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Court Rules East Cleveland Mayor Complied With Records Request, Reverses Award of Statutory Damages

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2011-1483.  Strothers v. Norton, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-1007.
Cuyahoga App. No. 96147, 2011-Ohio-3694. Judgment of the court of appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part.
O'Connor, C.J., and Pfeifer, Lundberg Stratton, O'Donnell, Lanzinger, Cupp, and McGee Brown, JJ., concur.
Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/rod/docs/pdf/0/2012/2012-Ohio-1007.pdf

(March 15, 2012) In a 7-0 per curiam decision announced today, the Supreme Court of Ohio upheld a ruling by the Eighth District Court of Appeals that a citizen seeking access to public records from East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton Jr. was not entitled to a writ of mandamus because Norton provided all of the records sought in the relator’s petition. In response to a cross-claim filed by Norton, the Supreme Court reversed a judgment of the Eighth District that ordered Norton to pay $1,000 in statutory damages for failing to provide the requested records “within a reasonable time.”

The case involved a request filed with Norton’s office in December 2010 by Gerald O. Strothers Jr. seeking access to a wide range of city records related to the operations of the East Cleveland jail. The requested documents included “all financial records” documenting the procurement of goods and services used by the jail, bids by all successful and unsuccessful outside vendors to provide food and laundry service and to perform maintenance, repair, and pest extermination services, and numerous other records covering jail operations over the preceding two-year period.

One week after sending his request to Norton by certified mail, Strothers filed a complaint in the Eighth District Court of Appeals seeking a writ of mandamus compelling Norton to disclose the requested records and seeking statutory damages for the city’s alleged failure to provide those documents “within a reasonable time” as required by the Ohio Public Records Act.

While the mandamus petition was pending, Strothers filed an additional public records request with Norton’s office seeking financial records documenting fines generated by each of the city’s traffic cameras.  Norton sent Strothers some of the requested jail documents on December 21, 2010, and delivered the rest of the jail records in  separate batches that were delivered on January 13, 18 and 25, 2011. 

After requesting an inventory of the records sought by Strothers prior to the filing of his mandamus action, and those delivered to him by Norton, the Eighth District found that Norton had disclosed all the documents in his possession that met the criteria of the original records request, and therefore denied the requested writ as moot. Despite denying the writ, however, the court of appeals granted Strothers an award of $1,000 in statutory damages based on a finding that Norton had not complied with the records request within a reasonable time.

Both parties appealed the portion of the Eighth District’s decision unfavorable to them to the Supreme Court.

In today’s decision, the court noted that because Strothers’ petition for mandamus was filed before he requested the traffic camera records, and the petition was never amended, the only records at issue in this case were the jail-related documents he requested in December 2010.  Because Strothers bore the burden of proving that he had not received some or all of the jail records he had requested from Norton, and had not made such a showing, the court affirmed the Eighth District’s holding that all the records Strothers requested had already been provided, and therefore he was not entitled to a writ compelling their production.

With regard to the Eighth District’s award of statutory damages against Norton, the court wrote that under the circumstances of the case, including the large volume and wide range of records Strothers requested, the fact that his mandamus action had been filed only one week after the city received his records request, and Norton’s production of some of the requested documents by December 21, 2010 and the remainder by January 25, 2011, Norton had provided access to the requested records “within a reasonable period of time,” and Strothers was therefore not entitled to statutory damages under the Public Records Act.

Ronald K. Riley, 216.681.2393, for East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton.

Gerald Strothers Jr., pro se, no telephone contact information provided.