The $800K Public Records Verdict That Never Was

Plaintiff’s lawyers beware!  Last month a Washington Appellate Court reversed one of the largest public records awards in that state’s history.  The case involved the University of Washington and one of its female employees, Professor Isabelle Bichindaritz (“Professor B”).  Professor B was denied tenure by the University, and she believed gender was the cause.  She sent a public records request to the University to gain “a complete copy of all of [her] personnel files and public records. . . .”  She also sought copies of all e-mail correspondence that related to her.  The trial court ruled in Professor B’s favor, awarding her: (A) a $723,290.50 penalty, and (B) $102,958.03 for her attorney’s fees.  The trial judge concluded that the University acted in bad faith and delayed providing records so that Professor B could not use them in her gender discrimination lawsuit.

The Appellate Court explored how quickly the University should have produced the records and whether their delay in this case was “bad faith” under Washington’s Public Records Act.

The lawyers representing Professor B argued that the University occasioned delay in providing documents to hide behind the statute of limitations relevant to the lawsuit.  However, the Appellate Court disagreed.  The Appellate Court held that it was reasonable for public agencies to need additional time to review whether certain parts of the requested information are exempt from disclosure.  In this case, the request of the University was enormous, and involved more than 35,000 documents.  The Appellate Court held that while the University had to respond promptly, it only needed to provide an estimate of how long it would take to turn over the documents.  The Appellate Court further held that the University was not bound by its estimate of the production time.  In other words, self-imposed deadlines do not supplant the ordinary requirements of reasonableness that applied to the University.

Obviously, the State of Washington is far, far away from the State of Ohio.  Even so, Ohio has its own Public Records Act.  And this Washington case provides some valuable insight for public agencies responding to public records requests, and individuals requesting the same.  Ohio’s Public Records Act requires that records be made available for review “promptly” after a request, and that copies be made available within a “reasonable” time.  You do not need to be a scholar on the English language to know that prompt and reasonable are subjective terms in the State of Ohio – just like they were in the State of Washington.

The important lesson that this case illustrates, then, is that agencies should consult with legal counsel to determine whether their policies and practices comply with Ohio law.  For purposes of Public Records Act compliance, the old adage holds true: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The attorneys in Wood & Lamping’s State and Local Government Practice Group have accumulated years of experience helping agencies comply with public records requests.  In addition, our attorneys have helped individuals, from time-to-time, request records.  If you have any questions about responding or making a request under Ohio’s Public Records Act, you can contact me directly at (513) 852‑6092 or send an e‑mail to jdforbes@woodlamping.com.  In conclusion, to prevent the heartburn that was generated by the $826,248.53 verdict against the University, please don’t wait to contact us until it’s too late.

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  • About the Author

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    Jeffrey D. Forbes

    Jeff Forbes has been a member of the firm's State and Local Government Practice Area since he joined Wood + Lamping in 2001 and currently serves as the Practice Area Leader.  In those years Jeff has spent most of his time representing local governmental bodies like cities, villages, and townships.  He currently serves as the appointed Law Director or Solicitor for the City of Mason, the Village of Waynesville, the Village of Greenhills, and the Village of Terrace Park.

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