Ludlow v. Ohio Dep't of Health, 21AP-369

CourtUnited States Court of Appeals (Ohio)
Writing for the CourtKLATT, J.
Citation2022 Ohio 3399
PartiesRandy Ludlow, Requester-Appellee, v. Ohio Department of Health, Respondent-Appellant.
Docket Number21AP-369
Decision Date27 September 2022

2022-Ohio-3399

Randy Ludlow, Requester-Appellee,
v.

Ohio Department of Health, Respondent-Appellant.

No. 21AP-369

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Tenth District

September 27, 2022


APPEAL from the Court of Claims of Ohio No. 2021-00040PQ

On brief:

Graydon Head & Ritchey LLP, John C. Greiner, Darren W. Ford, and Kellie Ann Kulka, for appellee.

Argued:

John C. Greiner.

On brief:

Dave Yost, Attorney General, Rebecca L. Thomas, and Theresa R. Dirisamer, for appellant.

Argued:

Rebecca L. Thomas.

DECISION

KLATT, J.

{¶ 1} Respondent-appellant, the Ohio Department of Health ("ODH"), appeals a judgment of the Court of Claims of Ohio ordering ODH to provide requester-appellee, Randy Ludlow, with the public record he requested. For the following reasons, we reverse that judgment.

{¶ 2} On April 20, 2020, Columbus Dispatch reporter Ludlow began seeking a digital spreadsheet copy of the Electronic Death Reporting System, the data system ODH uses to maintain death records. ODH initially denied Ludlow's requests. However, in October 2020, ODH provided Ludlow with a digital spreadsheet that contained almost all

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of the information Ludlow requested. For deaths occurring during the selected period in 2020, ODH provided information that included the sex, age, race, birth date, and marital status of each recorded decedent; the date, time, and place of death; and the manner and cause of death. Although Ludlow wanted ODH to also disclose the names and addresses of each decedent, ODH refused to do so on the grounds that such information constituted "protected health information" under R.C. 3701.17.

{¶ 3} On January 26, 2021, Ludlow requested that ODH "provide a copy of the Electronic Death Reporting System database - in digital spreadsheet form - of all death certificates delivered to the department from March 1,, 2020 [sic] to Jan. 26, 2021 by all local health departments in the state." (Compl. at attachment.) In conjunction with this request, Ludlow acknowledged his receipt of the October 2020 digital spreadsheet, which contained much of the information he sought in the January request. Ludlow explained that he filed the January request to seek an update of the October spreadsheet and to again ask for the names and addresses of each decedent. According to Ludlow, ODH once more refused his request for names and addresses.

{¶ 4} On January 28, 2021, Ludlow filed a public-records-access complaint against ODH in the Court of Claims pursuant to R.C. 2743.75. In accordance with R.C. 2743.75(D)(2), the trial court assigned a special master to examine the complaint. The special master issued a report and recommendation to the trial court. In that report, the special master considered whether the record Ludlow sought in the January request was excepted from disclosure under R.C. 3701.17(B), which prohibits the release of "protected health information" absent consent or the application of a statutory exception. The special master concluded that the requested information did not fall squarely within the public-records exception contained in R.C. 3701.17. Consequently, the special master recommended that the trial court order ODH to comply with Ludlow's public-record request.

{¶ 5} ODH objected to the special master's report and recommendation. In a decision and entry dated July 1, 2021, the trial court overruled ODH's objections and adopted the special master's report and recommendation.

{¶ 6} ODH now appeals from the July 1, 2021 decision and entry, and it assigns the following errors:

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1. The lower court erred when it ordered the Department to create a new spreadsheet from the death certificate database in response to a public records request
2. The lower court erred when it ordered the Department to produce Protected Health Information, as defined by R.C. 3701.17.

{¶ 7} We will begin by addressing ODH's second assignment of error. In that assignment of error, ODH argues that the trial court erred by ordering it to provide the record Ludlow requested because it contains protected health information, which is exempted from disclosure under the Public Records Act pursuant to R.C. 3701.17. We agree.

{¶ 8} Ohio's Public Records Act requires a public office to promptly make copies of public records available to any person upon request. R.C. 149.43(B)(1). Courts construe the Public Records Act liberally in favor of broad access to public records and resolve any doubt in favor of disclosure. State ex rel. CNN, Inc. v. Bellbrook-Sugarcreek Local Schools, 163 Ohio St.3d 314, 2020-Ohio-5149, ¶ 8. Conversely, courts construe exceptions to disclosure strictly against the public office. Id. The public office carries the burden to establish the applicably of an exemption to disclosure. Id. To meet its burden, the public office must prove facts establishing that the requested records fall squarely within the exemption. Welsh-Huggins v. Jefferson Cty. Prosecutor's Office, 163 Ohio St.3d 337, 2020-Ohio-5371, ¶ 35.

{¶ 9} Whether a particular record is exempt from disclosure presents a question of law, although the application of the statutory exemption will necessarily depend on the application of facts to the record at issue. Id. at ¶ 37. When a party appeals a mixed question of law and fact, an appellate court will review the legal question de novo but will defer to the trial court's underlying factual findings, reviewing them only for clear error. Id.

{¶ 10} The dispute in this case centers on the applicability of R.C. 14943(A)(1)(v), which exempts from disclosure "[r]ecords the release of which is prohibited from state or federal...

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