In a 7-0 decision issued on November 29, 2011, the Ohio Supreme Court denied a writ of mandamus seeking to compel a school district to produce copies of documents to a parent requesting the information. The Court denied the writ because the documents were protected by the attorney-client privilege and were not subject to disclosure under the Ohio Public Records Act.
In State ex rel. Dawson v. Bloom-Carroll Local School District, 2011 Ohio 6009 (Nov. 29, 2011), Relator Angela Dawson filed a writ of mandamus to compel the Bloom-Carroll Local School District to produce to her (1) “itemized invoices of law firms providing services to the district” and (2) “communications from the school district’s insurance carrier identifying attorney Janet Cooper as the district’s legal representative and describing the liability and expense of the district and insurance company related to a case filed against the district by Dawson on behalf of one of her children.”
In response to Dawson’s public records request seeking itemized copies of invoices for legal services, the school district provided summaries of the invoices noting the attorney’s name, the invoice total, and the matter involved to Dawson. The school district claimed the invoices contained confidential communications protected by the attorney-client privilege. The school district also refused to provide redacted copies of the invoices. Additionally, in response to Dawson’s request for communications from the school district’s insurance carrier appointing Janet Cooper as the district’s legal representative and issues regarding the liability and exposure relating to a lawsuit, the school district denied Dawson’s request after informing her that it had one responsive document dated February 9, 2010.
Based on the school district’s refusal to produce the requested documents, Dawson filed a writ of mandamus and requested attorneys fees and statutory damages. After an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the dispute through mediation, the Court issued an alternative writ ordering the parties to submit evidence and written briefs. The Court also directed the school district to provide copies of the disputed documents to the Court for an in-camera inspection. Dawson claimed that the school district waived any exemption because it voluntarily disclosed the February 9, 2010 letter to the public. The school district produced rebuttal evidence of Dawson’s claim. With regard to the legal invoices, the school district invoked the attorney-client privilege.
The Ohio Supreme Court held that the itemized attorney-billing statements and invoices were “either covered by the attorney-client privilege or so inextricably intertwined with the privileged materials as to also be exempt from disclosure” under Ohio law. The Court also held that the February 9, 2010 letter from the school district’s insurance company to the district identifying Janet Cooper as the district’s attorney in Dawson’s due process lawsuit against the district was protected by the attorney-client privilege, and the Court denied Dawson’s request for attorneys’ fees and statutory damages.
Although the Court construes the Ohio Public Records Act liberally in favor of broad access and disclosure, the Court noted that the attorney-client privilege (which is governed by both statute and common law) constitutes a valid exception to the Ohio Public Records Act. The lesson, therefore, is that not all information relating to governmental business is subject to disclosure under the Ohio Public Records Act. The statute contains a plethora of exceptions and exemptions, including the attorney-client privilege. Thus, before filing a writ of mandamus to compel the disclosure of documents under the Ohio Public Records Act, be sure to evaluate all possible defenses, including statutory and common law exceptions.