State ex rel. McCarley v. Dep't of Rehab. & Corr., 20AP-337

CourtUnited States Court of Appeals (Ohio)
Writing for the CourtSADLER, J.
Citation2022 Ohio 3397
PartiesState ex rel. Willard McCarley, Relator, v. Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Respondent.
Docket Number20AP-337
Decision Date27 September 2022

2022-Ohio-3397

State ex rel. Willard McCarley, Relator,
v.

Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Respondent.

No. 20AP-337

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Tenth District

September 27, 2022


IN MANDAMUS ON OBJECTION TO THE MAGISTRATE'S DECISION

Willard McCarley, pro se.

Dave Yost, Attorney General, and John H. Bates.

DECISION

SADLER, J.

{¶ 1} Relator, Willard McCarley, requests this court issue a writ of mandamus ordering respondent, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction ("ODRC"), to respond to relator's public records request.

{¶ 2} This matter was referred to a magistrate pursuant to Civ.R. 53(D) and Loc.R. 13(M) of the Tenth District Court of Appeals. The magistrate issued the appended decision, including findings of fact and conclusions of law, recommending this court issue a writ of mandamus ordering ODRC to furnish unredacted copies of the documents requested by relator that previously had been redacted or withheld based on R.C. 5120.21(F) as records of inmates concerning relator. The magistrate further recommended this court deny

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relator's request for statutory damages because his public records request was transmitted by ordinary mail, rather than one of the methods specified in R.C. 14943(C)(2).

{¶ 3} ODRC has filed an objection to the magistrate's decision. Therefore, we must independently review the decision to ascertain whether "the magistrate has properly determined the factual issues and appropriately applied the law." Civ.R. 53(D)(4)(d). We "may adopt or reject a magistrate's decision in whole or in part, with or without modification." Civ.R. 53(D)(4)(b).

{¶ 4} In its objection, ODRC asserts the magistrate erred by applying this court's decision in State ex rel. Hill v. Campbell, 10th Dist. No. 20AP-510, 2022-Ohio-354, to conclude that the records relator sought were not exempted from disclosure under the Public Records Act pursuant to R.C. 14943(A)(1)(v) and 5120.21(F). ODRC argues the Supreme Court of Ohio adopted a broad interpretation of R.C. 5120.21(F) in State ex rel Hogan Lovells U.S., L.L.P v. Ohio Dept. of Rehab. & Corr., 165 Ohio St.3d 368, 2021-Ohio-1762, that would exempt the records relator seeks from disclosure under the Public Records Act. ODRC asserts Hill is limited to the particular facts of that case and should not have been applied to relator's request for a writ of mandamus.

{¶ 5} Ohio's Public Records Act, R.C. 149.43, "mandates access to public records upon request unless the requested records are specifically excepted from disclosure." State ex rel. Lucas Cty. Bd. of Commrs. v. Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, 88 Ohio St.3d 166, 170 (2000). Public records are defined as "records kept by any public office." R.C. 149.43(A)(1). The Public Records Act provides an extensive list of exclusions defining records that are not "public records," including "[r]ecords the release of which is prohibited by state or federal law." R.C. 14943(A)(1)(v). "Exceptions to disclosure under the Public Records Act are strictly construed against the public-records custodian, and the custodian has the burden to establish the applicability of an exception." State ex rel. Miller v. Ohio State Hwy. Patrol, 136 Ohio St.3d 350, 2013-Ohio-3720, ¶ 23.

{¶ 6} In this case, relator sought emails from specified individuals concerning relator during specified timeframes. ODRC asserts the emails relator sought were excluded from the definition of public records under R.C. 5120.21(F), which provides that "[e]xcept as otherwise provided in [R.C. 5120.21(C)], records of inmates committed to the

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department of rehabilitation and correction * * * shall not be considered public records as defined in [R.C. 14943]."

{¶ 7} R.C. 5120.21 generally relates to records that must be maintained by ODRC. Under R.C. 5120.21(A), ODRC must keep "a record showing the name, residence, sex, age, nativity, occupation, condition, and date of entrance or commitment of every inmate in the several institutions governed by it." R.C. 5120.21(B) provides that the managing officer of an institution must make a special report to ODRC within 24 hours of "an accident or injury or peculiar death of an inmate." R.C. 5120.21(C) relates to inmate medical records. R.C. 5120.21(D) specifies certain records that ODRC must keep confidential. R.C. 5120.21(E) provides that ODRC may release inmate records to the Ohio Department of Youth Services or a court of record and that such records shall not be considered public records under R.C. 149.43. R.C. 5120.21(F) provides that "records of inmates" are not considered public records.

{¶ 8} In Hogan Lovells, a law firm requested public records relating to ODRC's plans for carrying out executions by lethal injection. Hogan Lovells at ¶ 5. ODRC provided records in response to the request but withheld certain documents that related to activities conducted at a time when ODRC was preparing for the anticipated execution of a particular individual. Id. at ¶ 32. ODRC asserted those documents were exempt from the Public Records Act as "records of inmates" under R.C. 5120.21(F). Id. at ¶ 35. Analyzing the term "records of inmates," the lead opinion in Hogan Lovells concluded that R.C. 5120.21(F) "broadly exempted records that relate or refer to inmates."[1] Id. at ¶ 36. The court denied a writ of mandamus, concluding the withheld records were records that related or referred to an inmate "because they provide specific information about [the inmate], document the activities that [O]DRC undertook in preparing to execute him, and refer to facts, circumstances, or activities specifically related to [the inmate]." Id. at ¶ 41.

{¶ 9} Less than a year after Hogan Lovells, this court decided Hill, in which an inmate requested copies of electronic communications he sent to a parole officer and the

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disposition of those communications, and copies of any judgment entries, sentencing entries, or documents regarding sex offenses of which he had been convicted. Hill at ¶ 5. We concluded the case was distinguishable from Hogan Lovells because the inmate sought records related to himself that formed the basis for denial of his eligibility for transitional control. Id. at ¶ 9. We granted a writ of mandamus remanding the matter to ODRC to research the "resource material" upon which the inmate was deemed ineligible for transitional control and noted that if such resource material existed, the inmate had a clear legal right to it. Id. at ¶ 17.

{¶ 10} In the present case, following an in camera review of the withheld records, the magistrate concluded that pursuant to Hill it was inappropriate to redact or withhold records relating solely to relator on the basis that they were records of inmates under R.C. 5120.21(F).

{¶ 11} After the magistrate's decision in this case, the Supreme Court decided State ex rel. Mobley v. Ohio Dept. of Rehab. & Corr., ___ Ohio St.3d ___, 2022-Ohio-1765. In Mobley, an inmate submitted public records requests for a copy of his "inmate master file" and "copies of 'all kites, informal complaints, grievances, and appeals' filed by him through the institution's electronic-kite system." Id. at ¶ 2, 3. ODRC asserted the records he sought were exempt from disclosure because they were records of inmates under R.C. 5120.21(F). Id. at ¶ 5. ODRC argued the inmate master file contained highly sensitive records and that even though the inmate sought records that only related to himself, they were not public records pursuant to R.C. 5120.21(F). Id. at ¶ 15. Although the Supreme Court did not expressly overrule Hogan Lovells, it noted that case was "not binding precedent" because only three members of the court joined the lead opinion. Id. at ¶ 16. The court effectively rejected the broad holding in Hogan Lovells and "decline[d] to adopt a categorical rule that all records that somehow relate to an inmate are exempt from public-records disclosure under R.C. 5120.21(F)." Id. The court reasoned that, reading R.C. 5120.21(F) in the context of the entire statute, "the term 'records of inmates' in R.C. 5120.21(F) logically refers to the records mentioned elsewhere in R.C. 5120.21, clarifying that such records are not public records." Id. at ¶ 22. Based on this reading of the statute, the court concluded the records sought in Mobley did not fall under any of the categories of "records of inmates" identified in R.C. 5120.21 and were subject to disclosure as public records. Id. at ¶ 23-26. See also

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State ex rel. Suggs v. McConahay, ___ Ohio St.3d ___, 2022-Ohio-2147, ¶ 10-11 (following Mobley); State ex rel Reese v. Ohio Dept. of Rehab. & Corr. Legal Dept, ___ Ohio St.3d ___, 2022-Ohio-2105, ¶ 22-23 (following Mobley).

{¶ 12} Consistent with our decision in Hill and the subsequent Supreme Court decision in Mobley, in this case the magistrate correctly concluded that the documents relator sought were not exempt from the Public Records Act solely on the basis that they were records of inmates under R.C. 5120.21(F) pertaining to relator. ODRC argues the majority of the records sought by relator are exempt from disclosure under other provisions of R.C. 5120.21 or 14943.[2] Our conclusion that relator is entitled to the records he seeks is limited to records that were redacted or withheld on grounds that they were "records of inmates" under R.C. 5120.21(F) concerning relator. To the extent the documents requested by relator contain information that is exempt from disclosure on other grounds, ODRC may continue to redact or withhold the exempt documents or portions of documents. See Mobley at ¶ 26 ("[T]o the extent that a kite might contain information that is exempt from disclosure, those portions can be redacted."). Accordingly, we overrule ODRC's objection.

{¶ 13} Following an independent review of the magistrate's decision and the objection filed by ODRC, we overrule ODRC's objection. We adopt the magistrate's decision as our own,...

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