A request for public records in broad categories collected over an extended period of time may be properly denied as overly broad, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled yesterday.
The justices held that Sunday Zidonis, a former Columbus State Community College employee, was not entitled to a writ of mandamus compelling the school to release emails and litigation files because she failed to narrow her search to a specific category or time frame.
“Therefore, the court of appeals properly denied Zidonis’s request for a writ of mandamus to compel Columbus State to provide her with access to the requested complaint and litigation files because her request was overbroad,” the court wrote per curiam.
Case summary details that Zidonis started working for Columbus State in 1998 and was terminated in May 2010.
After her termination, Zidonis submitted records requests, under the Public Records Act of the Ohio Revised Code, for copies of personnel files for herself and two other employees and a copy of Columbus State’s records-retention schedule. Columbus State provided her with nearly 400 pages of her requested materials promptly following her request, according to the summary.
In late June 2010, Zidonis requested copies of all emails exchanged between herself and Columbus State employee Deborah Coleman. Assistant Attorney General Jackie DeGenova informed Zidonis on Columbus State’s behalf that her request was overly broad and she would need to contact DeGenova to further identify which records she was requesting.
Zidonis did not contact DeGenova, but instead sought information regarding the nature in which the school stored staff emails. She then again requested the emails and DeGenova told her to clarify a subject matter or specific year as that was how the records were organized, case summary continues.
Zidonis later requested all complaint and litigation files and was again told the request was overly broad. DeGenova asked that the network administrator create a specific program to search for the emails Zidonis sought and a month after Zidonis filed for a writ of mandamus, provided a disc containing 200 emails, 59 of which were between Zidonis and Coleman.
Zidonis and Columbus State submitted evidence and briefs and, finding that Columbus State had provided the emails and that Zidonis’ later requests were overly broad, the Franklin County Court of Appeals denied the request for a writ of mandamus.
On appeal to the high court, Zidonis claimed she was entitled to the writ, which would compel Columbus State to provide the complaint and litigation files along with certain emails, and pay statutory damages and attorney fees.
“We construe the Public Records Act liberally in favor of the disclosure of public records. But the relator must still establish entitlement to the requested extraordinary relief by clear and convincing evidence,” the high court stated.
In their review, the justices found Zidonis’ requests sought entire categories of information and did not specify those relating to certain events or time periods. They determined that these records spanned a six-year period, which was overly broad.
Zidonis argued that complaint and litigation files were specific categories listed within Columbus State’s record retention schedule, making her request acceptable. The justices, however, disagreed.
“Requests for each of these record categories without any temporal or content-based limitation would likely be overbroad even though the categories are so named in the schedule. Manifestly, each request — and each retention category when the request if structured after such a category — must be analyzed under the totality of facts and circumstances,” the justices wrote.
Finding that Zidonis’ first complaint was without merit, the justices next examined her request for email records.
They noted that after DeGenova asked multiple times for Zidonis to contact her to specify which emails she needed, Zidonis failed to respond. They further discovered that the school ultimately created a program specifically to find the requested emails and provided Zidonis with a copy of those located.
“Based on the foregoing, Zidonis did not establish by the requisite clear and convincing evidence that Columbus State violated R.C. 149.43 by denying her record requests. Therefore, we affirm the judgment of the court of appeals denying the requested extraordinary relief in mandamus.”
Attempts to contact the Ohio Attorney General’s office for Columbus State and James Leo Law Office for Zidonis were unsuccessful prior to press deadline.
The case is cited State ex rel. Zidonis v. Columbus State Community College, case No. 2012-Ohio-4228.