is CLOSED.

(Complaint at 5.) In Felts' copy, an arrow points to the term, "WITH SETTLEMENT," with handwritten text indicating "copy of this settlement" as the document he seeks. (Id. at 5.)

{¶7} On January 6, 2022, the court issued an order directing Felts to file a reply clarifying the following issues:

1. Advise whether the requested settlement document was also signed by requester.
2. Advise whether requester already possesses a copy of the requested settlement document. If so, requester is directed to attach a copy of this copy of the withheld settlement document to his reply.
3. Attach a copy of "the email [Parks] [sic] requested from Captain Humphrey's to Lieutenant Haywood referencing a Time Clock Adjustment" that was provided to Parks [sic] on September 15, 2021." (Complaint at 2.) Advise whether the "Time Clock Adjustment" in this email constitutes the full terms of settlement provided by ODRC to you as referenced in the Request for Withdrawal of Charge
...

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