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State Employee Home Addresses Are Not ‘Records’ Subject to Disclosure Under Public Records Act

2004-0394. State ex rel. Dispatch Printing Co. v. Johnson, 2005-Ohio-4384.
In Mandamus. Writs denied.
Moyer, C.J., Resnick, Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Connor, O'Donnell and Lanzinger, JJ., concur.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/newpdf/0/2005/2005-Ohio-4384.pdf

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(Sept. 7, 2005) The Supreme Court of Ohio held unanimously today that, in general, the home addresses of state employees do not document any governmental function of the state or its agencies, and therefore are not “records” subject to mandatory disclosure under the state Public Records Act.

The case involved a series of public records requests filed by the Columbus Dispatch newspaper with the Ohio Department of Administrative Services (DAS) between December 2003 and May 2004. Those requests sought copies of state payroll records including employees' home addresses, and also demanded a copy of the electronic data file used by DAS to mail year-end W-2 income tax forms to the homes of state employees.

DAS initially declined to provide any of the requested documents. The Dispatch filed suit in the Supreme Court, asking for a writ of mandamus that would order DAS to: 1) provide the requested documents and 2) “produce public records in the future without delay.” During the late summer and fall of 2004, DAS provided the Dispatch with documents that included the home addresses of more than 46,000 state employees, but notified the newspaper that it would not provide such information for approximately 20,000 other employees. DAS based its refusal on 1) a statutory exemption from disclosure of residential information of peace officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians, and 2) findings by various state agencies including the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections and the Department of Mental Health that many of their employees would face a substantial risk of serious bodily harm if their home addresses were made available to the public. The Dispatch continued to pursue its mandamus action, arguing that it was entitled to all of the requested records and seeking an award of its attorney fees based on DAS' delay in providing any of the requested records. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case on May 10.

In today's 7-0 decision, written by Justice Alice Robie Resnick, the Court denied the requested writ and award of attorney fees. It based that holding on a finding that state employee home addresses do not fall within the definition of “records” required to be disclosed under the Public Records Act.

“R.C. 149.011(G) defines ‘records' for purposes of the Public Records Act to include ‘any document, device or item, regardless of physical form or characteristic … 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,'” wrote Justice Resnick. While finding that home addresses are “items” that are “received” by state agencies from their employees, the Court held that the Dispatch did not demonstrate that employee home addresses “document” any governmental function, procedure or activity of the employing agency.

Citing with approval arguments advanced by DAS and amici curiae (friends of the court) who supported the state's position, Justice Resnick wrote that “home addresses generally document the places to which state employees return after they have performed the work comprising the ‘organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations or other activities' of their state agencies.”

She noted that the Court's conclusion “is consistent with the purpose of the Public Records Act, which is to expose government activity to public scrutiny,” and cited a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision, U.S. Dept. of Defense v. Fed. Labor Relations Authority in which that court refused to order disclosure of federal employee home addresses on the basis that such disclosure “would reveal little or nothing about the employing agencies or their activities.” Justice Resnick also pointed to two earlier decisions in which the Supreme Court of Ohio denied public records requests for the home addresses of children who used city parks and recreation facilities, State ex rel. McCleary v. Roberts (2000), and excluded from the category of “public records” the home addresses of jurors and other information contained in juror questionnaires, State ex rel . Beacon Journal v. Bond (2002).

“As with the requested records in McCleary and Bond , disclosure of state-employee home addresses would not further the purposes of (the Public Records Act) – i.e., disclosure would not help to monitor the conduct of state government,” wrote Justice Resnick.

The Court acknowledged two earlier public records cases in which it granted writs compelling disclosure of home addresses of public employee retirement system participants: State ex rel. Public Employee Retirees, Inc. v. Public Employees Retirement System (1979), and Police & Fire Retirees of Ohio, Inc. v. Police and Firemen's Disability & Pension Fund (1985). Today's opinion noted, however, that the current statutory provision defining a “record,” R.C. 149.011, was not in effect in 1979, and was not raised by the respondents in the Police and Fire Retirees case because the new law took effect only 16 days before the Court announced its decision in that case.

“In light of more recent developments in public records law and interpretation, we overrule Public Emp. Retirees and Police & Fire Retirees to the extent that those cases hold that home addresses of state employees are public records,” wrote Justice Resnick. “Those cases did not analyze the current statutory definition of ‘records.' … Abandoning this aspect of Public Emp. Retirees and Police & Fire Retirees is consistent with the plain language of R.C. 149.011(G) and more recent precedent … ”

In concluding that the Dispatch was not entitled to the requested writ or an award of attorney fees, the Court emphasized that its ruling in this case was based on the specific issue of residential addresses of public employees. “We stress that our decision is narrow and focuses solely on the status of the addresses as ‘records,'” wrote Justice Resnick. “We are not signaling a retreat from our statements in previous cases that courts in Ohio must construe R.C. 149.43 liberally in favor of broad access to and disclosure of public records. … Today's holding has no application beyond the specific confines of the issue in this case. We will reject as unpersuasive the arguments of governmental bodies in future cases attempting to place great weight on this case as precedent in unrelated contexts.”

John W. Zeiger, 614.365.4101, for the Dispatch Printing Company, Inc.

William C. Becker, 614.466.7447, for the Ohio Dept. of Administrative Services.