Q: Where can I file a complaint regarding denial of access to public records?
A: You must choose one (not both) of two legal options:
1) Ohio law says you can file a writ of mandamus in common pleas court, your court of appeals, or the Ohio Supreme Court (Rules of Civil Procedure and O.R.C. 149.43(C)). You do not have to use an attorney, but mandamus actions can be complicated. A mandamus action is the best option to litigate public records issues that have not been considered by a previous court and are of substantial public interest.
2) File a complaint in the Ohio Court of Claims under a fast-track, less expensive program created by O.R.C. 2743.75. The Public Records Claims Program streamlines public records claim resolution by using required mediation between the parties, a simplified complaint form, and short timelines for decisions by the parties and the court.
Q: How do I file a public records complaint in the Court of Claims?
A: Download the required Public Records Access Complaint form from https://ohiocourtofclaims.gov/public-records.php. Once you have filled out the form, you can file your complaint and attached documents in person, or by mail.
Q: What happens after I file the complaint?
A: If the complaint does not meet minimum legal requirements, Court of Claims staff will return it to you, with a written explanation, so you can correct errors or omissions. The Court may also summarily dismiss the complaint. If your complaint meets legal requirements, a Court staff attorney will review your request and contact you to properly understand what records you’ve requested. The staff attorney will then contact the public office for its explanation of why your request was denied. This simple act of communication frequently resolves the problem. If it does not, then your complaint will be referred for formal mediation.
Q: Why is mediation required?
A: This program is meant to be “an expeditious and economical procedure” to resolve public records disputes, and mediation has proven to be a fast, nearly cost-free way to clear up misunderstandings, explore creative solutions, and reach compromises that satisfy both parties.
Q: How does mediation work?
A: An experienced attorney-mediator will be assigned to work with you. At a mediation session conducted by teleconference, the mediator will help you and the other party share legal positions and underlying interests, and will facilitate discussion of a mutually satisfactory solution. If you reach agreement in mediation, the matter will be closed.
Q: What happens if my dispute is not resolved in mediation?
A: Your complaint will be assigned to a Special Master for a formal legal ruling. The Special Master will review your filed documents and any response submitted by the public office, and will issue a report and recommendation. There will be no hearing or trial, and the Special Master is not allowed to access any information about what was discussed in your mediation session. The parties will not be permitted to conduct discovery, and usually there will be no written filings other than your complaint and attachments, and the public office’s response.
Q: What if I disagree with the Special Master’s report and recommendation?
A: You can file objections after you receive the report, and a Court of Claims judicial officer will review the report for legal errors. The Court will issue a final order, which either party may appeal to the appropriate Court of Appeals.
Q: What happens if, after any objection or appeal, the Court of Claims finds that the public office violated the Public Records Act?
A: The Court may order the public office to disclose any public records determined to have been improperly withheld. As the person filing the complaint, you will be entitled to recover the $25 filing fee and any other costs you incurred associated with the action from the public office. You will not, however, be entitled to recover any attorney fees.
Q: How much does it cost to use the program?
A: You must pay a $25 filing fee with your complaint, and you may be responsible for any associated court costs. If the public office loses, it must reimburse you for the $25 filing fee, and pay the court costs.
Q: Where can I learn more about the Ohio Court of Claims Public Records Claims Program?
A: The Public Records Complaint Form and additional information about the program can be found at https://ohiocourtofclaims.gov/public-records.php.
This “Law You Can Use” consumer legal information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by attorney Jeff Clark of the Ohio Court of Claims. Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. This article is not intended to be legal advice. Before applying this information in a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.